Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Ethics of Illegal Downloading

I just sent the following email to Randy Cohen, the NY Times' "Ethicist" columnist (I'll let you know if he replies):
I heard your show with John Schaefer re: the ethics of music downloading. I wasn't able to call in, but I just wanted to throw out a wrinkle.

The main argument against downloading is that, regardless of whether you deem it truly "stealing", you're not supporting the creative people. As you said on the show, that's the ethical issue it all boils down to. And as a writer and musician, I'm all about supporting the creative people!

But here's the thing. I mostly buy books, cd's, and DVDs second-hand (from, Amazon Marketplace, etc.). I can save a bundle that way, and no one could dispute the legality. However, creative people get nothing from such sales. And without the "support the creative process" argument, I have to wonder why I'm not just downloading (thus saving not only money, but also the resources required to pack/ship the item to me). From my position, there's no ethical issue, just a (weak) legal one.

Given that support of artistic process is, as you said, the persuasive ethical consideration, the question is this: do we have an ethical obligation to buy only new/retail content, since the secondhand market doesn't support the artist (or, as importantly, add to their sales numbers)? And if support is indeed an ethical compulsion, couldn't we further argue that there's an ethical obligation to directly donate supplementary funds to support our favorite artists, because their cut of a sale is so negligible as to constitute no support at all? Where does one draw the line on the notion of "support"?
Update: See this entry for Cohen's response and some further thoughts.


Seth Godin said...

I always disagree with Randy as a matter of principal, Jim, but the flaw in your point is pretty clear to me:

when you buy second hand, you lower the cost to the original purchaser. You create an economic incentive to buy new, one that in an efficient market for second hand could be significant.

Muscle_Burst said...

I believe the current market supports itself. By the current market I mean cd case manufacuters, retail stores who sell cds/dvds, and all the other middle man between the consumer and the artist. There is no need for cds/dvds to be packaged the way they are. The current market is dying from broadband connections.

As a last stand the current market is using morals, and honestly doing a good job of tricking the public. I feel the basis of the dvd industry argument is that transactions aren't done this way. When you buy a hamburger you pay and recieve the burger. You do not download the burger, eat the burger, and then hopefully pay.

I say download from whatever source and pay the artist directly. No need for any middle man. Of course the dvd industry will try to force the artist into a contract, and say the artist is breaching the contract. If you pay the artist directly maybe artist will be compensated based on the artist's merit rather than the publisher's merit.

Jim Leff said...

I've responded to Seth here:

Muscle Burst: the problem is that people who think about ethics tend to be idealists. And idealism doesn't get the artists paid.

Sure, we SHOULD pay the artist directly. And that's a fine warm/fuzzy platitude which virtually no one will follow up on as they greedily download content, depriving artists of even their pittance.

Beware of self-serving philosophies with troublesome results (i.e. artists finding themselves without incentive to create).

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