Last week I engaged in a discussion on Twitter with Melbourne-based ethicist Leslie Cannold regarding the ethics of piracy. I objected initially to Leslie’s claim that if consumer demands for reasonably-priced content that is readily available are not met, then “all bets are off,” morally speaking.
The argument Leslie was making was, put simply, as follows: Australian consumers are entitled to receive particular products at reasonable and equivalent prices to their global peers. If they don’t (and, presumably, the reasons why they don’t aren’t good justifications), then consumers are entitled to take what they are failing to be justly provided. The argument seems so familiar to us because the logic of a market-driven consumerism is so insidious that it’s near impossible to look past.
When we look closely at this claim, though, it rests on an unflinching consumerism whereby the satisfaction of individual desires amounts to a moral right. That’s something that’s worth pushing back against, because I don’t think it holds up to close scrutiny. Of course it would be ideal if consumers could “pay for what they want when they want it”, but the simple fact that consumers might want that doesn’t mean it amounts to a moral imperative.
So, although it’s true to say that the way in which Australian consumers are treated by the business side of entertainment and distribution – and there is a legitimate argument to say that we cop the rough end of the stick in this regard – does contribute to the reasons why piracy takes place, that alone doesn’t justify the piracy. Supply and demand, the principles of the free market, and consumerism are market principles that explain why it might make good business sense for entertainment companies to make creative work more accessible to Australians, it doesn’t, in itself, constitute a moral imperative. After all, consumers might also want Game of Thrones to show more dicks, but that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to see Daario’s junk when they tune in on Monday nights.
But even if consumers were entitled to have at least some of their expectations satisfied (and there’s a case here, at least to say that all consumers should be treated as equally as possible), and we accept that entertainment and broadcasting businesses are wronging Australians by not providing reasonably priced, convenient, and timely access to content, that still doesn’t reach the point where individuals who involve themselves in piracy are fully excused.
This is because the right (although I’m not convinced it is a right so much as an expectation) of consumers to access content in a timely and reasonable manner would have to be powerful enough to override the right of corporations to own their intellectual property and regulate its usage in order for piracy to be a morally justifiable activity. Civil uprisings against the state, for example, might be morally justifiable despite being a breach of law, when the state is failing to meet its basic obligations to citizens because the right of a government to the obedience of its citizens is overridden by the rights of citizens to have a fair and just government. But the stakes are so low in the case of piracy that the right of businesses to have their intellectual property respected doesn’t appear to be overridden.
Again, it’s worth here emphasising that big corporations aren’t to be excused entirely, nor is a legal system that equates piracy with theft a particularly good one, but alongside these complicit factors are the choices of individuals who prioritise the satisfaction of their own interests and perceived entitlements over law, principle, and the legitimate claims of others, including businesses and artists.
What I want to say – in short – is that just because consumers get the raw end in Australia by comparison to other places, it doesn’t mean that “all bets are off”, morally speaking. The consumers of piracy are involved in something unethical, and the over-moralising of piracy fails to acknowledge that individuals bear responsibility for the choices they make, even in adverse conditions. As philosopher James Garvey notes regarding climate change:
if it’s true that there are moral consequences to my use of a precious resource, it doesn’t matter what other people do, I still have those demands placed upon me.
Now, creative content may not be precious in the way that the environment is, but it does matter to those who own and create it, and we obviously care about it too, or we wouldn’t be pirating it. Given this, to talk properly about the morality of piracy, we need to think about individual responsibility and about the type of habits we form when we choose to download Game of Thrones.
As much as many online advocates might like you to believe it, the majority of piracy has less to do with Robin Hood-esque egalitarianism and more to do with lazy, self-serving consumerism. For example, the expansion of Netflix to Australia hasn’t stopped Australians from pirating Daredevil at some of the world’s highest rates. This is a show that can be accessed in full on Netflix for less than $10 a month. Evidently, these pirates aren’t motivated by some sense of social justice or in defence of their consumer rights. They’re just being selfish.
And this is the crux of it all. Liberal individualism has fused perfectly with consumer culture to create an environment where “I want it” becomes sacrosanct. The idea of having to wait for what we want – to suffer a minor inconvenience because of bad (or even unfair) practices – when there is the possibility of immediate gratification is more than we’ve been taught to tolerate. Using the logic of the market, it hardly seems logical not to pirate.
At the end of the day, piracy is a choice that is indeed driven by consumer demands and market forces, but it doesn’t follow from this that the consumers are right to make the demands that they do. By catering to those demands for so long, the entertainment industry – like all industries in the market – may well be sleeping in a bed of its own making, but that doesn’t free consumers of moral responsibility.
As unpopular as it might be to say, when we decide to pirate a show instead of to wait for its release or purchase it through legal means, we confuse our private desires with our moral rights, and (perhaps worse) teach ourselves that the gratification of our own desires comes before any other consideration – including the rights of others or the force of the law.
A final note: just because I haven’t waxed lyrical about the shortcomings of big business doesn’t mean I don’t think they bear some responsibility. I’ve chosen to focus on what I think is a neglected area of the piracy debate; namely, that individuals who pirate are developing vices, and over time these can retrain character in self-gratifying and morally problematic ways. Basically, I think it’s both irresponsible and flatly untrue to tell individuals that piracy – however widespread and psychologically understandable – is the fault of the entertainment industry.
To do so is to simultaneously validate and wildly understate the capacity of human beings to be self-righteous and overly-entitled, and to ignore the extent to which seeing the consumer as entitled to having his or her demands catered to only serves to perpetuate the problem of piracy. We might not need the Joffrey-esque punishments that owners of Dallas Buyers Club seem to be hoping for; we might even understand why people pirate (or, God forbid, have actually done so ourselves), but that doesn’t make it less wrong, it just makes us less sensitive to it.