February 2009


If you are having an argument, and you decide it would be a good idea to really really infuriate the other person by making it clear that you don’t care and you’re not taking it seriously, just start playing peek-a-boo. There is nothing less respectful than covering your eyes while someone is talking, saying “where’d I go!” then looking at them again and saying “here I am!”

There’s a feeling, and to my knowledge it doesn’t have a name, that people seem to share. Sometimes, you’re told something, and you can just tell, without being able to fully explain why, that what’s being said is bullshit. I call this feeling cole*.

An example of something that gave me, and gives most people a sense of cole are those ads, usually at the beginning of a DVD you’ve already bought, telling you not to download movies. The argument (set to obnoxious jump cuts and pounding music) is that since you wouldn’t steal a purse, a TV or a DVD, you shouldn’t download movies because it is a form of theft, and therefore exactly the same thing. Except, as that feeling of cole in your gut tells you, no, it’s not.

But why isn’t it? What makes it different, and why does that influence so many people who would not steal a purse to feel that the theft of a film via downloading is not wrong? Here we get to our subject, the ethics of theft. Fortunately, the words we need to describe this already exist. First up is dispossession.

Dispossession is the denial of a person or persons’ access to or use of a thing, service or location. When you steal a purse, you have dispossessed the owner of that purse. They are no longer able to use that purse, or any of the objects inside of it. Stealing a DVD from a store dispossesses the owner or owners of the store of the DVD and the subsequent income from retail. They have now lost money since they purchased the DVD originally with the understanding that it would be sold.

For most of history nearly all theft has been dispossession in one way or another. It is only with the introduction of photographic, photostatic and digital copies that theft without dispossession has become common. In these cases the essential nature of theft is changed, and with it, our ethical understanding of the seriousness of the offense has been massively altered. Essentially, the primary reason theft offended people was that it deprived the rightful owner. In cases where that is no longer true, people now tend to see this dispossessionless theft as a victimless or nearly victimless crime. A lack of victim means the degree of offense is dramatically lessened.

It doesn’t vanish though, and that brings us to the other axis upon which ethical judgments of theft are considered: valuation. Where dispossession is an essentially binary consideration (either someone has been dispossessed or they have not), valuation introduces a great deal more granularity, and also serves to explain why the downloading of a film is, while certainly not on par with stealing a TV, still essentially unethical.

Valuation is a complex term, but for our purposes it means the assessing of value or worth, and the method of the assessment we are concerned with is implicative, meaning not a formal assessment, but an attempt to determine one’s assessment of value based on their actions.

Going back to our purse example, assuming a thief has snatched a purse, stolen the money or other valuable goods and then thrown the purse away, their valuation of the purse itself is roughly $0. It was worth taking for its contents, but beyond that is essentially trash, and since it might eventually serve as evidence of their crime, could even be said to take on a negative value.

Now we apply this to theft via download. Essentially, the person who downloads a movie without purchasing is saying “I value this at about a gig of hard drive space, and a little time tracking it down.” Unfortunately for the people planning to make money from sales, it’s very difficult to buy groceries with a gig or so of some other guy’s hard drive space.

Alternately, it is possible for a theft to increase the value of that which has been stolen. There is the classic example of stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family. Now we’ve taken a loaf of bread, value: $2, and turned it into food to keep your family alive, value: multiple human lives. In this case the ethics of theft, which we compute almost instantly and automatically, tell us that this has become an ethically sound act. We have increased the valuation of the stolen item so much that it is agreed to have been worthwhile. See also: E.T. Stealing a bunch of stuff to call for a ride home.

With that established, copy theft enters a grey area very quickly. What about a TV show that is off the air and not available by legitimate means? The value of the product, per the copyright holders is almost impossible to determine, which means the theft of the object can almost be construed as an increase in perceived value. Then there’s broadcast television, where if a viewer is not a Nielsen Family, the value of their viewership, whether watching the original broadcast or a downloaded copy is essentially 0, so is there actually a devaluation taking place during the latter?

Largely, this grey area exists because our ethical systems have not had time to catch up with the new scenarios of action offered to us by advancements in technology. Additionally, the questions of value (how much a thing is worth to each person, and who exactly is receiving what) continue to evolve in complexity**. It will be interesting to watch our culture adapt to answer these questions in the coming years.

*Named for James Cole, my sixth grade teacher and the person responsible for giving me this feeling more often than anyone I’ve ever met. Honestly, I’d like to thank him for instilling such a complete distrust of authority at such a young age.
**A popular bit of rationalization, one which I myself am not above using, is that while my actual valuation of a product is quite high, my willingness to support the structures that have been built to profit from that product is rather low. Do I want to support a musical artist whose work I enjoy? Absolutely. Do I want to do so when more than 97% of that support is siphoned off before reaching the artist? Not always. Should distribution channels receive recompense for the work and cost required for disseminating art? Yes. Should they be allowed to bloat up like the record and film industries have? Of course not. The line is then, wavering, and often poorly marked.