In my ethics class, one of the cases the students can select for their papers is about the morality of copying software, movies, music and so on. As I point out in the hints section of that case, a rather important part if the debate hinges on whether such piracy is theft or not. After all, theft is fairly well established (with some notable exceptions) as morally incorrect-or at least morally questionable.
Normally one would expect that a commercial computer game developer would be opposed to the piracy of software. However, Minecraft creator Markus Persson’s stated that “piracy is not theft” at the Game Developers Conference.
Persson’s argument is exactly the sort that I have seen in student papers for years: “Piracy is not theft. If you steal a car, the original is lost. If you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world.”
This does have a certain appeal. After all, the most obvious sort of harm from theft is that the rightful owner is being denied the use of their property and thus experiences an actual loss. If someone merely copies my software, then they have not deprived me of my copy and hence I am unharmed by this.
This same sort of reasoning would, of course, apply to copying books, theories, formulas, recipes, designs and so on. After all, if I copy the formula for a drug or a philosophical theory, the creator or “owner” still has their formula or theory. On this view, only the taking of physical objects would seem to count as theft-laying aside the science fiction scenarios in which someone could remove an idea from someone’s mind or other such things.
If this is pushed, it might be taken as applying to identity piracy and pirating credit card numbers. After all, if someone pirates your identity or your credit card number, you still possess both. The pirate is merely using what they have pirated, just as the pirate merely uses the pirated software. As such, copying your identity or your credit card number would be piracy rather than theft.
On the face of it, this does seem like an absurd result. If it does really follow from Persson’s principle, then it would show that his principle is flawed. Unless, of course, this result does not follow or it does an one bites the bullet and accepts the results.
The stock reply to the claim that piracy is not theft is that the pirate is stealing a sale and thus harming the person who “owns” what was pirated.
Persson does give a reasonable counter to this objection: “There is no such thing as a ‘lost sale’… Is a bad review a lost sale? What about a missed ship date?”
As he notes, a bad review of a product can play a role in a person not buying it. Also, a missed ship date can also play a role in diminished sales. There are many other things that could play a causal role in a person not buying product. For example, if my book is worse than another competing book, that author will almost certainly play a role in my not selling as many books. If I price my book cheaper than the competition, then that can play a role in their not selling as many books. However, it would be absurd to claim that I am engaged in theft (or being a victim of theft). In more general terms, it would be absurd to claim that I was being subject to unwarranted harm (or being subject to it). If pirating a copy is analogous to these other things, then it would seem to follow that piracy is no worse than they are.
Of course, it could be taken that Persson is arguing that since there is no such thing as a lost sale, then piracy cannot cause a lost sale. Obviously enough, if there are no lost sales, then this certainly follows.
However, there do seem to be some points worth considering. It could be argued that there is such a thing as a lost sale. This would seem to involve showing that but for the factor in question, a purchase would have been made. As noted above, such factors as competing product being better or cheaper could be in that “but for” category and it would be absurd to consider such scenarios theft in a moral or legal sense. As such, what would be needed is a factor that would unjustly result in the lack of a sale.
For example, suppose that you own a company that sells vegetarian food and someone maliciously spreads rumors that your food contains goat testicles. The harm that is done certainly seems to involve the reduction in your sales and this appears to be unjust because it was caused by a lie. As such, it would seem reasonable to regard this action as unethical and you would certainly appear to have reasonable grounds for legal action. Obviously enough, if your competitors lure away your customers with better products or better prices, then you would have no grounds to regard yourself as harmed unjustly. They have a right to compete. However, they have no right to lie.
Piracy certainly seems to be a situation in which revenue is lost via means that are unjust. After all, if I buy Starcraft II rather than a competitor because Strarcraft II is a better game, then that is hardly unjust. However, if I do not buy the competitor because I have pirated it, that seems to be a rather different sort of scenario. Blizzard has the right to compete, but I can hardly claim that I have a right to copy software.
That this is so can be seen in the following analogy involving a test. One way to do well on a test is to “pay” an honest price by going to class and studying. Another way is to simply copy the answers off the person who actually attended class and studies. Obviously, the person copying is not stealing answers in the sense of removing them from the original test, but they have no right to those answers and it would be quite right to prevent them from doing so and punishing them. It would also make sense to regard them as stealing-after all, they are taking what they have not earned. Likewise for pirates.
This distinction does seem to a rather important one, if only on moral grounds.