ARVINDUS

Contemplationam

Digital Piracy and Ethics

DIGITAL PIRACY AND ETHICS

In this contemplation we shall search for an answer to the question to what extend digital piracy can be considered ethical. So what is meant here with 'piracy'? Piracy is in one sense, the one we are considering in this contemplation, defined as "the appropriation and reproduction of an invention or work of another for one's own profit, without authority" and "infringement of the rights conferred by a patent or copyright".1 Digital piracy then can be defined as the aforementioned with the adjective 'digital' added to it. This more contemporary use of the term 'piracy' is taken from the common use of 'piracy' as "practice or crime of robbery and depredation on the sea or navigable rivers, etc., or by descent from the sea upon the coast, by persons not holding a commission from an established civilized state".2 Etymologically can the term 'piracy' be traced back through the Latin 'pirātīa' to the Greek 'peirātés',3 referring to a brigand.4 This Greek word stems from the also Greek 'peira',5 which regards an attempt.6 When digital piracy thus is taken directly to its root meaning of being a digital attempt many of its contemporary negative moral connotations will be falling away. The approach in this contemplation however shall be not etymological or etymosophical in order to arrive at a wide and encompassing conclusion about the ethics of piracy in general but to specifically consider the ethics of digital piracy. And for this the aforementioned contemporary definitions of digital piracy suffice.

Now to consider the ethics of digital piracy some working definition of ethics must be embraced. In the Secret Wisdom Teaching we find human ethics related to (group) goodwill, (individual) harmlessness and right human relations.7 Ethics then can be defined as 'action in line with goodwill, harmlessness and right human relations'. And the question that in this contemplation then must be asked is whether digital piracy is in line with goodwill, harmlessness and right human relations.

Here it must be brought to the fore that in piracy three givens are involved. The first given is the pirating party, the second is the pirated party and the third are the pirated goods. This goes for as well material as digital piracy. Here a split is being made where digital piracy is set apart from material piracy. In one are the goods pirated material and in the other are these digital. Another differentiation in piracy can be made on base of motivation. Piracy can take place for one's own need or for one's own greed for a certain good.

Goods themselves can in general be divided into the two groups of utilities and of works of art. Utilities have a practical function and are produced and works of art have an aesthetic value and are created. Another difference between utilities and works of art is that the first are patent and the latter copyright protected. Usually works of art are created by individuals and utilities by companies, however utilities can also be patented by individuals. Sometimes the difference between utility and work of art is overcome and brought together into one good and in such a case one can speak of craftsmanship. Where material goods are concerned another difference to mention is that a utility can be reproduced multiple but limited times without losing its practical function while a work of art cannot be reproduced without loss of its aesthetic value. Material products are interchangeable due to their equal practical function but the reproduction of a work of art does not have the same aesthetic value as the original. This last mentioned difference between utilities and works of art does not apply to digital goods. Both digital utilities and digital works of art can be reproduced an unlimited number of times without losing their practical function and their aesthetic value.

In the above sketch we came to the differentiations of the following generalities:

  1. Material and digital goods.
  2. Utilities and art.
  3. Company and individual patented (or pirated).
  4. Company and individual pirates.
  5. Piracy for greed and for need.

A large number types of piracies can be composed from the above generalities. Let us hold the above generalities against the light of the given threefold ethical guidelines of goodwill, harmlessness and right human relations and see if any piracy can withstand this ethical test.

When we start with the ethical guideline of goodwill the first piracies to fall away are those that are undertaken for greed, for in such cases no good is envisioned. Against the background of the ethics of right human relations do those piracies not withstand the ethical test that are conducted by an individual pirate party on an individual pirated party. Piracies where companies are involved are not taken in account here since a company is not a human. To hold the different piracies that can be composed from the above listed generalities in the light of the ethics of harmlessness a little bit more explanation is needed. The generalities that fall away in any case are those piracies conducted on material goods. Material goods are limited in number and this limitation expresses itself in a monetary value. And also does the used raw material have a certain monetary value. So any piracy conducted on material goods will harm either an individual or a company financially. But this harm is based upon the materiality of the goods and does thus not apply on digital goods. Digital goods do not consist of raw material and can therefore be reproduced an unlimited number of times. Nevertheless some financial harm will be done to an individual or a company on base of a missed sale. Digital goods are priced and pirating instead of buying does financial harm. An exception can be made here however when the pirate would not be buying the goods anyway. In such cases no financial loss is taken. The individual or company did not miss any sale and no raw material is lost. An exception here must be made in those cases where the digital good is used in a way where it is reoffered to third parties. In such cases the pirated party may be missing out on sales and is thus financially harmed. These statements can be explicated in two more differentiations, namely that of:

  1. Buying intention and non-buying intention.
  2. Reoffering or no reoffering.

The above considerations then brings us to the conclusion that a piracy is not unethical when it regards one on a digital good, company patented or / and pirated, pirated for one’s own need, with a non-buying intention and a non-reoffering.

About the intention of non-buying it must be understood that such an intention is primary in relation to piracy, which is secondary in relation to intention. This means that the intention of not buying a good must not be the result of the possibility to pirate the same good. The importance of intention of non-buying in assessing whether a piracy is ethical also brings difficulties for objective assessment of the ethical position of a specific piracy. Intentions are difficult if not impossible to empirically determine and this could complicate putting down fair practical guidelines, rules and laws for (digital) piracy. After all can pirating individuals not all be trusted in speaking out the truth about their primary intentions. A correlation however can be made to one's financial status. If no piracy would be possible we would see rich parties buying the regarded goods while we would see poor parties to abstain from purchase. Thus could in the working out of practical guidelines, rules and laws the financial status of a pirating party be taken in account.

With the above suggestion we have however already taken one step further than was intended for this contemplation. Here the goal was only to search for an answer to the question to what extend digital piracy can be considered ethical. And the answer was found in the conclusion that a piracy is not unethical when it regards one on a digital good, company patented or / and pirated, pirated for one's own need, with a non-buying intention and a non-reoffering.

To conclude this contemplation a practical questionnaire for ethical assessment of (digital) piracy can be given.

Questionnaire
  1. Is the (to be) pirated good needed by the pirating party?
    1. No: The ethical guideline of goodwill prohibits this piracy.
    2. Yes: Continue to 2.
  2. What type of legal persona holds the patent or copyright of the (to be) pirated good?
    1. Individual: Go to 3.
    2. Company: Go to 4.
  3. What is type of legal persona of the pirating party?
    1. Individual: The ethical guideline of right human relations prohibits this piracy.
    2. Company: Go to 4.
  4. What is the type of the (to be) pirated good?
    1. Material: The ethical guideline of harmlessness prohibits this piracy.
    2. Digital: Go to 5.
  5. Would the (to be) pirated good be bought by the pirating party without piracy?
    1. Yes: The ethical guideline of harmlessness prohibits this piracy.
    2. No: Go to 6.
  6. Is the (to be) pirated good in any way reoffered to any third party?
    1. Yes: The ethical guideline of harmlessness prohibits this piracy.
    2. No: This piracy is ethical.
Notes
  1. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.
  2. Ibidem.
  3. Ibidem.
  4. Henry George Liddell, and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, p. 1355.
  5. See note 1.
  6. A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 1354.
  7. Alice A. Bailey, 'The Externalisation of the Hierarchy', in: Twenty-Four Books of Esoteric Philosophy, (CD-ROM), Lucis Trust, London / New York, 2001, Section Two, The Great Invocation. "This could be done so rapidly, that the needed changes would come about almost overnight; the present reign of horror would end and the race of men could settle down to a life of group goodwill, individual harmlessness and right human relations."
Bibliography
  • Alice A. Bailey, 'The Externalisation of the Hierarchy', in: Twenty-Four Books of Esoteric Philosophy, (CD-ROM), Lucis Trust, London / New York, 2001.
  • Henry George Liddell, and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.