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Globally, millions of people engage in some form of illegal downloading of copyrighted material. This practice continues unabated, despite the understanding that the act of downloading copyrighted internet content is illegal.1 The big companies that engage in the production and sale of these internet contents are unhappy with such developments because they fear an erosion of their profitability.2
Policy makers also support the opinion of such companies because they strive to protect intellectual property by preventing the illegal reproduction of copyrighted work.3
However, the legal argument surrounding the download of copyrighted materials outline one understanding of the entire debate regarding the subject because some people believe this legal understanding should also be subject to an ethical and moral understanding of the issue.4
This paper focuses on the moral understanding of illegally downloading copyrighted material by questioning the moral justification for criminalizing the practice. The utilitarianism concept informs the main argument of this paper because this document affirms that more societal benefits (as opposed to negative repercussions) may manifest if the government allows the downloading of copyrighted material.
Moreover, this paper shows that many economic opportunities remain unexploited by disallowing the downloading of copyrighted material. This way, big film and music companies lose a lot of money by failing to adapt to the emerging trends of the digital file sharing market. Comprehensively, this paper demonstrates that downloading copyrighted material should be decriminalized.
Moral Justification for Sharing Media content
One reason that motivates people to download copyrighted material from the internet is the lack of a moral justification to prevent this practice.5 Indeed, even though the law criminalizes the illegal downloading of copyrighted material, the act is not morally wrong. These sentiments replicate around the world because many people are now starting to question the moral justification for prohibiting internet downloads.6
Some researchers say many young people question the moral justification for preventing file sharing because internet downloads outline a common form of file sharing.7 For example, if an artist produces a song and wants to share it with the rest of the world, he would upload it on YouTube.
People would then download the song and share it with other people. Regardless of existing laws, many people believe there is no immorality committed by sharing music or video files this way.8 A pivotal issue in this argument is the fair use policy, which justifies the use of file sharing.
For example, if someone borrows a published book from a classmate, the government should not prosecute the lender for helping the friend. Such an act would contradict the principle of fair use. However, the concepts of “borrowing” and “keeping” suffice in this explanation. Their difference rests on a mere technicality, which centers on gaining access to the reading material.
For example, there is no difference between having the book in one’s house and gaining access to the material through a friend, or via the internet. So long as a person can gain access to the material in both contexts, there is no difference between “borrowing” and “keeping”.9
Still, a critic may argue that sharing a file with a friend is very different from reproducing the material and sharing it with a group of strangers.
However, there is no moral justification for terming such a file-sharing avenue as illegal, while YouTube allows people to upload copyrighted digital contents for strangers to gain access (freely). It is therefore unjust to consider file sharing via YouTube as legal, while file sharing through other avenues remain illegal.
Another compelling argument regarding the illegal downloading of copyrighted material comes from the moral arguments surrounding the unequal economic potential of different societies. Around the world, retailers often price their goods according to the economic potential of their markets.10
Ordinarily, retailers charge high prices for high potential markets, and low prices for markets with low economic potential. This has been the logic surrounding most pricing strategies. However, regardless of the economic potential for different markets, the prices for online copyrighted materials are often standardized.
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This unfair pricing policy therefore prevents poor people from using “expensive” online contents, while wealthier societies manage to pay the cost of purchasing the same contents. This inequality is unjust.
A previous discussion with Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, acknowledged this imbalance when he implied that it was “okay” for poor societies to download their softwares (illegally).11 Relative to this statement Gates said, “As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours.
They will somehow get addicted, and then we will somehow figure out how to collect, sometime in the next decade.”12 Through this assertion, it is correct to say that preventing the illegal downloading of copyrighted material in poor societies create an unjust market for online content providers and their customers.
File Sharing Opportunities
Big media companies that are involved in the production and distribution of media content fail to realize the immense business opportunities that emerge from internet downloads and file sharing. Indeed, just like the opposition to video recorders from the movie industry (two decades ago), media companies do not realize the potential that exists by allowing people to download and share files.
For example, file sharing gives the opportunity for upcoming artists and film producers to display their materials in avenues that they would not have had before. For example, film and music companies charge a high fee for producing and distributing media content. To some artists, such fees are prohibitive to their quest to gain access to established media distribution channels.
The internet however gives them a new opportunity to present their work without paying such prohibitive fees. They therefore gain access to a global audience that would otherwise be out-of-reach. In fact, most upcoming musicians and film producers would not vehemently oppose the illegal download of their work because they do not enjoy a huge public audience.13
Multiple reproductions of their work would only do more good than harm because it would give them the publicity that they desperately need.
Lastly, there exists some untruthfulness from the assumption that illegal downloads can “kill” the film, gaming, and music industries. In fact, on the contrary, allowing illegal downloads would improve these industries. Recent surveys showed that about 95% of all music downloads were illegal.14 Yet, the digital music business grew by more than 25% in a consecutive three years.
The contradictions of these statistics show that the presence of music downloads do not necessarily mean that it hurts sales, or hinders the growth of the industry. Instead, internet downloads and the subsequent file sharing process increases the market for media content.
Comprehensively, file sharing has done more good than harm to the society. Indeed, file sharing has opened an avenue for people to enjoy digital content that they would otherwise have not afforded. Similarly, upcoming gamers, musicians, and film producers have found an opportunity to display their materials to the public, without having to experience the burden of paying a lot of money for mainstream distribution.
Established artists still benefit from the online frenzy that online file sharing creates because they benefit from increased touring and more publicity.
In fact, the only reason established musicians do not fully benefit from online file sharing is because the industry has failed to adapt properly to the phenomenon. Therefore, banning illegal downloads will not work in present-day liberalized society because the provision is unfair, inconsistent, and irrational for the society.
Cavalier, Robert. The Impact Of The Internet On Our Moral Lives. New York: SUNY Press, 2005.
Dhillon, Kamal. “Not wrong, just illegal.” Winnipeg Free Press. Web.
Riley, Gail. Internet Piracy. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2010. Smith, Robert. “How to morally justify illegal downloading.” NBR. Web.
Thurlow, Max. “Ethical Issues in Software Piracy.” E how. Web.
1 Robert Cavalier, The Impact Of The Internet On Our Moral Lives (New York: SUNY Press, 2005), 44.
2 Robert Cavalier, The Impact Of The Internet On Our Moral Lives (New York: SUNY Press, 2005), 44.
3 Robert Smith, “How to morally justify illegal downloading,” NBR.
4 Robert Cavalier, The Impact Of The Internet On Our Moral Lives (New York: SUNY Press, 2005), 44.
5 Kamal Dhillon, “Not wrong, just illegal,” Winnipeg Free Press.
6 Robert Cavalier, The Impact Of The Internet On Our Moral Lives (New York: SUNY Press, 2005), 44.
7 Kamal Dhillon, “Not wrong, just illegal,” Winnipeg Free Press.
8 Kamal Dhillon, “Not wrong, just illegal,” Winnipeg Free Press.
9 Kamal Dhillon, “Not wrong, just illegal,” Winnipeg Free Press.
10 Max Thurlow, “Ethical Issues in Software Piracy,” E how.
11 Max Thurlow, “Ethical Issues in Software Piracy,” E how.
12 Max Thurlow, “Ethical Issues in Software Piracy,” E how.
13 Gail Riley, Internet Piracy (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2010), 62.
14 Kamal Dhillon, “Not wrong, just illegal,” Winnipeg Free Press.