The ethics of downloading and sharing movies, TV shows, games or music

There are many legal acts that go directly against the moral beliefs of a large number of people (refusing to help your sick grandparents is not illegal, but few would consider it right), just as some illegal acts may be ethically okay (historically, for example, homosexual relations were illegal, whereas today they are considered natural and unproblematic, at least in the Western world).

You wouldn’t steal a car…but you would download a song?

So how about sharing and downloading someone else’s intellectual property? Surely many of you will recall the “You wouldn’t steal a car, you wouldn’t steal a wallet…Piracy is a crime” commercial.

Although the central message of this video is true (it is illegal to distribute pirated copies), the author commits a fundamental inaccuracy in his argument. Indeed, there are several fundamental differences between stealing physical property and copying intellectual property.

The first and most important difference is that theft of physical property deprives someone of the stolen item. The damage done is therefore quite indisputably quantifiable. By contrast, the withdrawal of the film does not deprive anyone of anything in the strict sense of the word. I am not taking anything tangible from anyone, nor am I deleting or otherwise damaging the original product, I am merely making a copy on my storage device (hard drive, DVD…).

Potential negative impact

Quite frankly, if I could copy a car without stealing anything from anyone, I would do that too (and in an optimistic version of the future, maybe this will be a problem too, thanks to the rapid advances in 3D printing).

The issue is not so simple, of course, because although it doesn’t harm anyone directly, I avoid paying properly by downloading the product. As many producers and authors of products (music, movies, books, etc.) that can be completely digital like to remind us, if everyone just downloaded and no one paid, no products could even be created (or just charity, with no hope of profit). Is it possible to somehow wrestle with this argument when we want the occasional free download, but at the same time don’t want our favourite author or artist to go bankrupt?

Creators don’t usually lose money because of downloading

First of all, it should be pointed out that the claim of lost profits is only theoretical, or based on the assumption that if a person hadn’t downloaded the product, they would have bought it and paid for it. However, there is no flawless and accurate way to quantify the lost profit due to the free download option.

Some consumers who buy their favourite products simply don’t have the money anymore to pay for everything they want to see and hear. In that case, no one loses profit because the person would not have had the means to purchase the product. Another numerous case is that of people (usually children and teenagers) who have no finances at all, so that their eager downloading of a large number of digital products also results in no loss of profit.

If downloading and sharing were not an option, perhaps such a teenager would ask his parents to buy him an album by a favourite musician once a year for Christmas, but quite possibly for collecting reasons he will do that anyway (even if he otherwise downloads for free). Purely from my personal experience, I downloaded extensively as a kid because I didn’t have money, whereas now that I have some extra money I’m happy to buy a product that interests me. Further, however, I download without much remorse what I know I wouldn’t buy anyway.

I’m not saying that this behavior is okay (I’m still consuming someone else’s work without paying), I’m just saying that I’m not robbing anyone of potential monetary gain. I’ve even had a few times where I’ve downloaded a product (that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise) and then been so excited about it that I repurchased it, even though I didn’t actually have to. This brings me to the last point of the article: the potential positives of downloading and sharing.

The potential positive impact

Sharing and free downloading of a product can, as mentioned above, potentially reduce the profits of the intellectual property holder. At the same time, however, it causes far-reaching dissemination of both the product itself and awareness of the product to demographic groups that would otherwise either not know about the product or would not even have access to it.

Advertising has always been essential to commerce, but in today’s information age, page views and viewership numbers are more valuable than ever. One person who downloads a film for free and decides to share it online could theoretically end up with, say, hundreds of extra purchases of the shared product, if a wide group of people who would otherwise not have accessed the film at all find out about it thanks to his/her site. Here, however, I have to repeat my own argument from the previous paragraph, as again there is no demonstrable way to quantify the profit ripped off (counter-intuitively) due to sharing the product for free.

We should try to help the creators

In conclusion, as is obvious from this article, sharing and downloading falls somewhere in the grey area of ethics, the rest of it, like the vast majority of complicated problems. In my opinion, no one should feel guilty for watching a movie for free, but at the same time, we should always try to financially support our favorite authors and performers to allow them to continue to pursue the work that enriches our lives.

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