What's the "right" question?
Is it ethical to distribute unauthorized copies of published works to others?Proprietary software vendors, the MPAA, and RIAA don't really want you to question the status quo of copyright. But should you decide to, they would prefer you focus on the above question. Of course, this is not an invalid question. It's not that this question is "wrong". In fact, this question is perfectly reasonable. But is it the most penetrating question? The most direct question? The most revealing question?
Notice who the spotlight is on when the question of ethics is framed this way. That's right - the distributor. Or, as some would like to say - the "pirate" (Arr! Grr!). The focus is on the "pirate's" actions but the action of the copyright holder is left unexamined. The question implies that the current legal system and actions of those who use the system to their advantage is not flawed in any fundamental way - that since the advent of digital technology, there has been no need to examine that progress in relationship to the law of old.
I'd like to flip things around. I'd like to ask a question that would make any Hollywood producer, RIAA president, or proprietary software developer nervous about seriously addressing. This is my question...
Is it ethical to prevent human beings from sharing published scientific information or culture?And why would the consideration of this question make those in power nervous? First, it puts the focus on the copyright holder's actions. Generally, those with the power want you to believe they have the moral right to perfect control. Second, those arguing in favor of perfect control simply don't have a leg to stand on - even if they drop the "moral rights of the creator" argument. The only remaining argument relies upon a belief that not enough progress in the arts and sciences will occur unless copyright holders have perfect control over ideas. This belief is stacked upon the a priori belief that humans are like Pavlov's dog. That is, humanity is productive only when the bell of money is ringing loud enough to make it salivate. But I suppose it's understandable why one may fall into this narrow line of thinking for often, as one sees oneself - one sees the world.