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My understanding is that piracy is generally considered unethical because it allows the pirate to consume (or simply enjoy the pleasure of) the intellectual property, without making the creator (or rights holder) better off.

However, it does not seem that the following activities are generally frowned upon.

  1. Libraries loaning physical books to patrons.
  2. Reselling old books in an used book market place.
  3. Individuals gifting books to their acquaintances after already having read them.
  4. Reselling of video games, which the French court thinks is okay

(As far as I know,) the library does not have to pay for the number of times the book is loaned out, but only a flat price for the physical copy of the book. Reselling the old book or giving them away does not make the author any richer.

The main difference between the first three instances and piracy is that with pirated content, the content can spread in an unrestricted manner, but with these cases only one person has access to a copy at a time.

I believe that the fourth point is somewhat more nuanced, because I view some games as consumable and some as not. For example, a story game can be consumed, but a toy game like Townscaper cannot. This applies to books in some cases too: for example, a dictionary is non-consumable whereas a novel is consumable. In my understanding, this manner of single access transfer of intellectual property is better than piracy only if the transferred property is non-consumable, i.e, reselling a dictionary is okay but reselling a novel is not.

My question is:

  • In what sense is the single access transfer of intellectual property more ethical than piracy?
  • Is there a rigorous philosophical treatment of consumable vs non-consumable intellectual property? If so, do they discuss piracy?
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    Can you give us a link to a philosopher who claims that IP piracy is unethical on the grounds you say? I'd be surprised if any philosopher argues that it is unethical on any grounds other than that it is breaking the law. Oct 22, 2022 at 21:35
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    Libraries have special priveleges: Title 17, section 108 of the U.S. Code permits libraries and archives to use copyrighted material in specific ways without permission from the copyright holder
    – user59124
    Oct 22, 2022 at 21:39
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    In the UK, lending libraries do pay copyright holders according to how often their material is borrowed, to make up for any loss of actual sales. bl.uk/plr. Many people have complained that the secondary market for copyright products does not benefit the original creators or copyright holders. But given that there's an investment risk involved, it doesn't seem seriously, if at all, unethical. After all, creator could hold on to the material and take the risk themselves.
    – Ludwig V
    Oct 23, 2022 at 10:10
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    The original campaigns in the 19th century for legal copyright protection were based entirely on the claim that it is unethical to copy material without the permission of the creator. So the distinction between the ethical and the legal is, in this case, a bit doubtful. Naturally, when the creator is dead, there is no-one to pay, which is why copyright protection is time limited.
    – Ludwig V
    Oct 23, 2022 at 10:14
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    I wonder if the Bible is more like a novel or a dictionary? I've certainly 'consumed' some spiritual source material that I don't intend to reread. Why couldn't I sell something I have paid for?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 28, 2022 at 16:43

2 Answers 2

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"Piracy" would be considered unethical if one of these are true:

  1. Creators are ethically entitled to payment for their works to be enjoyed
  2. Breaking the law is unethical (assuming piracy is illegal)
  3. You are ethically obligated to pay the amount a supplier requests, in order to procure something, and possibly adhere to the agreed-upon (written or unwritten) "sale contract" (weaker version of #1 and #2)

#1 would raise all sorts of questions about the things you mentioned, as well as being too vague and subjective when it comes to how much they are entitled to, so that's not really a compelling reason.

#2 is quite circular (something is illegal generally because it's unethical, which it is because it's illegal, which it is because it's unethical, etc.). This can make it ethical to unethical things, just because a laws tell you to. In the absence of a better reason to not do something illegal, this is not a compelling reason.

So that leaves us with #3. The reason we might consider this to be ethical is failure to pay a supplier undermines how society functions in terms of paying people for work they've done. This turns out to generally be quite reasonable:

  • Libraries have acquired books from suppliers for the purposes of putting them in a library, so that's ethical.
  • When you purchase something, you own it, and you can resell or gift things you own, so that's ethical.
  • After you purchase something, if you make as many copies as you want and share that with anyone and everyone, that would undermine someone's ability to make money from that, so that would be unethical.

This isn't quite so straight-forward with piracy though. The person sharing it presumably acquired it legally. One might say you aren't paying for it by getting it from them, but this could also apply to gifts or libraries. One might say the person sharing it isn't using it for agreed-upon purposes. Let's consider that in more detail:

  • If they share it with 1 person, and then immediately delete it, this would be functionally equivalent to a gift and therefore ethical (assuming gifting is ethical).
  • If they share it with 1 person, and then use it one more time before deleting it, it seems absurd to say this is now strictly unethical.
  • If they share it with 1 person and then immediately delete it, and that person uses it and shares it with 1 person before immediately deleting it, we'd presumably still consider this to be ethical.
  • If they share it with 2 people, who only very briefly use it, and then they all delete it, this doesn't seem to be less ethical than the above.

You could extend this further. When exactly does it become unethical?

You necessarily have some rather blurry lines here if you want to call piracy unethical (and e.g. gifting ethical). This is not to say all piracy is ethical - ethics can have blurry lines (just look up ethical dilemmas), but that does cast doubt on whether all piracy is always unethical. It seems to be a question of scale, more than anything else: large-scale piracy (especially from the person sharing things) is more plausibly unethical than small-scale piracy or acquiring things through piracy.


You could also separate the ethics of sharing something through piracy with the ethics of acquiring it through piracy. I'll focus on the latter.

In this regard, the following question comes up:

  • Would you actually have spent money on it otherwise?

If you would've spent money on it, your piracy essentially deprived someone of money they otherwise would've (presumably-)ethically had, which may be considered unethical.

If you wouldn't have spent money on it, your piracy had essentially no effect on anyone else in the world. It is rather difficult to argue that something is unethical if it has no effect on others.


Consumable vs non-consumable

One might say more "consumable" things would be less ethical to gift or resell, but we tend not to really differentiate those things.

I don't think there's really a clear line between those two. Some people tend to only read novels once, others might read them multiple times (and among those people, how many times and how often they're read can also vary, as can which books are read multiple times and which books are only read once). This would make them more or less "consumable".

If you were to consider a fully "consumable" book or game, after you've used it, you'd basically have 2 options:

  1. Throw it in the trash (or let it gather dust in the back of a shelf)
  2. Resell or gift it

The first option seems very wasteful, if nothing else. Wasteful of natural resources and wasteful of your own money.

One might also posit that (a) there are enough people who'd want to keep the copy they bought and (b) the price to buy it would account for any people reselling or gifting it, so that (in general) it isn't really outside the "sale contract" to resell or gift it, and it could therefore be considered generally ethical.

There may also be options (that are ideally cheaper) for people who don't want their own physical copy, like borrowing it from the library or getting a digital copy, which would make a better case that anyone who does end up with a physical copy they no longer want can resell or gift it.

#2 would be even more compelling if you were to sell or gift it to someone who wouldn't otherwise buy it (which would be similar to one of my arguments above, in that it wouldn't do harm to others).

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    The scale shouldn't matter in terms of whether something is ethical. Also spreading information might be considered a public good so if you're utilitarian the negative on the end of the producer might be outweighed by the positive on the end of the consumers. Not to mention the positive on the end of the producer by means of free advertisement and publicity.
    – haxor789
    Oct 27, 2022 at 12:18
  • @haxor789 "spreading information might be considered a public good" - that argument only really works if you're arguing for socialism (and if you disregard that we're not currently living in a socialist society). Or if you just couldn't care less about art. The free advertisement argument doesn't seem all that compelling, because you're giving something away for free to people who might otherwise have paid for it, in order to advertise the thing they already have. There may be some fringe cases where large-scale piracy helps sales, but it seems logical that it would harm sales most of the time
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 27, 2022 at 14:09
  • What? Public utilities, utilitarianism and concerns for the public good are very much a thing outside of socialism... Also if you individualize the problem you'd have even less of an argument cause why should I care for the artists profit in the first place? And I could care about art without caring for the artist. And again you're giving something away for free. You're not profiting from someone else and you're not taking away from them you've found or used a better way of distribution. How is creating a bottleneck ethical and how is circumventing it unethical?
    – haxor789
    Oct 27, 2022 at 15:12
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    @haxor789 "I could care about art without caring for the artist" - not rationally you can't. If artists can't make money from art, there'd be less art. "you're not taking away from them" - I already provided a counter-argument for that in my answer.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 27, 2022 at 15:18
  • If art fills the role of a commodity or a consumable then it somewhat seizes to be art (something that is artificial and not part of the environment, usually nature vs art, but also our created environment). Like a single cup is a piece of art, a mass produced one is part of the environment. So once it becomes "more of the same" it's no longer art. So it's rather the other way around, it's "more of the same" that leads to less art and more imitation. Also the point is not to hate on artists but to dismantle those arguments, in case that wasn't clear.
    – haxor789
    Oct 28, 2022 at 9:39
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First of all to call copyright infringement "piracy" should be considered unethical. Piracy is robbery and hijacking, those are felonies that involve coercion violence or the threat thereof. Copyright infringement is a misdemeanor were often enough huge companies that do not produce content themselves but only buy, hire or license content of other people make slightly less money than what they expected to make.

That's not even remotely in the same ball park. It's not even technically theft because you're not even taking away something from someone else by making a copy of it.

If you want to be really facetious you could even make the argument that it's the CREATION of content that is theft. Because why should the landscape belong to the painter or the melody to the musician? Why should anybody who later has the same idea be bared from accessing or publishing it just because someone else had it previously? Why should we consider copyright ethical in the first place? Why should culture and be hidden behind paywalls? And as said it's not even the artists themselves that enjoy that protection but usually the rights remain with publishers who themselves did nothing to create that content.

Of course artists need to have bread as anybody else or they die and can't make art, but just because something is a job that makes money does not by default mean that it's something ethical.

But in terms of your question. Well that is simply the terms of service. With the book you buy a physical copy and after you've bought it you're free to do with that object whatever you like (within the limits of the law). Usually reprinting it is explicitly forbidden within the TOS but apart from that it's now yours, there's a contract and that's part of it.

Just because producers get ever more daring to make people shitty offers and people are naive enough to buy them doesn't mean that using ones own property is piracy.

I mean if something is piracy than the prices that are taken for the distribution. The production and distribution gets ever more cheap, yet you're still expected to pay the same or even higher prices with the difference not ending up with the artist but still being pocketed by the distributors. That is taking someones money without providing an actual service. I mean it's still a contract, so it's technically legal, but if you want to be nitpicky that would be the thing that at least better fits the definition of theft (as said it still doesn't fit).

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  • "the CREATION of content that is theft ... why should the landscape belong to the painter ... Why should we consider copyright ethical in the first place" - you seem to be conflating content creation with copyright law, and ownership of your creation with ownership of all similar creations. If I paint a real-world landscape, anyone else should have the right to paint the same landscape. It's just copies of my particular painting that I should be able to stake any claim over. And while content creation is (often) subject to flawed copyright law, it still provides a benefit to others.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 27, 2022 at 10:20
  • @NotThatGuy Well the creation of "content" already implies something commercial rather than artistic, you're literally providing "something to fill blank space". But you're right the creation itself is only a matter for the artists it's about the copyright and ownership of the concept that originates from it that is the problem and that is not the same thing. Though how could you reasonably prove that it's original and not imitating a work of art, I mean everything is a copy of a copy.
    – haxor789
    Oct 27, 2022 at 12:22
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    "how could you reasonably prove that it's original" - but we're not on a law site. This is purely about the ethical side, for which it's not relevant whether someone else can prove it or not. If you allow making copies (and reselling those or giving those away), then that would severely harm art-for-profit, and that would be saying that people have pretty much no rights over their own creations. Unethical or not, if you appreciate art, you should oppose that.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 27, 2022 at 13:48
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    If I hand out a bunch of copies of art that would've otherwise been purchased from the artist, how is that not harming the artist? Also, you can't steal something by creating it, if it wouldn't have existed if you didn't create it. You could possibly argue that copyright law is "theft", but not that the creation of art is theft (although copyright law enables avenues to profit from art, providing more incentive to create art, so it's hardly a clearcut bad thing).
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 27, 2022 at 15:31
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    Your reasoning for saying it doesn't harm the artist (because they have nothing less than before) seems comparable/equivalent to saying it's not harming an employee by taking their paycheck before they receive it, or taking a tip customers left for a waiter before the waiter receives it (because they also have nothing less than before).
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 27, 2022 at 15:37

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