Posted by: maroonmaurader | April 27, 2010

Digital Piracy and Ethics

Mitch Wagner at Computerworld has a short post wondering whether it is ethical to download a pirated digital copy of a book you own a physical copy of. So before you read further, consider your initial reactions to the following two statements:

1. It is unethical to download a pirated digital copy of a book which you already own in physical format.

2. It is unethical to create a digital copy from a book you already own in physical format.

You may differ, but oddly enough my initial intuitions were that I was unsure about (1), but (2) was false. Judging from the comments, it looks like the general reaction is to agree with (1) and disagree with (2). But when I try to examine the two statements more methodically, I cannot see any strong moral reason why either should be better or worse morally (as opposed to legally).

My best guess is that my moral intuitions in this case, and those of the typical commentators, have been shaped by the mere happenstance that (1) ended up being illegal yet (2) ended up legal. Yet the reason (1) is legal and (2) illegal was more a matter of historical coincidence and technological limitations than of ethical justifications.

In that case, it becomes a small case study of the more general point that moral intuitions can be unreasonably shaped over time by the legality of an act. This in turn leads to a rather interesting conclusion – you should be more inclined to distrust your moral intuitions if they agree with the law!



  1. Post and comments here, on exactly the same question, are both excellent.

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