What is Stealing in a Digital Age?

As I write this post there are two files downloading in the background – each a fairly new release that we may never watch.

And every time I do this, I wonder to myself where the line between stealing and borrowing falls.

As technologies and the ease of file transfers continue to develop, we will be faced with a new set of ethics related with the copyright and ownership of digital media.

I want to be clear – this is not an issue of piracy or peer to peer networking (where you both host and download). Piracy involves the reproduction of copyrighted material for distribution or financial gain and in peer to peer networks you are uploading content that others may use for illegal purposes.

This is about whether or not it is okay to download material produced by someone else without their consent.

While a senior in college, Napster emerged. Content was no longer confined to cd’s or dvd’s. Once we figured out how it worked, it only took a week to exhaust the list of known songs and artists. We then used Netscape Navigator to search Billboard’s lists to think of any others we may have missed.

And we never thought twice about the ethics of what we were doing. For one, we were in college and everything goes – and two, we didn’t know any better.

And then Napster was deemed illegal. Plausible deniability was no longer a viable defense.

A decade later the debate still rages on. What is stealing – and who is the responsible party – the one who uploads or the one who downloads.

The first question we must ask is whether or not the internet is open source. When someone posts something to the web, do they still retain ownership of it? The platform with allows it to be available to millions also allows it to be copied by millions. Words and images can be copied while music and videos can be downloaded. Does the opportunity to share your work override the ownership of it?

My personal opinion is the content is provided on an open source website, such as Google, YouTube, Vimeo, etc… then it is fair game. This is not content produced by them and is available to the public for free. However, if it is behind the walls of a paid site like Netflix or an official journalistic website like ESPN or NY Times, then it is off limits without consent or proper crediting.

The next question we need to asked is whether or not it is okay to download content from the internet. Even if we’ve already established material from the internet is open source, is it okay to download it? Some websites offer links directly from their pages to download content while most browsers offer add-ons to allow you to do the same thing. And if neither of these work, shareware products are readily available.

The silence of large corporations against the use of browser add-ons and shareware for downloading has only further solidified my opinion allowing the downloading of open source content.

The next question we need to ask is whether or not downloading content from the internet is any different than the use of VCR’s and tape decks, the ripping of CD’s, and the use of Tivo and DVR’s. Other than the time lag between the DVD release and the TV premier, not much. DVR’s already allow for the skipping of commercials, the exportation to the computer, and the burning to DVD. Sounds pretty similar to me.

The final question we need to ask is if all content is created equally – and to me it’s not. Downloading music and adding it to your library is different than dowloading an episode of a TV show or a new release movie – it’s worse.

Music is created by an individual or group, contains their creative licensing, and is for enjoyment over a period of time. It’s like stealing art and should be treated as such.

Also, avenues exist allowing for the previewing and listening to music without the requirement to download. And if the music is worth listening to over and over again – and on multiple devices – it needs to be purchased. It is of higher quality and supports the artist themselves.

Movies and TV shows, on the other hand, are totally different. They are mass produced and insanely expensive all the while being made for a singular viewing.

And this is how I treat the two. I will download a video, watch, and delete. And if the movie is worth watching multiple times, then I will get it. Or if it needs to be watched in higher quality, I will purchase it. But if it’s just the latest episode or another Nicholas Cage movie, I’m not paying for it. If you make me, I just won’t watch. Your call.

So – all that said, music is off-limits except for streaming and freebies while movies and TV shows are fair game – as long as it is not for multiple viewing or distribution.

The written word needs to be purchased, rented from the library, or borrowed from a buddy and photographs most belong to their creator and need to purchased, unless they have been released to open source websites for viewing and distribution.

For further reading, check out Derek Webb’s take here.

What about you? Your thoughts? Am I a bad guy? Did I confuse you?


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