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Is the free sharing of copyrighted material on the internet a morally acceptable action? Can we apply different moral philosophies to such a modern problem? In recent history, with the advent of peer-to-peer sharing programs and the free availability of many different types of media on the internet, the morality of the sharing of copyrighted material has come into question. In order to gain understanding on issue, we can apply several universal moral theories, including the Kantian, Utilitarian, and Rights Ethics philosophies.
There are many users of the internet today, and a majority of them participate in file-sharing via the use of a wide variety of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. These people believe that what they are doing is not wrong, but rather one of their rights as consumers of media. In contrast to this, many people of the movie and music industries believe that their creative works are protected property and that file sharing takes away from the benefits that they receive from those works. By having the consumer purchase the media, it gives the creator both money to create more work and the added affirmation to generate more creations. This situation has arisen due to several factors; these factors include technological advances that provide the ability for free sharing of media, the opinions of several creators driving the arguments against sharing, and the wide popularity of the internet.
Napster was one of the first widely used free-sharing networks. In June 1999, Shawn Fanning released his creation that provided free music for download to any anonymous user that chose to obtain the Napster program. Napster soon exploded in popularity, with millions of users downloading the service and obtaining hundreds to thousands of songs each day. Eventually, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against the service and the Ninth Circuit Court issued an injunction against Napster. Since then, Napster has taken the form of a pay-per-song style service, eliminating the free-sharing aspect of the program. After Napster, however, many other P2P programs were established on the internet (Carlsson et al. 2001). Today, the Kazaa service is one of the most widely used, offering the free download of music and movies to anonymous users. Kazaa has carefully avoided the problems that Napster ran into, however, by not physically storing the files on their servers; unlike Napster, Kazaa functions solely as a P2P network, facilitating communication between a user who has a specific file and a user who wants the specific file. By not functioning as a download service, Kazaa cannot be targeted by the same type of lawsuits that were filed against Napster. Kazaa is under constant judicial pressure to make sure that its users are not sharing copyrighted material, but it is still running today (www.kazaa.com). 
These programs have stimulated a serious discussion on the rights of the consumer versus the rights of the creator. Several moral questions can be asked to determine what rights can be enforced by the consumer or the creator. Regarding the rights of the consumer, we have to ask whether they have a right to the free access to the entire library of creative works today, and whether or not they can enforce this “right”, ignoring the copyright laws that are enforced today. The rights of the creator are more clearly defined than the rights of the consumer. The rights of the creator, as protected by law today, include the right to govern the distribution of their creation and the right to seek damages for infringement of their right to distribute. Regardless of the lawful protection of the rights of the creator, however, we can still ask moral questions about those rights. Does the creator really have the right to sue for the unlicensed distribution of their work? And if so, should the consumer seek damages from the distributor or the consumer? In September 2003, the RIAA sued several users of P2P networks, seeking damages for each song downloaded. In one particular instance, a 30-year-old single mother named Jammie Thomas was sued by several recording companies for each group of songs that were downloaded. This sum, including $9,250 per 24 songs shared on the Kazaa network, amounted to approximately $500,000 dollars . This is an important aspect to the morality of the creators seeking damages, as the woman did not have half of a million dollars to give to the record companies. Should the creators be able to sue individual users?
Obviously, the amount of moral questions posed by the issue is insurmountable without the application of universal theories. One might question if the older philosophies can be applied to such a modern problem, and in response to that I say that even though the philosophies are many decades old, they still hold true today. Because the theories are universal, they are able to be applied to any situation. In addition to this, they provide an alternative point of view to the current state of the argument, which has recently boiled down to the creators stating that consumers cannot share their work and the consumers maintaining that they can. Thus, the application of these theories is not only useful but almost necessary to be able to give order to such a chaotic situation.
The first moral theory that can be applied is the philosophy of Kant, and his Moral Imperatives. The first categorical imperative states “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Boss 2008). If we take the users of the P2P networks as the moral agents, there are two different applications of the first categorical imperative that can be made. The first application is from the viewpoint of the users themselves; the proponents of P2P programs claim that all creative works should be freely available for the enrichment of society. Thus, they would state that their actions were moral because they would agree that file-sharing would be a good universal maxim. In contrast to this, from the viewpoint of the creators who are protesting against file-sharing, the first categorical imperative would state that the users of the P2P programs are actually committing theft, as they are taking something without paying what has been deemed the product is worth. Thus, the users are making theft a moral maxim, which isn’t morally acceptable. Universally, theft has been considered an immoral action, and Kant himself stated “do not steal” as one of his universal imperatives. The real question, then, is whether or not the creator has a right to set an arbitrary price on a creation and if the unlicensed distribution of the creation is really “theft”. Alternatively, is the price set for the creation really arbitrary? Should the prices be set so high considering the minimal costs of production? Due to the laws that are enforced today, including the laws of copyright, the first categorical imperative has to be interpreted from the creators’ point of view; the moral agents in this case are clearly making theft a moral maxim and thus are acting immorally.
Like the first, the second categorical imperative also deems the actions of the users of P2P programs as immoral. The second imperative states “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end” (Boss 2008). The users of P2P programs are obviously acting against the instruction of the second imperative, treating the creators not as ends themselves but rather as means only. By freely taking the media from the P2P program and not giving the creator any sort of compensation, either monetary or in the form of the affirmation of their efforts, the users are treating the creators as a means for entertainment. Thus, according to the second categorical imperative, file-sharing is an immoral activity.
The next moral theory that is useful is Utilitarian theory, specifically the Greatest Happiness Principle. The principle states that an action is right as it tends to promote the happiness of the greatest amount of people, and an action is wrong as it tends to promote the opposite of happiness, or pain, and is the hallmark of the Utilitarianism movement (Boss 2008). As it applies to this moral question, we have to ask whether allowing or prohibiting file-sharing would promote the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. Thus, we have to examine how many people are affected by the prohibition or permission of file sharing. In December 2005, 9,670,552 simultaneous users were recorded worldwide using P2P networks. Eliminating P2P networks would thus cause pain for at least that many people, not including any that weren’t on the network at that time. The pain mentioned would be that caused by the inability to freely access desired media. If we were to permit P2P sharing, it would harm the people in the movie and music industries. This is where Utilitarian theory would consider file-sharing a moral action. The USA has the highest amount of entertainment export, and thus can be used as the prototypic example of the number of laborers that could be “harmed” by file-sharing, in this case being in the tens of millions. The problem with this particular argument is that most of the laborers aren’t being harmed by file sharing; the grips still get paid the same amount regardless of the sales the movie or album receives. Thus, to claim that allowing file-sharing harms a greater amount of people is inaccurate- the pleasure that most laborers in the entertainment industry receive remains unchanged. One could state that in the future jobs could be lost, which would directly harm the laborer’s happiness, but in the 11 years that P2P programs have existed, the job market for the entertainment industry has not changed. In addition to this, the profits that the industry receives have not changed more than a single percent (www.bigchampagne.com). Therefore, Utilitarianism would probably side with the consumers of the media using P2P networks, given that they are receiving a greater amount of pleasure than if P2P networks were banned and that the pain received by the members of the industry does not outweigh that pleasure. 
The last moral theory that will be applied falls under Rights Ethics. Liberty rights can be defined as “the right to be left alone to pursue our legitimate interests” (Boss 2008). Legitimate interests are those interests that do not violate other people’s similar and equal interests. Because of the definition of “legitimate interests”, we must determine if file-sharing is a legitimate interest of the consumer or if it violates the right of the creator to gain benefits from their creation. According to the copyright laws that are in effect today, it is clear that file-sharing cannot be a legitimate interest (and is thus immoral) because it directly violates copyright, which is protected by law as a legitimate interest. The issue is not so clear cut, however, when we examine exactly how much file-sharing affects the legitimate interests of the creators. In terms of financial benefits, it has been shown that profits for the movie and music industries have not changed more than a percent. In terms of intangible benefits, such as the affirmation of the creator’s work giving them the motivation to continue, the impact of file-sharing changes from person to person. Metallica, one of the original proponents of the suit against Napster, believed that they were being seriously harmed by file-sharing and as such refused to create any more music until the dispute was resolved. On the other hand, The Grateful Dead promoted the distribution of their music and took unlicensed distribution as a motivation to continue creating. Because of the minimal impact that file-sharing has on the interests of the creators, it could be argued that file-sharing is not a violation of the legitimate interests of the creators and thus is a legitimate interest itself, and thus it is a morally acceptable action. Regardless of this, however, due to the laws are in place, file-sharing will remain a violation of the creators’ legitimate interests and thus is not a legitimate interest and is immoral.
Given all of the different factors that influence the morality of file-sharing, determining an absolute answer is a difficult task. Different philosophies have generated different answers, but most, including the Kantian and Liberty Rights theories, summarily dismiss file sharing as an immoral activity. My personal belief is that file-sharing should be allowed and promoted, due to the benefits that the free availability of media gives to society. If a person is unable to afford to obtain media that might enrich or educate them, it is society’s duty to provide them the access to that media. While the definition of education generally applies to what is traditional (school rooms, paid teachers, etc.), I believe that the ideas and concepts depicted by many movies and musical forms can educate in ways that traditional education cannot. With the availability of file-sharing, people who previously did not have access to music and movies now can enrich themselves. In addition to this educational aspect, I also believe that most people who are involved with the production of music and movies are grossly overpaid and for them to demand compensation for the minute amounts they’ve lost to file-sharing seems both greedy and immoral. Once a particular production has been released to the public, and the creator has received an appropriate compensation (one that provides them with a good quality of life and the ability to pursue their legitimate interests, which is all cases is far less than most creators normally make), the creation becomes the property of the consumers and thus public domain and free to share. Until the impact of file-sharing reaches severe proportions, as in directly harming the quality of life of the majority of laborers in the entertainment industry, I see no reason why file-sharing should be banned. Until we reach a universal agreement between the entertainment industry and the P2P networks, file-sharing will continue to be debated on both a moral and judicial basis and right now will be considered an immoral action.
- Carlsson, Bengt and Rune Gustavsson. "The Rise and Fall of Napster - An Evolutionary Approach." Lecture Notes In Computer Science (2001): 347-354.
- Boss, Judith. Analyzing Moral Issues. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2008.
- Big Champagne Online Media Management. 05 Decemeber 2005. 22 April 2008 www.bigchampagne.com.