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:
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.
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.