Is it ethical for the RIAA to sue random copyright violators in an effort to instill fear in all violators?

The RIAA chose to sue several KaZaA users who were sharing several thousand songs, but many more users with similar records were not sued. Certainly suing the millions of people who have downloaded music illegally would be impractical. Suing just a few instills a powerful fear in perpetrators: "I could get sued next." The RIAA claims that the lawsuits also serve to educate the public on the illegality of downloading music. According to the RIAA, the percentage of people who thought downloading music was illegal rose dramatically after the lawsuits were filed.

Suing violators may deter people from downloading music and educate them, but is this worth the troubles endured by the few unlucky defendants? Most peer-to-peer users could never afford the fines and court fees associated with their violations. The RIAA says it will not actually seek compensation from the perpetrators they sued, who include a 12-year-old. Nevertheless, the peer-to-peer revolution has brought with it an epidemic of illegal file sharing. With so many otherwise-lawful citizens breaking the law, legislators must examine the motives behind this situation and act carefully. Ultimately it should be the government that decides the best way to educate, "scare," and/or punish the millions who have downloaded music illegally.

Is it ethical for a company (and/or its employees) to develop software if they know that it will be used both illegally and legally?

The legal argument behind this question is laid out in the case of Universal City Studios vs. Sony (1984), in which the Supreme Court ruled that as long as a device has substantial non-infringing use, it is not liable for any copyright infringements. This law has been debated since then. What if the device is used for illegal purposes 99% of the time? Should the developer be judged based on the majority or the possibility of legal use? If the proportion of illegal to legal use of the product should be considered, then what is a good proportion to deem acceptable?

A simple solution would be to say that if the majority of uses are for legal means, the product should be deemed usable. But one must consider the intensity of the infringements as well. To put it into simple human terms, can 1000 lives saved outweigh one murder? What about ten murders? Or 100 cancer cases? There is no way to assign valuation for death, but perhaps there is a way to come up with a figure that represents the economic ramifications resulting from an abuse of a copyright.

For music, however, this is nearly impossible, especially since many artists have increased revenue in certain ways (concerts attendance) despite losing them in others (CD sales). And even if a value could be assigned to one artist, would all artists have the same weight attached to their respective values?

Is it ethical to download music for free?

In a survey we conducted, we asked a group of primarily college-aged students, "Is it ethical to download copyrighted music for free?" 44% of people responded, "Yes." The law clearly states that downloading copyrighted music without the permission of the author is illegal, yet 44% of students think that such an action is ethical. Why is there such a disconnect?

In one sense the question before us is straightforward. People have no more right, no more entitlement to steal music or movies or any other copyrighted product in a digital form than they do in the physical world. The same rules apply. The RIAA is just enforcing them.

Then why do 44% of people think it is ethical to download copyrighted music for free? This is the ethical debate at the very heart of the file sharing industry. The perspective of the RIAA on this debate is that people downloading their music are stealing unlawfully and should be prosecuted. The people downloading the music use several arguments to defend their actions.

We will look at one of these arguments: People who download copyrighted music claim that had they purchased the music, the money would not have gone to the artists, but to the record companies. For the most part, this is true. Letís look at an example:

$16.98 SLRP (suggested list retail price) for a CD
-$4.25 25% packaging deduction
-$1.27 10% breakage deduction
-$2.87 25% new technologies deduction
$8.58 new royalty base price

So now the artist gets 10 to 14 percent of this price -- or somewhere between $0.86 and $1.20 -- per retail sale. The rest of the money goes to the record companies. Go here for more information.

The underlying problem is this: Many people with otherwise healthy moral intuitions fail to see internet file-sharing as theft, or if they do, they do not perceive it as wrong. Of course the pricing structure of compact discs is widely resented, but these facts do not explain the largely guilt-free social psychology of so many file sharers. I will briefly discuss this psychology, the psychology of the non-paying consumer, and then try to use it to shed some light on this ethical debate.

1. Those who are victimized are distant and unknown to us as individuals. When a backup musician loses their job because record sales have dropped due to piracy, it doesnít really make anyone feel guilty.

2. Consumers have become accustomed to the portability and transferability of music, partly because of successful marketing by the industry.

3. Unlike familiar forms of copying a recording, as in the case of "bootleg" audio tapes, the copy never needs to be a physical object but can remain in electronic form. Physical associations with theft are completely absent.

4. The very term "file-sharing" sounds altruistic. This term doesnít have the connotation of anything wrong or illegal like perhaps terms like "file-stealing" or "file-piracy" might.

These factors do not justify theft, but file-sharing is not simply an attack by consumers on the concept of private property. It is a demand for access to a highly valued social commodity, a demand triggered and facilitated by technology.