Is online filesharing of copyrighted material ethical?
P2P represents the largest use of internet bandwidth today. A large proportion of this traffic is the sharing of copyrighted material. So if millions of people are doing it, is it realistic to label this activity as criminal?
You actually asked multiple questions in your post. Is pirating media content criminal? Obviously, the answer to that is yes because it is illegal. Is it realistic to label the practice criminal? Once again, that is a pretty obvious no, because P2P is so commonplace that trying to eliminate it or prosecute every case would be more hopeless than Prohibition was. The third and title question- is sharing copyrighted material ethical? - is yet another obvious answer. Artists work hard to produce their work, and they deserve to be paid for their efforts. Ultimately, neither the government nor the music industry will be able to prevent piracy. However, a real man of character and integrity will make the right choice and purchase his music instead of stealing it.
Intellectual property is not a moral, but a practical, concept. That is, it is not natural law (in which government outlaws something because it's wrong), but social contract (in which government outlaws something because outlawing it is useful to society) -- at least, in the US Constitution, which states that the US government can do intellectual property law "in order to promote the useful arts."
I think this is a good way to think of it. Ideas are not like objects; if you take one, the person you took it from still has it. We should follow copyright law, but not because it's morally wrong to take an idea; we got by for thousands of years without people considering this to be an evil act. (You might say it's a good act, instead, if it's a good idea.) Instead, because we'll get more ideas if the originators can profit from them.
Which is, for example, why you can't copyright a font. If you did that, you could be sued for printing your own ideas, becasue you can't really do that without using a font! (I know that some font originators will claim to own their fonts; I am not sure about the computer representation of a font. That might be considered software. Or they might just be wrong.)
I think that we've reached a turning point in history now, where anyone can express themselves easily and cheaply over the internet, which is allowing creativity to flourish all around the world. Do you think that maybe it's not necessary for the government to help along the artistic community in this environment anymore?
Another issue is, should government outlaw things that people do on a massive scale?
I would tend to say no (not absolutely, but generally). But more interesting to me is the view people have that government *should* outlaw things they do and have no intention of ceasing to do. For example, most Americans want speeding to be illegal, and they want cops to be able to ticket them for it, and they have no intention of ceasing to speed. I think there's some cognitive dissonance going on there.
Great point that you've raised there, Will. How much of legislated law is a moral issue (ie I should obey it because it's the right thing to do), and how much of it is a result of the popular vote (ie we've all agreed that this should be the legal thing to do)? I figure that in the case of P2P file sharing, no matter how widely it's done and how hard it is to stamp out, the golden rule will continue to apply for some time: "He who has the gold makes the rules". And for now, that's the record companies. Then the dissonance that you talked about comes into play; just because we all agree on principle that there should be rules, doesn't automatically mean that we all personally intend to abide by them.
It's also difficult to be truly objective about something like this. Many of us would prefer to be able to freely share our material irrespective of legal and copyright constraints because we have the most to gain from doing so -- ie, convenience, greater access to material, lower entertainment and education costs. However, doing so means that there are a large group of people who won't get paid for a great deal of value-added work that they've done.
You could almost view it as capitalism vs capitalism. The market is saying something to the record companies -- "We won't continue to pay for your material when it's easily accessible for free". In return, the record companies are saying to the market, "We don't like to do all this work for free, and we'll find ways to make you pay or sting you with heavy fines or jail time if you don't."
Call it an example of market failure -- the ugly side of rationalisation. I just sympathize with the artists, many of whom are from the old school and probably won't find an effecitve way tap into this particular societal shift, hence will struggle financially while everyone else enjoys the fruits of their labour for free.
I have found that there are an increasing amount of artists that have tapped into this shift & are profiting from it. While not an artist myself, I believe that the structure of these industries can be set up in a better way. It's a question of adapting to the times. The unethical thing here, in my opinion, is attempting to fight progress & save a dying business model through laws & litigation. The artists and record companies that will profit are those embracing the new technology & finding ways to make it work for them, rather then trying to hold back the ocean.
I believe that filesharing is not unethical, it just illegal. For now.
That is a good point, some bands like The Grateful Dead encouraged fans to plug into the soundboards and make tapes for "trading" not selling. Growing up it was common practice like James mentioned to record albums or in my case (like many others) to make mix tapes to share with your friends as turn them on to what you were listening to and this would spark them to go out and buy the albums, pay the big bucks to go to the concerts and buy those black t-shirts or in my younger concerts day, 3/4 sleeve baseball concert shirts.