Monday, June 14, 2010

Ethics and Technology

Last Wednesday I had dinner with a friend, and the subject of electronic piracy came up. This is something of a hot-button issue among most of my friends, so I always like to gauge where people stand on it.

The issue as I see it is this: electronic piracy is very tempting and very easy, especially with streaming sites and direct download everywhere. It used to be that the technology wasn't at a level that made downloading movies (for example) either affordable or practical, but over the course of the last few years that has changed. Wed hosting is cheaper and high-speed access is readily available. The degree of policing varies a lot, of course, but it seems that it is often possible to get away with it, especially since uploaders are often prosecuted, not downloaders. And legal distribution does not quite keep up with demand, especially for those of us with somewhat niche tastes.

Of course all of this is against the law in most parts of the world. But is it unethical? This, I think, is a much more serious consideration.

My idea of ethics is that we should avoid causing harm to others as best as we can while trying to alleviate harm that has already been done. So does piracy cause harm? The issue I struggle with is that some of us (perhaps a lot of us) wouldn't have bought the product we pirated. Or what if it's something that is unavailable (or very rare) through legal channels, like a movie that has only been released in another country or a book that's been out of print for twenty years? I mean, the harm that might conceivably be caused is that of the legitimate producers (creative talent, distributors, etc.) not getting a profit, which is a tenuous kind of harm at best.

At the same time, as I told my friend, it seems to me that the urge to download illegally comes from a somewhat ugly bit of entitlement - I want it, so I should have it. And this bothers me, even if no one's much harmed in the process.

Fan works, on the other hand, I fully support, including the ones like music videos that take bits of the original material and remix or re-envision them.

I try to stay in the gray area of things that are unavailable, and I have bought some that later became available, but I remain quite conflicted on this issue.

I think it's hard to have an ethical system that isn't laid out for you ahead of time, and no matter your ethical or moral system, it's hard to follow the rules.