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The Ethics of Intellectual Property Theft

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 6 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
The Ethics Of Intellectual Property Theft

There’s been a lot written about the illegal downloading of music and films and the pirating of CDs and DVDs. As ads and articles have repeated time after time, both those things are theft, pure and simple.

But what’s not said so often is what kind of theft they are. They’re part of a greater area known as intellectual property theft. The term itself might be new, but the idea itself isn’t. If you buy a bootleg DVD or CD at a car boot sale or online, or you download a track of television programme via a bit torrent, you’ve committed intellectual property theft.

What Is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property covers several different areas, but they all relate to ideas and creation, whether it’s a work of art (or music, or book) or something far more technical. Copyright laws protect artier things by asserting the rights of composers, writers and others to the work they’ve created. Design laws cover the way things look, whether it’s a car, laptop, or mobile phone. Trade marks offer protection to brands, especially their logos that make them stand out from their competitors. Patent law covers the technical aspects – the things that make processes and products function.

The Ethics Of Intellectual Property Theft

We wouldn’t shoplift from a supermarket or burgle a neighbour’s house. So why do so many people think it’s perfectly fine to download music without paying for it, to purchase a bootleg DVD or copy software without paying for it?

The simple answer is that there doesn’t seem to be a victim. After all, those massive software companies make millions, record label and film studios are awash with money, so no one is hurt.

But how true is that? Yes, the big companies do make profits – or losses at times – but that’s only one part of the bigger picture. When you download a track or an album illegally, you’re depriving the artist who made it, or the person who composed it, of royalties. In fact it’s a prime source of income for them, and most aren’t the highly-paid people many might imagine, so it’s directly affecting their earnings. Most recordings don’t make money – labels subsidise those that don’t by the profits they make from those who do; in other words, you could be affecting the possibilities of future recordings by unknown artists – and as more independent artists release tracks and albums themselves, a theft hits them hard and fast.

Film studios invest millions in new movies, and each one is a gamble. Some make huge profits, others turn a loss. But part of the income for them all comes from DVD sales. Bootleg and pirated DVDs and illegal downloads could mean that a studio isn’t able to finance a project in the future. Your actions can have reactions.

What about software? There’s certainly no shortage of money at companies like Microsoft. Would they notice the little they’d make from an illegal download of Office, for instance – after all, they charge enough for it legally.

No, of course they wouldn’t, but when you increase that volume to thousands and millions of copies, the impact is huge – and in China, for instance, the vast majority of software that’s sold (along with CDs and DVDs) is pirated. It takes time and a lot of money to develop new software, with rigorous testing. The money that’s stolen – which is exactly what it is – by illegal copies and downloads means not only lower profits, but less money available for research and development.

Much the same applies to pharmaceuticals, too. Those off-brand drugs do lower the huge profits of the big drug companies – but they’ve also spent millions in development. Other considerations include the fact that you really don’t know what’s in those knock-off drugs – are they safe? - and with software, how can you be sure it doesn’t contain malware of some kind?

In short, with deeper consideration, there are no ethics that can be really used to defend intellectual property theft. You might gain in the short-term, but in the longer term you affect not only people, but also the future.

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