I should first point out that the title is more to capture a common occurrence of the broader idea I want to address in this question. It is also somewhat incorrect in that—at least in the US—I'm not sure it's actually illegal to download music without paying (per se), but rather to share it. But the law here is irrelevant; this question is about the moral status of illegal downloading, whether or not it is or should be illegal.

My question, stated in a relatively broad, almost all-encompassing manner:

Is it immoral to acquire goods or services which are generally intangible1 for free when the original owners of such goods or services would have otherwise profited with such an exchange?

  • On one hand you are depriving the original owner of money they could have potentially made
  • On the other hand you are not actually taking anything physical from their possession.

1By intangible here I mean simply something that is incapable of being perceived by the sense of touch, as incorporeal or immaterial things. A digital version of a song, for example, is tangible in the sense that it is a real, existing product that has value, but intangible in that it occupies essentially no physical space (other than a handful of electrons in the capacitors of a memory module in a computer, etc.).

I think it's easiest to demonstrate my reasoning so far through thought experiments:

Example 1:

If I walk into a movie theater (having paid), and it just so turns out that I have extremely good photographic memory such that I can rewatch the movie I saw in my head with perfect precision, does that means I am immoral for rewatching it over and over in my head without paying the owner each time? I don't think anyone would seriously say that I am acting immorally in this case. But I don't see this as qualitatively different than having taken a video camera into the theater and then rewatching the movie at home as many times as I please without re-paying the owner. Are people with perfect memory not allowed to go to the movies? You may laugh, but this is becoming a reality sooner than you think with technologies like Google Glass recording every moment of our lives.

Further, the same logic that applies to the above example also applies to many other cases; for example, if I hear a song on the radio and I just happen to be an acoustic genius who—after hearing a song once—possesses the ability to replay a song in my head with extraordinary precision after I've heard it once (or I was simply able to play it whenever I please using my own musical instruments / music mixing software at home). Normally, the cost of a song on the radio is 1) you have to listen to advertisements and 2) you have to wait to hear it again. But in my special case I could eliminate all those costs after hearing the song once. Am I immoral for not subjecting myself to the advertising of the radio station (and therefore reducing the money the radio station makes)?

These examples becomes even more interesting when we consider the inevitable eventuality that humans will integrate technology like cameras and hard drives into our bodies and actually possess perfect memory and recording capabilities as part of our being.

Example 2:

I am a master tailor with near God-like knitting skills. I see a person walking down the street with a beautiful purple scarf. I whip out my knitting tools and fashion myself the exact same scarf in 30 seconds, directly copying every aspect of its style and design. Am I acting immorally by not paying the original owner of the scarf for using his or her exact ideas in creating my own scarf?

I don't see this example as far off from the idea of copying music. With tools which are readily available to us, we are all "Gods" when it comes to copying files. Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V; it's that easy — just as easy as it was for the master tailor. Should I pay the owner of a song each time I copy the song on my computer, say if I want it in my iTunes folder but also in my music folder? That doesn't seem very reasonable. So it seems that the action of copying something itself does not seem to be the problem. It seems to be a problem when the action of copying could result in a loss for someone else. However, if we were required to pay a fee for each copy of a song on our computer, each illicit copy action would result in a loss for someone. However, it's not quite a "loss", is it? The owner is not losing anything. They are simply not gaining some money they could have earned. In the case of the scarf, if I was not a master tailor, I might've otherwise bought the scarf, but you can't honestly say it's immoral for me to be a good knitter, can you? Stated another way:

Is aiding in the loss of a potential sale a moral wrong?

Clearly, what someone does not earn (a "non-gain") is not the same as losing money, because your current wealth is not affected. Non-gain's affect only potential wealth. Is it immoral to negatively affect someone's potential wealth? I negatively affected the potential wealth of cigarette companies by convincing my friend to quit smoking. Was that immoral? It seems ridiculous to think so. But are there cases where it is immoral to negatively affect someone's potential wealth? You tell me.


I want to try to avoid people's subjective opinions on whether stealing non-tangible goods is immoral or not (i.e. in one persons particular opinion rather), and focus on whether it would be considered immoral in the moral community of today (globally, or "developed nations" if that suits you better). Also, note that this question is specifically designed to avoid references to statute; it is not asking whether downloading music is stealing but rather it is morally justifiable. Lastly, I've actually not read any philosophers who have written on this subject at any length, so links to articles would be useful.

  • 12
    You may be amused to know that in a sci fi story I wrote for fun (and have neither published nor given away for free), it is in fact illegal to remember a movie or song without buying permissions, and everyone has cybernetic implants that will enforce this. It was also the basis of a Halloween costume I wore to a party a few years ago (which included an illuminated "memory rights management" box on my neck).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 19:04
  • 4
    Perhaps not enough of a response to qualify as an answer, but I just want to raise the question here: what is the crime of robbing a bank compared to the crime of founding one? That is to say: there may well be a serious moral quandary with respect to pirating; but critically there would seem to me to be just-as-if-not-more serious ethical problems with the arrangement of the system itself (and the institutions structuring it.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 21:36
  • 1
    @JosephWeissman. You'd have to draw what you're thinking out a bit. I can't seem to see how morality or ethics would be applied to anything that's unsystematic. It seems that by judging this or that foundation as immoral, we're relying on either an analogous system of morality to judge the creation of this new system or presuming some sort of absolute morality. For example, what if we replaced founding a bank to founding a city, nation, or culture? Well, how could we stand anywhere to judge its morality?
    – Jon
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 21:58
  • @Jon please note that the emboldened phrase in my comment is in fact a paraphrase of Brecht's quip "What's breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank?" At any rate, I do think the point is pretty straightforward, at least with respect to bankers and music industry executives -- but I'm happy to try to expand it into an answer at some point.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 21:10
  • 13
    @stoicfury You'll probably find this interesting. Mozart created the first illegal copy of Misere, which was heavily guarded by the Vatican. How did he do it? He listened to it once in person and wrote the sheet music for it from memory.
    – MGZero
    Commented Nov 7, 2011 at 20:11

16 Answers 16


I do not think that there is a single answer to the question of "is it immoral to negatively affect someone's potential wealth" in the context of the moral community of today. For example, if I have a great and inexpensive widget for sale, and you have a lousy expensive widget for sale, my advertising of my widget is going to negatively affect your potential wealth. This seems to be viewed as not only perfectly okay but even desirable in market economies (which have particularly nice properties when one can assume consumers have near-perfect knowledge). Or if, for example, I am particularly annoyed with the customer service on United and encourage a friend to fly on Delta instead, I would not expect that friend to criticize me for negatively impacting United. Likewise, if I discouraged someone from taking a bus tour of Washington D.C., and encouraged them to walk instead because it would be a better experience, they'd probably appreciate it (if it was good advice). So it seems that in the context of market-based competition and engaging in exchange of goods and services it is absolutely okay to aid in the loss of a potential sale.

(As an aside, companies and individuals do often try to use copyright to head off these sorts of losses; if an embarrassing document comes to light, for example, it's common that the entity will at least try to assert its copyright to avoid having the negative information disseminated.)

If we instead restrict ourselves to the main question--is it immoral to acquire intangible goods for free--then I think there is no single answer because there is not a single community. I've heard the following argument in various guises, mostly from thoughtful but non-affluent people, specifically with regard to music:

  1. I love such-and-so music.
  2. I cannot afford to buy more than this much of it, and I do buy this much.*
  3. Downloading the rest for free benefits me.
  4. Downloading the rest for free only formally, not actually, reduces the artists' income, as I cannot afford more. There was no more potential for sales, so there is no actual harm.
  5. Therefore, this activity is morally permissible.

*The "the artists who created this get almost none of the money" argument often modulates this claim--that is, they're happy to buy things that support the artists, but not necessarily to download music from iTunes where an overwhelming majority of the money goes to people other than the artists.

I've also heard the following argument in various guises, mostly from affluent people who rely on the current system for their affluence:

  1. Music is the work of artists (and producers and so on); that is the output of their labor.
  2. Music has a tangible value (i.e. people are willing to exchange money in order to be able to listen to it).
  3. Taking items of tangible value without the consent of its creators robs the creators of their livelihood.
  4. Therefore, this activity is both immoral and counterproductive.

From what I have seen, there is disagreement because the premises differ (both based on self-interest): the latter group takes the value for granted and reasons from there; the former takes the creation of the work for granted and reasons from there.

Of course, neither is true in some deep sense. If we could monetize and restrict the supply of oxygen, it would become extremely valuable, but that does not mean it would be beneficial; one should not simply take for granted the value of a song under the current scheme where distribution is restricted. Likewise, even for music, but especially for expensive propositions like software creation and movies laden with special effects and stars, it is clear that models that cannot fund the creators will be destructive, and therefore that being a freeloader is aiding oneself at the expense of others (which is pretty widely considered immoral).

I have not seen any philosophically sophisticated treatment of the various considerations. Lawrence Lessig has written some of the more carefully-reasoned material taking the side that copyright as used now is having a sizable negative impact, but he is a professor of law, not a philosopher. I am unaware of an equally eloquent proponent of an opposing stance.

  • 6
    +1 Good ideas! I would only say that in the second list argument you provide, #3 is less certain than we might think. In fact, I can't find the link but I read an article recently where a court Judge (I think in Europe?) determined that the sharing of music illegally online was of indeterminate harm, in fact it may very well in fact spread the music, making it more popular and thus increasing legal downloads as well. I think that's really where all the "juice" lies with this issue. There are definitely a lot of songs and movies people might download which they would never otherwise purchase...
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 2:30
  • "only formally, not actually, reduces the artists' income". I don´t see how this can make sense. The premise is that it would never have been bought, so it is impossible that the download could have reduced income of anyone. This formally concept seems to make no sense and is confusing. 'I lost no income actually, but formally I did'??
    – Skúli
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 19:31
  • @Skúli makes perfect sense. Imagine you have bread for sale, close up at 8 and throw leftovers away. Now someone gets the leftovers from the trash and gives them away for free. Formally you will lose money, since the people get your stuff free instead of buying it. On the other hand they might be homeless and could never afford to pay, so practically you wouldn't lose any money ;)
    – Falco
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 11:04
  • You are making a fatal mistake. By illegally downloading a work (that you couldn't have paid for because you couldn't afford it anyway), you give a bad example to others who will use your example as an excuse to download things illegally that they could afford to buy.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 0:01
  • @gnasher729 - It's not my mistake; I'm summarizing a position. But, since you brought it up, why is that "mistake" necessarily fatal? Museums, for example, are not infrequently free to enter but still collect substantial funds from voluntary donations. Wouldn't it depend on the rest of the cultural climate?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 19:43

Over several decades, I've paid the music industry many times more than the average consumer, but in recent years I've almost exclusively obtained my recordings from "illegal" use of P2P and torrents on the internet.

I don't see my current behaviour as immoral, nor do I think the fact that I paid a lot in the past, or that I've had no income (and dwindling savings) recently, have any real bearing on the moral question.

Most professional musicians don't earn huge sums, but what they do earn comes mainly from live performances. When I go to a gig, I'm grateful if I know one of the band and can blag a free ticket - but I don't expect this; I respect a person's right to be paid if they're working, while I'm just there to enjoy myself.

For a top-notch album, there are always enough people in the world willing to pay, which will cover the (relatively) low costs of recording and mastering. Distribution over the net is bordering on free anyway, and if people still want the physical medium they're obviously going to have to pay for that.

The people who lose out from music piracy are primarily those in the music distribution business, not the musicians themselves. I'd be happy to see their entire business disappear, since I think they're at best dinosaurs, and at worst leeches.

Returning to the moral issue, just because a relatively small number of top entertainers (including some musicians) do in fact become staggeringly wealthy, doesn't mean an aspiring musician should feel he's being "robbed" if he doesn't receive maximum income all the way through his journey to the top (which in most cases he'll never reach). Specifically, I see no moral justification for musicians being paid again and again for repeat sales of a recording which - once completed - requires no further effort on their part.

  • 4
    Interesting point in the last paragraph, but isn't that the same with any product? Once you've built the factory, it takes no real effort to produce another t-shirt or car or whatever - it's all automatic basically. Why should it no longer continue to earn them profit?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Dec 10, 2011 at 19:45
  • 5
    @stoicfury: A factory isn't the same at all - you have to keep buying materials, paying workers and distribution costs, etc. Ask yourself whether Michael Jackson's family should continue to rake in tens of millions of dollars - not only from stuff the dead man did himself, but also from the fact that he bought the rights to the Beatles songs? IMHO it's not just a matter of saying it's "not immoral" to acquire such music without paying - it would be positively immoral to let them get their hands on any more of this totally undeserved wealth. Commented Dec 10, 2011 at 20:19
  • 1
    I see what you mean but still, someone somewhere has to work to produce those Beatles CD's and Michael Jackson T-shirts. In both cases most of the money goes to the people on top, but just because they aren't doing squat doesn't mean that no effort is involved in the production of the good you are receiving. But yes, I see what you're getting at. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 3:00
  • 4
    I don't see the point of CDs - I gave away my entire collection years ago. Most I ripped onto the computer first, but any that I missed (in both senses) I've just replaced from P2P sources. There are no meaningful oncosts in distributing music through P2P. Burn your own disc if you want. Buy a jewel case and print the label if you're that into owning physical product. I'm not - I just want to listen to the music. Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 3:12
  • 1
    [Bunch of comments deleted] Let's keep comments civil and to the point. If you're looking to engage in longer discussion, please take it to chat.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 18:28

Is it immoral to negatively affect someone's potential wealth?

This is actually a very good question if we replace "wealth" with "income".

The the answer goes like this:

  1. In a free market economy, high profits (and, hence, income) can be made only by saitisfying urgent demand for things that are very scarce. For example, while water is essential to sustain life, its price is usually quite low (at least outside deserts). In certain regions water is actually a free good. OTOH, diamonds and gold, while per se useless or at least not necessary to sustain life, command high prices and those who dig and sell them make high profits.
  2. Therefore, one way to possibly "negatively affect" high profits in a free market economy would be to persuade people not to demand that what is scarce. As long as this is done without force or threadening of force, there is nothing to object to that.
  3. Another way would be to actually reduce the scarcity of the item in question. For example, in a town where hunger reigns, one that sells grain will make high profits. These profits will decline drastically as soon as fresh grain supplies are brought in from outside and sold.

But (3) is actually the definition of increasing wealth! By producing something people need and want, you create wealth and, inevitably, reduce future profits of all producers of comparable items.

Hence, the answer to your question is a resounding "No, it is not immoral."

If this were so, then the following activities would be immoral: quit smoking (reduce income of tobacco industry); build a house next to another (as far as free standing houses with better scenic view command higher prices); bake your own bread (think of the poor baker, dude!); inventing, building, selling and using automobiles/computers/washing machines; not using automobiles/computers/washing machines; ... you get the picture.

It is a certain caste of rent seekers that want to make us believe that "their" future profits actually are already their property right now, so that taking them away is "stealing". They have a natural alley, that helps them to pursue their special interests using force - the state.

  • 2
    +1 This was my thinking too; I like how you laid out economy logic and examples afterwards which highlight how ridiculous it would be to believe otherwise.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 16:44
  • 3
    I think it is clear that reducing potential wealth in itself cannot be morally wrong. But the question is if the action leading to it is morally wrong...
    – Falco
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 11:11
  • 1
    I think you've oversimplified. Clearly, not all instances of interfering in some way with someone's potential income are wrong. But this doesn't automatically mean that every possible way to interfere with someone's potential income is wrong. It all comes down to how one conceptualizes the right of property--what constitutes property and what constitutes ownership? You haven't addressed that except tangentially. A good answer should address this.
    – ErikE
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 18:46
  • @ErikE I didn't say that it was wrong to interfere with someone's potential income. To the contrary, provided that such interference does not violate genuine rights of that someone. For example, cutting off someones hand has probably a negative effect of that ones future income, and yet this is not the cause why it is a barbaric, criminal act.
    – Ingo
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 18:55
  • 1
    I can't see anywhere in your post that you address how we determine the genuine rights of a person within the context of morality. You have made reasoning by analogy, for example: that baking your own bread arguably reduces the baker's income is equivalent to illegal music copying (thus illegal copying is ok). The problem with that analogy is exactly what I commented on: there is no necessary reason to think that they are the same. You made the bread with your own materials, from a recipe you rightly possess. It just seems like sloppy logic and I'd love to see some more rigor in your answer.
    – ErikE
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 19:02

You've made a LOT of assumptions in your post, and have a pretty big set of seemingly unexamined presuppositions behind your statements that seem to me to need exposition.

  1. By saying that the legality of an action is irrelevant to its morality, you claim, unsupported, that morality is entirely detached from legality. This is quite a sweeping assertion!

  2. You seem to accept an innate human right to property, and furthermore that depriving a person of property is morally wrong. However, you have adopted a definition of property that is not necessarily justified, something along the lines of, only tangible, macro-size physical objects can be considered property. You insinuate that the small size or general imperceptibility of the foundational existence of a thing renders that thing as not property, or even not real. You offer no support for this definition of property and these additional insinuations. The picture you paint is that if music can be represented by "a handful of electrons"–something clearly of no value to anyone–then the music itself cannot also be valuable.

  3. You conflate the state of the world as it is now, with the state of the world if it were populated with only certain kinds of highly remarkable people. This overlooks the fact that value in most cases is determined in context of the whole world. To propose a different world than the real one as the basis for valuation of a thing is at best a simple mistake and at worst dishonest. Think about it! If everyone in the world were an acoustic genius who could instantly copy and masterfully play anything they heard, then music would in fact not be very valuable–correct! But that's not the world we live in, and people far and away cannot do that, so it's not a useful means for determining the value of property. Here is an argument that is equivalent to yours, and perhaps more accessible being so patently incorrect: "If everyone in the world had ten thousand kilograms of gold, then it wouldn't be valuable any more, so it's not wrong to take gold from people, as it's hardly worth anything."

  4. Since value is determined in context and not in isolation, your examples of amazing memory and talent proving the lack of an audio recording's value don't work. You are treating actions that can externally and artificially change the landscape of the world en masse (such as video cameras, which are accessible to anyone) with intrinsic internal abilities that are exceptionally rare and not shareable or duplicatable. Yes, there might be someone in the world who possesses the magic ability to exactly copy a Rembrandt painting down to the molecule and do it from the opposite side of the world, yet the morality of him using magic thus just once for his own private viewing cannot at all inform us about the morality of using a machine to make 10 million copies of that same Rembrandt and distributing them, rendering the original almost worthless (and the value of the painting, not just appreciation for art, is a huge part of the owner's pleasure in its possession, especially when he may plan to sell it in the future for consideration close to what it took to acquire in the first place).

  5. You're making the unsupported claim that placing technology within one's body turns whatever that technology does into one's private possession and right. That's a real whopper! Your being does not consist of the outlines of your physical body, such that the insertion into your physical body of something makes it an inseparable aspect of your intrinsic, unassailable self!

  6. You conflate the ease of copying something with the inverse of its value. At the core of it, you're suggesting that anything which can be represented as information, by virtue of the ability to copy information, cannot be property. In some ways, though, you're really talking about the state of technology, not the true nature of things. Consider: if technology progressed to the point that someone could exactly duplicate your spouse or mother or sister, totally non-invasively, would it then be acceptable for him to viciously torture the duplicate? If you had 3 copies of your spouse around the house and could Ctrl+C Ctrl+V another one any time you liked, would this mean it is not murder for someone to kill one of them? The ability of technology to represent a thing such as music as information has no bearing on the value of a thing or right to possess it, any more than the ability of technology to represent a thing such as a human as information would have any bearing on the right to do anything at all with that information (such as put a copy of your spouse's information online, there to be freely downloaded all over the world, turned back into a human, and mistreated in horrible ways again and again).

  7. Framing the issue as "potentially affecting another person's wealth" is the straw man argument. It's just a simple fact that some ways of affecting another person's wealth are clearly immoral, and other ways of affecting another person's wealth are not. Pretending that since the latter is true, the former is not immoral is just an unconvincing lie.

The fact is, you can't enjoy music in your mind without having the digital information required to reproduce it on demand, so all your different ways of saying the same thing about this action being tantamount to the same thing fall flat on their faces as mere wishful thinking.

Please note that I have avoided, as far as I can tell, subjective personal opinions on whether stealing information is immoral or not. However, I have used logic to attempt to show you where your reasoning is incorrect or lacks a proper foundation, and globally, or in "developed nations", logic is something of high value. You've come to a philosophy site, and thus ostensibly are looking for reasoned, rational discussion. If you were looking for the irrational, you wouldn't have come here (right?).

Now, I've saved what may be the most important thing for last. You speak of morality and immorality, and suggest that the only anchor for these concepts should be the "moral community of today/the world/developed nations". But how can that be of any value to you here? If you personally define morality as that which most people agree with or most people in developed nations agree with, then a philosophy web site dedicated to pursuit of truth is a horrible place to come. Instead, you should visit a site dedicated to polling the greater public. Run a poll on Facebook, "Do you think illegal downloading of music is wrong", and then abide by whichever answer is given by 51% or more of the respondents.

My computer is about to run out of battery power, but I will try to return later to provide you with some links that go deeper into the various points I've made.

  • Do you want to provide the links you promised last paragraph? Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 0:49
  • Well, thanks for the nice message! it is kind to take the time to reply. Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 2:18

One concept that I thought is worth mentioning is from Judaism. The idea is that there's a division between cases where "One enjoys and one has not lost"(זה נהנה וזה לא חסר), and cases where "One enjoys and one has lost"(זה נהנה וזה חסר). In cases of downloading copyrighted material, you could argue that it comes under the first category, since you're not causing them to actually lose anything they already have, rather you are simply preventing them from receiving additional payment to which they might be entitled. In that case, often it is seen as not immoral to do (or take) the thing, since we like it when people enjoy things. The original example given is in tractate "Baba Kama" of the Babylonian Talmud, Pages 20-21, where they discuss whether a man who slept on another man's property without the owner knowing (or actually losing anything) is obligated to pay after the fact, and they come to the conclusion that he's generally not (I'm oversimplifying, it depends on the circumstances). Based on that, the Rabbis would also sometimes say that the owner might have an obligation to allow the action in cases where he doesn't lose anything, since they don't like people enforcing their rights in a fashion that hurts somebody (so if you weren't going to rent out that property anyway, it seems unfair to prevent me from living there).

  • 1
    In your post you've implicitly taken the stance that property can only be tangible things, not information (which has the unique attribute that it can be faithfully copied from one representation to another without destroying the original representation). But you haven't said anything to support such a claim. Your point about not sustaining a loss is interesting, but that's the thing that's in question: whether illegal piracy causes the kind of loss that is immoral to cause. And you've just assumed that is isn't without explanation.
    – ErikE
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 19:08

It is not clear to me that the notion of a "lost sale" is coherent. How are you supposed to quantify it? Even if we were forced to assign some percentage of downloads which would have been almost-certainly-purchased, it would have to be tiny -- dwarfed by the amount of content shared in violation of copyright-holder's wishes on the matter.

In passing, as I alluded in my comments above, there is at least some contention over the idea that an illegal download is morally significant (at least when compared to implicitly supporting the arguably immoral behavior of profit-obsessed music industry executives, the underlying capitalist framework with its tendency to relentlessly exploit artists, and so forth.)

From a wider perspective, perhaps, illegal downloads might seem to be a relatively minor "concern" compared with the revolutionary transformations we are witnessing in the social and economic order today, in part due to the increased interconnectivity of people on the internet and the growing impact of globalization on everyday life. I am suggesting that artists need to focus on making products with inherent or intrinsic value, and giving people a reason to purchase; fighting piracy is ultimately an enormous waste of time.

You can read about a recent presentation by the creator of Minecraft where he makes more or less this case; he emphasizes the difference between pirating and theft and the incoherence of the "lost sale" concept, as well as the importance of giving people a reason to buy. From there:

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... There is no such thing as a 'lost sale'... Is a bad review a lost sale? What about a missed ship date?


This question is rather difficult, as the world economy today is, in industrial economies, becoming more and more post-industrial--so much so that intellectual property rights are becoming less and less clear. "Mine" no longer means this thing that's in my hand, etc. etc.. Of course, the moral issue will be determined by the economic solution to the problem. Value, it seems, is becoming less dependent on supply and demand and more dependent on the popularity and utility of an item (be it tangible or intangible). Of course, the item must be accessible (to be popular).


You are violating the principle of ownership

Sharing and using intangible goods is not about how you acquire it, or whether the goods can be duplicated for no cost, or whether the original owner still has a copy of the goods. It is entirely not about that. All of those things are issues that have no relevance to the morality of the act.

In the end, sharing intangible goods without permission comes down to this:

You are violating the rights of the owner to control their property

Ownership — in short — means: the exclusive right to control what happens with property.

It does not matter if this property is material or immaterial. Whoever has the rights as the owner, is the one that has final say-so of what happens to the property. And usually — unless explicitly stated otherwise — owners of immaterial property do not want you to share it without due compensation given to the owner.

Let us start from first principles:

  1. Ownership is the exclusive right to control property
  2. Any property that you create, you automatically become the owner of
  3. Ownership can be transferred to someone else, but as per point 1, it is up to the owner to agree on this.

The exclusivity in point 1 is important because otherwise someone else can come in and say "I too control this property". Ownership means that the owner can say "No, you may not do that, I have the exclusive right to control the property".

If you want to exert any kind of control over someone else's property, you have you have their permission to do that. In the case of immaterial property this is said to mean you need to have a license to use the property. License is granted by the owner, either explicitly or implicitly. This licence may come with conditions and limitations that must be fulfilled.

An example of explicitly giving permission, with conditions:

— Yes, you can borrow my car. You may use it today and tomorrow, I want it back in by tomorrow evening. And replace the fuel you used, all right?

— Agreed.

If you had not gotten this permission, you would have violated the principle of ownership, even if you did return the car in the same or better condition.

In the case of immaterial property, you are never actually buying the property. You are buying the license to use it. Only in the very rare cases where there is an agreement to transfer all rights to the prospective buyer are they obtaining the intellectual property in its entirety.

In the case of immaterial property you usually have implicit licenses, or rather these licenses are defined by law.

For example: you buy an audio record. You then have then (usually) been given the license to...

  • Listen to the audio as much as you like
  • Listen to the audio on a device of your choice
  • Let others listen to the audio, if this happens in private
  • Make backup copies to ensure you can can still enjoy the audio if the medium the audio came on is damaged

In the case of things such as records, books, USB sticks and other mediums that carry the immaterial property, yes, then you have a right to use the material property that is the the paper/vinyl/silicon however you want. But you have not bought the immaterial property that is carried on the medium, that is still owned by someone else, and you have only bought the license to use that immaterial property.

That license however, may be sold in turn in most jurisdictions, but now we are getting into fine details.

Other details about the whole concept of buying licenses is that the owner may not sell licenses that are unreasonable to the buyer. There is a plethora of limitations as to what you may do as the owner that are designed to protect the buyer so that the latter may enjoy the immaterial product without undue hindrance or grievance.

  • Thanks for your response, MichaelK. I struggle with this because I'm not sure why should anyone agree or adhere to the principle of ownership here... Who determines what can be owned and what cannot be? While I can agree with some sort of ownership principle in general, I don't see why it should necessarily apply to things such as music or ideas. Physical property such as laptops, cars, houses, sure. But a song drifting through the air that I have since recorded in my mind? Can you own a particular "style" of purple scarf, even when I use all my own materials and knitting skills to make it?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 20:21
  • @stoicfury Why would there be any difference just because the item you created is not physically tangible? To the question: can you own a particular style of purple scarf? Yes, you can. If you created a particularly unique and (hopefully) marketable or otherwise significant kind of purple scarf, you can own it.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 5:58
  • Yes but is that a good thing? Should we be seeking to create a world where access to things/ideas is restricted, or a world where access to things/ideas is shared? It's not clear to me that your proposition is actually in the best interest of a society which seeks to maximize "human flourishing".
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 22:36
  • @stoicfury People in power have been taking away the rights of the individual for centuries, appropriating their property and the right to use their creations as they see for "for the greater good"... "for the betterment of society". What makes you think that the dissolution of the rights of ownership makes anything better? Even more so if all you want is to use someone else's property without having to pay the proper dues for it. You can spin this all you want but ownership is your only defense against having your property taken from you by those with more power.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 0:20
  • 1
    Old question/answer, but i'd like to question the principle that "Ownership is the exclusive right to control property". For example in my country the owners of all vessels do not control their property in cases of emergencies such as search/rescue operations; they must follow the commands of the coast guard and participate if needed. Is this also immoral? Similar situations are controls on gun/car/plane use etc. There is no inherent/moral reason for intellectual property to be controlled by the owner exclusively, with the regulation protecting only them and not the rest of society...
    – user000001
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 17:22

Morality is one of those lovely minefields of thought where cultural upbringing and history are perhaps the more relevant factors to consider.

Case in point is that in certain cultures in times past (Mongolian comes to mind), if you could get away with stealing from your enemies (or even your friends). It did not matter the harm you might have done by depriving a village of its food, or a child its mother. So long as your own and your villages needs were met, you were considered brave, strong, and with qualities to aspire to. If on the other hand you tried to get away with that kind of behavior in Western culture today, you'd be granted 2 to 15 in a less than hospitable lock-up.

Cultures change over time. The fiercely defended ideals that we cling to today might be considered quaint and rustic tomorrow, or may become even more fiercely defended and held up as moral example by some depending on how successfully defended they might be. Intellectual property issues in particular are at a very interesting point. On the one hand there are those who would claim that something like an idea, or a sound, or a style is something of value and should be guarded jealously and paid for dearly, while others argue that such ephemeral things such as ideas and thoughts, art, and suchlike should be shared freely as something that should benefit all equally. To muddy the waters, we have others still who wish to own everything and share nothing unless it benefits themselves personally, and yet another corner where there are those who wish to take what they will and see it as a form of personal entitlement regardless of whether they should or not be allowed to do so. Each has a case or a point they might make, and which they feel comfortable with from their own moral point of view. Each sees the other's view as wrong, and their own as justifiable. But immoral?

Perhaps it comes down to a question of intent. If by taking an action to obtain something illegally the intent was to profit personally, or to harm the property owner in some way, then that could be considered a theft which would be considered wrong, but not necessarily immoral. If the intention was otherwise innocent of intent to cause harm or to profit from the action, then it would not necessarily be right, and certainly not immoral. But that's almost entirely my own view, and certainly not an absolute. As to whether the item in question is tangible in any physical sense, it shouldn't really make a difference if the theft in question causes harm to someone else.

If it comes down purely to a question of morality, then intention to harm others in some manner could be considered immoral, while a lack of intent could not. A younger child stealing money from your wallet to buy sweets might not be considered to have behaved immorally, yet that same child as an older teenager stealing money to purchase drugs or sex might be seen in a entirely different way - except perhaps to our earlier ancient Mongolian who'd probably laugh it off and ask what all of the fuss is about.

Perhaps we shouldn't be asking if it is immoral to behave in the manner stated in the OP's question, but instead whether it is unethical?

  • RE: your last sentence: What do you hold to be the difference between morality and ethics?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 4:28
  • 1
    When we talk about morality, it is more often than not with overtones relating to perceptions of good or evil. Ethics on the other hand is usually used in a less personal context, and perhaps more neutrally - without the good/evil inference. Thus, it might be considered unethical to steal because theft goes against common social convention, yet it may not be immoral to steal if the inherent intention is considered to be good rather than evil.
    – S.Robins
    Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 7:23
  • I'd be quite interested to know more of the distinction you make between something being wrong vs. it being immoral. Your whole post pretty much has to be skipped over until you provide some definitions, here.
    – ErikE
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 6:27

This does not seem to be a question so particular to the music industry. And it is not a question of coming into possession of something. What is purchased in a download of a music file, for instance, but also with the purchase of a DVD, a recording of an NFL game, or a newspaper clipping, is a license to use, with terms limiting the use. We have agreed to terms with the owner of the rights of use. We have made a promise. The moral question boils down to: is there a moral obligation built into every promise? I take Searle's argument for the built in obligation of a promise, in Fact and value, "is" and "ought", and reasons for action, Searle, 2008, to be successful. The specific question is, do we make a promise when we download music? I think it is obvious we do. Musicians who feel these terms are trivial self publish and make their music freely available.

The price of admission to a film includes the right to remember the experience and even to tell others about it. If the purple scarf is an original design, then copying it with an intention to sell it is wrong. Society agrees on a time period restricting selling copies of original designs, after which considering the designs to pass into public domain. Copying the scarf for your own use may or may not aggravate the designer. It would be a subjective call, and the designer should be given the opportunity to make the call.

  • Interesting, but aren't patents a bit different than copyright? As far as IP law in the states anyway, I think design patents are structured pretty differently than copyright on music. (Though to be clear, I Am Not A Lawyer.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 19:54
  • I believe my examples are all instances of copyright. Are you thinking the scarf from the original example would be patented? That's copyright too I believe.
    – ataraxic
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 22:38
  • 1
    Maybe my roundabout way of describing the expiration of copyright sounds like patent law? Stoicfury asked that specific law not be referenced, so I wanted to describe the moral framework behind such laws. Maybe this is unnecessary, I was only trying to address his examples directly, but my argument is in the first paragraph and I'm happy to let it stand without the second. Other than the second paragraph's roundabout description I don't see where you are finding patents referenced.
    – ataraxic
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 23:02
  • @ataraxic: "so I wanted to describe the moral framework behind such law" Well said, +1. Laws of intellectual property are by no means arbitrary, but are based on Common Law - deeply rooted moral and ethical traditions embodied in case law going back perhaps 1000 years (if not to biblical times). Particularly the concept of Equity dominates the Common Law tradition.
    – Vector
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 0:07

Maybe this is buried in the other answers but .... what is special about music in this case?

If I promise to pay you $10 to mow my lawn. You mow my lawn. Then I refuse to pay you. Is that immoral? You've given me no physical product. All you've done is provide some labor. Why should I have to compensate you for that labor? Making music also requires labor. Those two situations seem related.

You might say you never made a promise to pay for the music. The musician made it on his own. That is certainly one distinction.

Okay so let's examine a physical object. There's a pie at a pie store. You could pay $10 for it or you could take it. Now you'd probably believe that taking the pie is taking something physical therefore it's stealing where as music is just a copy. But let's examine what you're really paying for with the pie.

Let's say it's an apple pie. Let's say the ingredients are flour (wheat), sugar, and apples. wheat, sugar, and apples are all things that come from nature. In other words they are free so why are we paying for them? We're paying for them because of the labor it took to make them. Labor to plant apple trees, sugarcane, and wheat plants. Labor to pick apples, cut sugarcane, and harvest wheat. Labor to process sugarcane into sugar and wheat into flour. Labor to ship apples, sugar, and flour to the pie store. And labor to assemble them into a pie. The same is true for the oven to bake the pie. The metals came out of the ground for free. The fuel to run the oven also came out of ground for free. All the costs are in the labor to turn raw materials into metals and metals into an oven, to refine natural gas and deliver it to the oven, etc...

What we've just shown is that you never pay for physical things themselves, you always pay for the labor.

So back to music. Music is a product of labor. Labor should arguably be paid for just like all other labor. Or rather it should be paid for the agreed price. If there is no agreement than you shouldn't get the result of the labor. If you're not willing to pay $10 for the combine labor to make the pie then you don't get the pie. It doesn't matter that it was actually made from free materials and therefore has no real value. The value is the labor and the person that did the labor sets their price. Why should music be different?

At least that's one P.O.V.

Another P.O.V. is that the labor for the music is so small relative to other things and unlike the pie can be reproduced infinitely and therefore there is no reasonable value to that labor. Charging $1 per song per person seems ridiculous when 10 million people are paying as most songs likely took only a 10-200 hours to make.

Of course that argument seems to fall flat since we're back to it doesn't matter what it costs to make, it's the seller that chooses their price and the buyer that decide to buy or not to buy the labor.

Anyway, I don't know the answer. I just think it's interesting to point out that physical things don't get their value from being physical since if you follow them back they all start from free raw materials. All value is derived from labor. Music, Stories, Movies, Video Games are all made from labor as well.

On the other hand, IIRC all music is free in China (so they clearly have a different P.O.V)

  • 1
    +1. OP essentially asks "do moral obligations still apply if they are unenforceable?" I am disappointed to see so many claim the answer to be "No." This is an example of the free-rider problem. A basic intro to economics can explain why free riders contribute to sub-optimal outcomes. Many seems to be viewing this only in relation to media that currently exists, not considering how their positions impact the incentive structure for artists moving forward. If we normalize taking media without compensating the creators, we remove the incentive for artists to create high quality media.
    – eclipz905
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 13:23

“Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told. Obedience is doing what is told regardless of what is right.” H.L. Mencken

Morality depends on your social background and personal criteria. If you come from a capitalistic background who supports copyrights patents etc. you may feel compelled to obey the law. If you come from a much socialist background you may think that culture and technology should be made available for as many people as possible. Sometimes law and justice don't go hand in hand.


First there was chants and song: then written music: then the phonograph: then 33 & 45 records: then tape recorders: then i pods: through all the years music has been shared socially.I would presume that music became a sale item when men became free to sell songs and lyrics openly, as a trade agreement. "Is it immoral to down load music illegally?" Is it illegal just to listen? Illegal depends who proclaimd downloading as illegal?

Shared music could be called advertizing, and social medea is used as such. If I was the person that created the music I would hope my music would be downloaded. Understanding that downloading caused and created outside vender sales to increace.

Immoral downloading is only immoral, when immoral is used as a agent of force against a free persons quest for notoriety. The greater the notoriety the more downloads. This produces more public need for inventory and more concerts sold.This would then increase the income that the artist can acquire.

Illegal in this case is the government group that believes its there right to usurp income using illegal for their parasitical use. Thats the immoral issue involved.


You are assuming that "downloading music illegally" implies "negatively affecting someone's potential wealth". You did not prove it, and did not even feel the need to question it. Any reasoning you will try to build on top of that assumption is bound to crumble if it turns out to be wrong.

While I do not know for sure, I think it is. I believe a fairly high percentage of sales involve music connoisseurs, who will keep buying their music, because CDs and vinyl records are more than mere media to them. Piracy has become an alternative distribution network, allowing them to listen to music they would never have bought blindly, and then reward good music by buying it. This is actually a healthy, capitalist process; those who strive for quality instead of simply relying on mass media and distribution are rewarded.

I am short on english-speaking references to support my claim, but this specific question has been discussed on Skeptics.SE (Skeptics rocks): https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/2854/is-the-music-industry-losing-significant-money-because-of-piracy

Additionally, I am not sure if this is really fit for Philosophy.SE.

  • I think we can assume it's generally true. Sure, not every download equates with an potentially lost sale, but some consistent percentage do, and that's all I need.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 4:26
  • You must consider the balance between actual lost sales (the consumer could have spent money, but downloaded instead) and gained visibility (the consumer did not intend to spend any money, but made up his mind after trying an illegal copy; which can have further benefits, such as purchasing more music or live concert tickets from the given artist). This question is not as easy as you think, and we can assume nothing without facts.
    – Aeronth
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 7:26
  • 1
    I don't think it's easy, I have considered that, but we can still make assumptions for the purposes of engaging in philosophy -- we're talking hypothetical worlds here! I'm talking about several of them, one of which is in a world where downloads equated with some lost sales, would it be immoral?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 8:14
  • I understand. The long, embolded question in the description is therefore significantly different from the title — out of convenience, I presume. That being said, my answer is irrelevant.
    – Aeronth
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 8:23
  • Well the whole point was to get the juices flowing, so to speak. I tried not to take any particular stance nor was I really trying to prove anything — I wanted to see what others thought. :) I did actually read an article once somewhere that a European court dismissed some sort of lawsuit against a music downloading site by the music industry because they (the music industry) could not prove that downloads were actually harmful, in fact in some ways (as you mention) they can be beneficial. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 9:51

Usually this type of question limits choices to only two, while there's three choices:

  • Buy product
  • Download product
  • Not use product at all

Choice between 'Buy' and 'Download' is covered by other answers.

Choice between 'Buy' and 'Not buy' is usually not considered a choice that can be 'moral' or 'immoral'. Also, it was covered in more general terms of affecting other's wealth in other questions.

So, if you're somewhat interested in product, but decided not buy it because it's not affordable or it have bad price/quality ratio, and will never have, you still have two choices: 'Download' and 'Not use at all'.

Many people think that it is more moral to not use product at all than to download pirated version. Yet from publisher's perspective, it will not get money from you in either case. But we are social creatures. By using product and telling your impressions to others, no matter if positive or negative, will raise general awareness of the product. It will cause more people to be aware of the product, which will cause more people to buy it. So, publisher will benefit more if you're using product, even if you downloaded it.

Article with Microsoft's perspective about it: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/03/13/ms_piracy_benefits/

P.S. I'm sure there's "unproven assumptions", but I just wanted to add my informal perspective on the topic.


Morality is the distinction of good from evil. It is evil to do anything against your own self-interest, because it defeats your role in evolution and thus against the resiliency (anti-fragility) of the species.

If I were to qualify that with the stipulation to not do anything against others' interests, then you could never do anything in your own self-interest because there is always someone who is negatively impacted by any action (even if it must be argued via the Butterfly Effect). Thus the the only possible operative definition of morality is self-interest.

(Edit: you might choose it is in your self-interest to consider the interests of others. That is still self-interest, even if you characterize it as sacrifice obviously you didn't do if it wasn't to your benefit overall.)

We enact laws to codify consensual agreement of that which is evil against the group, and thus we can't legally do the illegal activities without leaving the legal jurisdiction (and this is why society only exists by consent with free will and not coercion a.k.a. totalitarianism in its many flavors). Yet legality is orthogonal to morality.

Morality was the fundamental philosophical issue that I resolved before I became a teenager. I am 50 now and my logic hasn't changed.

You asked whether it is moral to violate laws. Usually it would only be in one's self-interest to consider doing so when society has become unreasonably coercive and not consent with free will, i.e. when choice of jurisdiction is effectively nullified. I would again argue the self-interest of that tradeoff has to be weighed by each individual. Smaller communities impinge less on the degrees-of-freedom of jurisdiction.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants— Thomas Jefferson


They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety— Ben Franklin

  • 1
    I didn't vote on the answer, but I'm guessing the -1 is because this isn't targeted very well as an answer to the question. Also, there's a big helping of logical fallacies in your supporting argumentation for what morality is (both here and in links)--maybe you wanted to keep it brief, but presenting formally invalid reasoning is a particularly bad move on a philosophy forum. (For example, false dichotomy between "not do anything against others' interests" and "only self-interest"; one could decide on some sort of weighted sum or threshold or other non-extreme position.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 19:12
  • @RexKerr thanks for the feedback. I'm afraid my logic is far more generative (essence) than yours (and thus subsumes it). Let me demonstrate. If an individual decides to use a weighted sum, that is self-interest. If the group legislates it, that is law. Tada! Sorry you and ostensibly the anonymous down voter are incorrect. It answers the question at the generative essence which is the most efficient and least noisy. I realize such logical reduction is difficult for many to appreciate. Should that be my problem? Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 19:24
  • @RexKerr there is nothing extreme in my logic. My answer is fully generalized for it allows for all possible political stances. You pigeon-holed it (premature optimization ;), ostensibly because you didn't contemplate the generalizing generative quality of self-interest. My key insight is a separation-of-concerns between the triumvirate of law, jurisdiction, and self-interest. Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 19:56
  • 1
    If an individual uses a weighted sum with themselves at 0.001 and everyone else (collectively) at 0.999, that's "self-interest"? If this is what you mean, can you try to use some other less-misleading terminology than "self-interest"? Here's another potential false dichotomy: "legality is orthogonal to morality". It's not identical to morality but the two have some relationship (e.g. you spell one out way). Also, a naive interpretation of "self-interest" suggests you should lie and steal and even kill when you won't get caught and it's to your benefit; this isn't what most call "moral".
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 21:26
  • 1
    Also, I was making a more focused point about argumentation technique, not evaluating the entire idea. If you justify something by saying "not X, so Y" and there is a Z that is neither X nor Y, it's a false dichotomy. By "extreme" I just mean on the spectrum of what's under consideration: everything must be self-interest or everything must be other-interest (which is how your argument reads). That only works if you redefine self-interest to be essentially unrecognizable to those with a colloquial understanding of the term.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 21:33

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .