Is downloading copyright-infringing material morally wrong?
It’s a question which the more conscientious members of my generation have probably asked themselves at some point. My best answer to date is still an unsatisfying “Sometimes yes, sometimes no”. There are dozens of different ways of looking at it, and it really does just depend.
Those who believe it is wrong (and have given some thought to the justification of their belief), tend to settle on a couple of distinct arguments. For me, the most compelling is based on the idea that by engaging in piracy, you are undermining the creation of the very thing you enjoy. If you don’t pay anything for the content you consume – whether it is music, film or literature – then future works may not be created. Thus, the problem is that piracy is a kind of ‘free ride’ (indeed, this was the title of a recent book on the subject).
Now, clearly, there are several bones which one could pick here: if you wouldn’t have paid for the media anyway then consuming it illegally it makes no difference; so-called ‘piracy’ is often the basis for new creativity: and the funnel between copyright industry revenues and pure creative activity is hardly direct, so we are only morally obliged to pay a fraction of the current prices. But let’s go along with the ‘free-ride’ argument for now, as it seems to be one that most reasonable and outspoken critics of file-sharing turn to.
My question then, is this: if piracy is wrong because it is a kind of free-ride, is ignoring adverts when enjoying ad-supported media any different? How many of us avert our gaze from the banners beside our favourite news site or social media platform? How many people mute the TV during breaks in shows, skip sponsored videos on YouTube, or even use a browser plugin to block out all adverts from the web? The content we enjoy consuming from these spaces can only survive by allowing companies to effectively advertise their products and eventually get consumers to part with their cash. If we don’t even at least look at some of these ads, let alone click on them, aren’t we undermining the future creation of the very material we enjoy?
Of course, there are differences between an ad-supported vs paid business model. But if what makes digital piracy wrong is that it is free-riding, then this should generalise to any business model. If you want to ensure the future creation of content, then you have to play along with whatever it is that sustains that content. This is true whether that means paying for copyrighted media, or subjecting your eyeballs to the adverts that support it.
This conclusion, that ignoring adverts is wrong, may strike the reader as rather strange. How could something that we do every day, without even thinking, be morally wrong? At which point the habitual file-sharer says: ‘Exactly’. If you don’t see anything wrong with ignoring the adverts that sustain your free content, then you shouldn’t see anything wrong with file-sharers ignoring the copyright model that sustains their free content. Conversely, if you still think piracy is wrong, then you’d better start clicking on those ads once in a while.