The Morals of Grabbing Free Content From the Web

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For many years free content has been readily available on the Internet, from the latest movies, music and software, to books, games and research documents. Big entertainment often argues that those grabbing such content without permission have no or few morals, but is that the case? Doing 'the right thing' can be the product of a moment's decision, isn't it up to content producers to squeeze themselves into that time slot?

download-keyboardAs most people reading this post will be aware, free media of all kinds is just a few clicks away.

No matter what content is required, a quick Google search (or a Bing one if the relentless pace of DMCA notices is spoiling results) is the only thing required to get almost anything without paying.

But just because one can, does it necessarily follow that one should?

Last evening during a barbecue I found myself chatting with the owner of a manufacturing company about some of what I believe to be the driving forces behind piracy. He told me that his business doesn’t suffer from copyright infringement in any meaningful way and it soon became apparent that with his computing ability he wouldn’t know how to share a file even if i’d taken the time to show him.

Nevertheless, we discussed the issue of availability, of how pirated content is readily and simply on tap. This, versus many of the comparatively off-putting and complex solutions offered by entertainment companies.

We chatted about the possibility that many pirates would not have bought the content in the first place and therefore no real damage had been done by them downloading a copy.

The guy, already into his 70s, was also fascinated by the “sharing is caring” idea, where people gift content in order to enrich the lives of others and society as a whole.

And then he dropped the bombshell. Had I heard of Matza and Sykes? No, I responded. Were they coming to the barbecue? “Unlikely,” he said.

Ipad in one hand and a burger in the other, I searched for these gentleman and discovered that they’d come up with an interesting theory in the 1950s.

The duo theorized that people are well aware of their moral obligations to abide by the law so therefore, when those people commit crimes, they have to employ techniques in order to overcome their inbuilt desire to do the “right thing”. They do this, Matza and Sykes said, through denial and by justifying their behavior.

So how does their theory apply to what we’d just been discussing, I asked. Well, it may not, my beer-drinking friend explained, but he gave me his interpretation anyway.

On the first point, that for many years content providers have failed to make media easily available, I was informed that Matza and Sykes may have explained this in two ways:

Denial of responsibility: The offender (in this case a copyright infringer) would justify his actions by stating that he’d been forced into a situation beyond his control (needed content, but stupid movie studio didn’t make it easily available).

Denial of the victim: The offender (file-sharer) believes that the victim (movie studio) deserved an offense to be committed against them – in this case due to their incompetence in making content available.

So what about the notion that many file-sharers would never have bought the content they download? Yep, Matza and Sykes apparently have an explanation for that too.

Denial of injury: The offender justifies his behavior due to a belief that no harm has been caused by their action. These huge companies don’t need any more money, do they?

But Sharing must be Caring, right? Well maybe, but there’s a theory on that too.

Appeal to higher loyalties: The offender believes that their ‘crime’ was actually for the greater good, with positive long-term consequences. Enrichment of society via the sharing of culture, perhaps?

Playing devil’s advocate, I questioned whether a person’s moral obligations in these instances should always be aligned with the law of the land. For example, if a law existed today but was abolished tomorrow, should individuals immediately change their moral values to suit?

In this case, would today’s justification for committing a crime become tomorrow’s straightforward reason for carrying out a legal activity? Are all laws necessarily moral anyway, or do we sometimes have a moral obligation to fight back?

With more than a few beers consumed and definitely no psychology or sociology degree to fall back on, the conversation was already running away from me – but then it struck me. Most people grabbing free content from the Internet aren’t required to justify their behavior to anyone. They click – and obtain – and there’s rarely any subsequent debate over morals.

However, that doesn’t mean that people won’t play fair. At TF earlier this week we were discussing the new ‘Downloaded’ movie which tells the story of Napster. The reviews aren’t very good and none of us here have yet seen it, but perhaps we should. Despite its availability on dozens of torrent sites, Ernesto put his hand in his pocket and tried to buy it from Amazon. He was informed that it wasn’t available in his location. Clearly the makers of the movie haven’t learned very much.

What this shows is that people can and will do the “right thing” but in order to capitalize on that content providers must also do their bit. It’s easy for Matza and Sykes to say that those committing social wrongs are merely trying to ease consciences with their denials, but their ‘excuses’ in the file-sharing space are valuable indicators of where file-sharers’ morals lie.

So maybe if all the soul-easing excuses uttered by file-sharers were taken away – by making content available, by not being a greedy corporation, by not lobbying for aggressive laws that conflict with social norms – perhaps we’d be left with a situation in which many more people would buy content freely.

Whether that would be through guilt or simply because their service requirements (sorry, excuses) had been listened to would be here nor there. Content would be bought and after all, isn’t that what the fight’s all about?


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