The Intellectual Crisis in Copying

Technology is an amazing thing. It makes you think. I do not mean it makes you think about how things work, though it does that too. It makes you think about things you take for granted. It challenges your assumptions about what is in the world, how the world works, and what makes for a good life. Take abortion and care for babies born prematurely. Better technology to sustain young life begs the question of when life begins. Take cloning and human rights. Manufacturing life will challenge our perceptions as to the rights of the individual. Take fertility treatment and increasingly older mothers, or the potential for families where one or other biological parent was never intended to be part of the family unit. This erodes our assumptions about what the family is for. The example I want to talk about today, but is not being looked at clearly, even though it is perhaps the most common example of how technology has outstripped our intellectual and ethical worldviews. Millions of people, all over the world, share digital files that contain copyrighted content. Yet there is no grown-up debate about the fundamental questions about the extent to which this is a good thing, or a bad thing. I will avoid promising to give a definitive answer, but I will outline what the problem is.

Here is the nub of the philosophical problem that underpins filesharing. If I lend a book to a friend, I may be depriving the copyright holder of the potential to make money from selling that book. If I invite a friend to my house, so he can watch a football match on satellite TV, a match he could not watch at home, I may be depriving the owner of the content some potential to make money from selling the broadcast. Every day, for hundreds of years, people have done things that may, potentially, reduce the revenues earned by the owners of content rights. However, we have long considered these actions to be moral and virtuous. When the owners of great houses allowed the local community to use their private libraries, this was considered a civilized act of charity, not an attempt to deprive publishers of income.

We know that technology has changed the potential to share, most importantly because the content is now divorced from any physical medium. The analogy of stealing is false. Thieves do not break into your house and copy your jewellery, leaving the originals behind. They take something from you. Filesharers, on the other hand, do not take. They make a copy. The truth is that now people are prepared to share far more widely, with complete strangers, because it costs them nothing to do so. However, the act of sharing would be identical if it was sharing an entire music library with a complete stranger on the other side of the planet, or sharing a single e-book with a next-door neighbour. The technological and legal aspects are the same. All that differs is the range and scale of the impact. We can understand that we live in a society that thinks it is wrong to share a music library with a complete stranger on the other side of the planet, but believes it is good that we share a book with a neighbour. The polarized debate about right versus wrong simply ignores the fundamental issue: that legislators have proven incapable and unwilling to creative a framework that reconciles and accommodates both extremes. No government anywhere has been able to coherently adjust laws to allow for the act we generally consider virtuous whilst prohibiting those thought to be harmful. The result is a terrible fudge. All sharing is a violation of civil law, including sharing an ebook with a neighbour. However, some actions are ‘decriminalized’ not because of a choice of the state, but by a reliance on the copyright holder’s goodwill and lack of interest in pursuing damages. This leads to a new and intolerable conflict within our legal and ethical outlooks.

This is as a problem for all political parties around the world, because no party has been able to form and articulate a coherent position that explains why denying a copyright holder the potential to earn revenue is considered to be virtuous in some cases, evil in others. Technology has moved the debate forward, but our understanding of how to live in a civil society has not. With an issue like this, there is a natural tendency towards petty party political squabbling and points-scoring. There is a fear of dealing with this issue head-on with the hope of resolving it. Burying the topic in overly simplistic maxims about right versus wrong is much easier than risking the unpopularity that comes with thoughtful attempts to find workable compromises. I believe the popularity of the Pirate Party movement around the world stems from the failure to address the fundamental paradox that we consider sharing to be virtuous whilst denying others an income is wrong. The problem has been there for a long time, and articulating the problem has kindled the interest of many people who were already aware of it in one guise or other. There may never be a perfect solution, but a mature political party that tries to explore workable compromises will be doing everyone a favour, and earning themselves credit in the process.

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