I recently wrote about Radiohead’s release of their new album in digital form, downloadable from their Website with a price-tag that you decide yourself — ingenious. One of the interesting consequences of this way of releasing their album is that it make piracy unethical — beyond reasonabe doubt. One of the common arguments pro piracy (or, more politically correct, file sharing) is that sharing an mp3 file is radically different from stealing a album. The latter involves depriving someone (e.g. the record store) of their property, whereas file sharing does not. This argument has some credibility, since the claim is that we cannot simply transfer our moral judgment regarding traditional forms of stealing and apply them straightforwardly to file sharing. Importantly, however, we cannot deduce from this that that piracy is justifiable. This would be, in fact, a logical fallacy of the following form:
If you deprive someone of their property, you are committing an act of theft
I do not deprive someone of their property [I’m just making a copy]
Ergo, I am not committing an act of theft (or any other moral wrong-doing)
Obviously, the argument is invalid. Arguing in this form would be the same as claiming that killing someone with a knife is murder, but since I used a gun I did not commit murder. In order for the argument to work, the first premise would have to be a bi-conditional, or what is known as if-and-only-if (iff). If the first premise goes “If and only if you deprive someone of their property, then you are commiting an act of theft”, then the argument is valid, but you would have a hard time proving the first premise. And even if that works out, you might “prove” that file sharing is not tantamount to stealing, but still there’s a long way to go before showing that it is not unethical in some other way.
Anyway, what I wanted to point out is that Radiohead has turned this around. Traditionally, many arguments pro and con file sharing have been carried out by comparison with “real life” crimes. This comparison does not hold in this case. Instead, you have to make a comparison between paying at least a symbolic sum for the album (the minimum price is 0.45GBP), or to download it for free somewhere else. The deprivement-argument does not hold anymore (if it ever did). Another argument is that “I wouldn’t have bought the CD anyway, so nobody’s left worse off”. This argument also becomes more difficult to pull off, when you have in fact downloaded the album. Thus, downloading the Radiohead album without even a symbolic sum becomes, at least in my mind, a more clear-cut example of unethical behaviour than downloading an album released only on CD.