A short, practical, quiz: figure out where you stand on copyright

Here are a series of hypothetical scenarios. For each one, decide whether or not you think it’s morally acceptable. (Ignore, for now, the related but distinct question of whether it’s legal.)


Question 1 (easy). You buy a CD and listen to it on your CD player. Morally OK or not? If OK, continue; if not, go to Section A.

Question 2. You also want to listen to the CD on your iPod, so you rip it to MP3. You listen to the CD at home, and the iPod when out walking. If OK, continue; if not, go to Section B.

Question 3. You buy and rip not just a single CD, but 100. If not OK, go to Section C.

Question 4. You find the iPod so convenient that you also use it at home. You no longer listen to the CDs — they just sit there on the shelf. If not OK, go to Section D.

Question 5. You need to reclaim the shelf-space that the CDs are taking up, so you put all the CDs in a cardboard box in your attic and leave them there gathering dust. If not OK, go to Section E.

Question 6. Your attic is getting overcrowded and you realise that you’re never going to listen to the physical CDs again, so you take them down to the local tip and dump them in landfill. If not OK, go to Section F.

Question 7. You’re just about to chuck the CDs in the landfill when you realise that there are plenty of people who would still find them useful, so you take then to Oxfam instead and donate them. If not OK, go to Section G.

Question 8. None of the above happened. Instead, you simply pirated MP3 files for 100 albums that you never owned. If not OK, go to Section H.

Finally, if you’re still here (i.e. you thought all those scenarios were morally OK), go to Section I.

Before you read the interpretations below, please take a moment to fill in the poll — it will be interesting to see how public sentiment leans.

The interpretations

Section A. Buying and listening to a CD is wrong. Your position is surprising to me, but I guess it’s a free country.

Section B. Ripping the CD to MP3 is wrong. That is surprising, given that the entire enormous trade in MP3 players is clearly predicated on the ability to do just that. Evidently you believe that you should buy the same album twice: once on CD, and once as MP3s. (Incidentally, the legality of ripping your own CDs is complex. For a long time it was illegal in the UK, then it was made legal for a year or so; recently, I understand it’s become illegal again.)

Section C. Buy and ripping 100 CDs is wrong. If you think it’s OK to buy and rip one CD but not 100, then I think you must be mistaken. Surely morality can’t be a matter of quantity? If 100 murders are wrong, then so is one murder.

Section D. No longer using the CDs, just MP3s, is wrong. How can it be wrong to choose not to use your own property?

Section E. Putting the CDs in the attic is wrong. How can it be morally different to keep the same goods in one part of your house or another? How is a shelf more moral than an attic?

Section F. Dumping the CDs in landfill is wrong. But do we not have the right to do what we wish with our own legitimately acquired property? And how is there any practical difference between the CDs being ignored in an attic until they degrade, and being dumped in a hole in the ground to degrade immediately?

Section G. Giving the CDs to Oxfam is wrong. So we think it’s better to destroy a thing than to allow others to benefit from it? Isn’t that just as silly as thinking that it’s better for cafes to destroy their left-over food than to give it to homeless people? Destroying value is never appealing.

Section H. Pirating MP3s instead of buying CDs is wrong. And yet the practical outcome of this scenario is exactly the same as the previous one: you have MP3 files that you didn’t pay for. How can one of these outcomes be OK and the other not?

Section I. All of these scenarios are morally OK. That at least is a consistent position. But it does seem to imply that copyright can morally be completely ignored.


My position is a strange one. The more I think about this, the more I think that all of these positions outlined above are unsatisfactory. Some (like “Buying and listening to a CD is wrong”) are self-evident nonsense. Some (like “Putting the CDs in the attic is wrong”) are obviously nonsense. The final position — that it’s morally OK to simply ignore copyright — has a certain appeal, but my moral intuition doesn’t like it.

So what is the right solution? And why?

49 responses to “A short, practical, quiz: figure out where you stand on copyright

  1. David Starner

    As for Section G, we don’t have the right to make copies and distribute them, and that’s where the line comes between making copies to make the music easier to use, and (effectively) making copies for others. If we could erase the CDs, then it would be fine to give them away. (In theory, I could say that about F, because you’re giving up possession of them, and anyone could legally take possession of them, but in practice they’re just being destroyed.)

    I think the question on how you feel about this is if they had invented a hard drive for the Commodore 64, how do you think buyers of your games should have handled things? Should they have installed it to the hard drive and then given the game away for someone else to install it?

  2. myleskelvin

    If you were to delete the copies on your iPod at Q7 – I’m fine with that. If you have bought any of the music twice – say Vinyl and CD – I’m fine with donating one of the physical copies to Oxfam. You should keep one physical copy anyway because, you know, iPod failure.

  3. I know your logic isn’t so broken that you can’t see the problem starting at F, so I think you must be trolling.

    F is perhaps morally wrong, or maybe just legally dicey. The CDs are your proof that you have purchased this music. (Specifically, bought it on CD.)

    G is morally wrong under many codes because you’ve given someone else’s music away. Worse, you’ve (indirectly) sold it and let someone else profit while you continue to benefit from it.

    H is just plain stealing, if you believe in copyright at all. The artist didn’t get paid even once.

  4. well, the big step between Q6 and Q7 is that up to 6 you pay and use (btw: all and more is OK by German copyright law!), and once you give stuff to others but keep a copy there is someone out there who did NOT pay to use.

    The last step is basically the previous one writ large. No wonder you feel uncomfy about it.

  5. to clarify wrt German copyright laws (paraphrasing here, but the gist is right): it is OK to make copies of (e.g.) a CD for your own use on other devices. It is also legal to make a copy for a friend, or for said friend to make personal use copy of the CD you loaned her/him. Once you start either getting money or leaving your “friend zone” things become illegal.

  6. I agree with Heinrich here, I wanted to say something quite similar.
    Q7 seems like the most logical exit point.

    But in truth I said I was fine with pirating, which is what I do. I’ve never bought a CD in my life until last year, and when I got it I promptly put it on YouTube (it’s from a little-known indie rock band that has since long disbanded).

    Truth be told I feel a little bad about it because I like the idea of artists living of what they do. Obviously I’m not hindering the living of established artists. Even if everyone pirated, it would not threaten them, since they already derive most of their profits from other outlets (mostly concerts and merchandising). It’s the small bands that may not get much gig opportunities I worry about.

    On the other hand, given YouTube (official channels), Spotify, etc… the real difference is (1) access to lesser-known songs, (2) ability to listen offline (and increasingly, this will mean “abroad”).

    Another point to consider, is that while I like the idea of people making a living out of making songs, etc… it’s a very glamorous thing to do, and much more fun than a regular job. Shouldn’t it be natural that it’s a bit harder to make it? (You could argue that it already is, and probably be right.)

    Finally, getting rid of piracy is impossible, hence relying on that is pragmatically wrong. Increasingly, artists rely on the goodwill of the public, and amazingly that seems to be a viable model (patreon, bandcamp & co). It turns out that people don’t pirate because they are jerks, but other reaons (personally, because it’s convenient — also I don’t like the idea to pay to discover, but I would be open to support artist I have grown to like).

    One argument often put forward which I cannot accept is that paying for music encourages creation. No: people who really care will play music with or without financial incentive (and god knows there’s enough good music around already, it’s not like there’s a shortage or something); and there are ways to make money with music which do not involve selling audio recordings.

  7. Giving the CD’s to Oxfam is ok (you own them), but if you do, then you are morally (IMO) obligated to destroy your mp3 copies since you no longer own the music. All the options above that are ok in my view – I rip my CD’s (I have over a thousand) to mp3s and put them on micro sd cards to play in my car, or on my computer. They are in boxes in my basement, gathering dust for the most part. Some special box sets I keep on the shelf.
    FWIW, one 8GB micro sd card holds enough music to see me across the USA and back without repeats! I’d have to have a trunk full of CD’s to equal that!

  8. I’d stop at the point where I actually get rid of the CDs, since I consider they’re my licence to play the music in question. Albeit a somewhat bulky licence, so I chuck the cases out but keep the disc, sleeve etc in loose-leaf binders.

    I know that format-shifting is technically a bit off (ISTR it’s a civil rather than legal matter and one that’s difficult and probably undesirable for them to enforce anyway) but it seems fair enough and I guess I have little patience for the record companies anyway consider they have an entirely justified reputation for ripping off their customers by any means available. Which isn’t to say two wrongs make a right, just that I have little time for their viewpoints which often sound unreasonable and specious to me.

  9. The solution for me is “licenses”. When you buy the CD you get the perpetual license to listen at its content, but one at a time. This means that I can make tons of copies of it, but they will need the same license key and I have just one. Duplicating the key should be illegal. This means that I can give my CDs to Oxfam but I also must give them the license which will be no longer in my possession. Basically DRM is the solution, but without proprietary device locks, this should be something based on the blockchain concept and all manufacturers should agree.

  10. A big error you fall for is in assuming there is or should be a logical, moral and legal solution that solves the problem. There is nothing in the physical laws of the universe that insists this problem should have a solution!
    In my view the legal solution is to either buy multiple copies, or to delete your digital copies. I think the moral solution is probably to donate and keep.
    Like “everyone”, I have pirated, and I don’t have a huge problem with it, though I don’t do it as much as when I was young and carefree. It is tough to pick a position!

  11. I ended up at Section G, but F made me very uncomfortable. I’d feel I had the moral right to listen to my copies of the music after dumping the originals in the ground, but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy about the environmental implications. I’d much prefer to give the originals away, but the sticking point for me is hanging on to the copies.

    As it happens, I’m dealing with this moral conundrum at the moment. I’ve accumulated hundreds of CDs and DVDs that are needlessly consuming space in my house; maybe 1000 discs in total. Every one has been ripped to a NAS device (I also have a fair number of Blu-Ray discs but storage isn’t yet cheap enough for me to rip those). I plan to divide the CDs and DVDs into 2 categories:

    1. Material I definitely don’t want any more.
    2. Material to which I might want access in the future.

    Category 1 is easy: I’ll destroy all copies and take the originals to the charity shop. The main hurdle here is the embarrassment of turning up with a box full of terrible music/movies. I’m an incorrigible hoarder though, so it’ll probably be a very small box.

    For Category 2, I’m with Vometia: I feel the discs represent my licence to use the material, so the Right Thing is to keep them but optimise their space consumption by keeping the discs and liner notes in binders. I anticipate some angst at the point where I have to chuck the cases out; I’ll probably end up keeping some “digipak” and box set cases.

  12. Tangentially related: I strongly believe in paying creators for their work, but I frequently encounter situations where IP law diverges from my personal morality. Example: you miss the cinema release of an eagerly-awaited movie, so you pre-order it on Blu-Ray. I don’t see any moral problem with “pirating” the movie via BitTorrent to watch before the release date, because due payment has been made.

  13. “So we think it’s better to destroy a thing than to allow others to benefit from it? Isn’t that just as silly as thinking that it’s better for cafes to destroy their left-over food than to give it to homeless people?”

    The key difference is, it’s not your silly decision to make, it’s the copyright owner’s.

    “And yet the practical outcome of this scenario is exactly the same as the previous one: you have MP3 files that you didn’t pay for.”

    No, you paid for them, you just subsequently gave up the right to listen to them (and then ignored that). Pragmatically, the two also differ in the scale of damages they afford. File-sharing permits an exponential explosion of damages; passing on a physical copy limits damage to a fraction of the album cost (assuming albums in general depreciate).

    There is a moral difference between murder and genocide, after all.

  14. @Andrew: “I don’t see any moral problem with “pirating” the movie via BitTorrent to watch before the release date, because due payment has been made.”

    There is value in having something now rather than later, and copyright owners profit from that by releasing in cinemas first. You will inevitably feel less compulsion to catch it at the cinema if you know (subconsciously) that you can always just watch the torrent without having to pay the penalty of waiting extra days or weeks, and thus you stand a greater chance of not paying for cinema tickets at all. Summed up over the entire audience, that means revenue is definitely lost. Well…in fact, it might _rise_ overall, as I ignored the possibility that you go to the cinema and then never bother with the blu-ray extravaganza, which probably nets the copyright owners more money overall. But ultimately that’s the copyright holder’s responsibility to balance out. Morally, you *are* getting something you didn’t pay for: early access.

  15. @Chris: “There is value in having something now rather than later”

    I think that’s the point: if they’re entitled to take someone’s money now, then that person is equally entitled to access the thing they’ve paid for IMHO. I know they would say the T&Cs state otherwise, but I think morally that kinda stinks: I don’t really care for the argument that one can avoid accepting onerous T&Cs by not buying the product at all.

  16. Hi. Thanks for the exercise in applied Ethics. It was entertaining and thought provoking.

    I voted for Q7 as the earliest scenario which is not morally OK for me. I figure that since I decided to buy the CDs I have a duty to obey the underlying “contract” of the commercial transaction. Now that I’m thinking about it it downs on me that I’ve never read such contract, so that I’m only conjecturing about its exact rules. I may be wrong, but I think it forbids making copies and giving them away, or keeping them for myself after giving away the original CDs.

    Of course giving the CDs to Oxfam is a good thing in and as of itself, but to be a fully ethical action it should not depend on me doing a wrong thing, specially if I’m benefiting from it myself.

    One could even stretch the example a little by saying that instead of keeping the copies to myself I could make more copies and donate them all to different humanitarian organizations. That way I wouldn’t be benefiting myself, which I think would make it less wrong, but it would still be infringing the commercial contract of my buying the CDs, to which I had agreed.

    In the extreme, I think a truly ethical person would either buy the CDs for donation or refrain from buying them in the first place because she cannot accept the buying contract terms that prevents her from doing good. This second position I think is essentially the position of Richard Stallman regarding non-free software. You should not engage in a contract which terms may prevent you from doing good things, such as donating for good causes. In this situation you should buy only CDs unencumbered with such restrictions or produce your own CDs, by recording your own music, so that you are free to give them away as you please.

  17. If you’re going to write a piece like this, don’t you feel more responsibility to understand the arguments that would inspire each “That’s not okay” answer?

    Like others who commented, I draw the line at Q7, because giving the CDs to someone else (or selling them) while keeping copies violates the moral rights of the work’s creator(s) and the legal rights of the copyright holder(s) to be compensated or to control the distribution and disposition of their work — and the preceding steps are okay because the person listening to the music has paid for the copy they are using (or format-shifting or what not). However, Section G doesn’t address those concerns at all, and thus comes across as either contemptuous or ignorant of them. I think the same is true of Section F and perhaps H, with respect to the strongest arguments in favor of those positions, although I do not agree enough with drawing the line at Q8 to be confident of the latter assessment.

    Exactly where to draw the line between what (copy/moral) rights should prohibit, what should always be tolerated, and what should be negotiated between the seller and buyer, is a complicated question with no single compelling answer. I think that trying to sway others to or from any position requires somewhat more consideration of the opposing positions.

  18. >> So we think it’s better to destroy a thing than to allow others to benefit from it?

    This is the point of copyright – that it’s better to restrict a good if that will incentivize it’s production in the first place.

    I agree with the concept behind this, if not the term (copyright would probably still be an effective incentive if the term was just 5 years). I also don’t believe in paying for what can be trivially taken (I ended up at section i). I recognize that’s not a moral position, though

  19. Mark Scurry

    Very, very interesting discussion.

    I would guess 10 years ago, perhaps 15, I would have been 100% on the side of the artist. They should be paid, so to me Question 8 is where the line is crossed. No problem if you’ve paid for something and then decided to convert it to another format; by purchasing it once, the artist gets something for their work.

    But I’m starting to think it isn’t as simple as that, although I still voted Question 8.

    For one thing, copyright is actually pretty new relatively speaking, just over a few centuries. For an artist such as Beethoven or Mozart, the idea that they owned their work, and could get paid repeatedly each time it was performed would have probably gotten a sad sigh (as in “if only”). Go back to Palestrina or Dunstaple and it simply didn’t exist. So it can’t be defended with the “it’s always been like that” excuse, as it hasn’t.

    The other big factor is technology. I’m sure a few of us recorded vinyl albums to cassette, and shared them around friends. For some albums in the 1980s, you couldn’t find them in record stores, so the best you could do was a tape of it from someone. Borrowing one of those from a friend is no different morally to downloading a mp3 illegally. The difference is modern technology makes the latter task much, much, much easier.

    In a sense now, the genie is out of the bottle. It’s just too easy to create and disseminate digital music. Plus we now have an entire generation that have rarely if ever paid for music. The idea of forking out the sums we all did for CDs or even vinyl albums (I did both) would probably get giggles or stares. I’m looking forward to telling my currently 5yo daughter how I learned to play guitar from records, for amusement if nothing else.

  20. Most musicians from the 19th century and before would have been unequivocal: Q1 is wrong. Every time you listen to that CD you bought, you’re depriving the musicians you could have hired of work!

    (That you don’t need to be rich enough to own a huge hall, and that we can listen to music when *not* entertaining hundreds of guests, is a mere side-effect: the musicians’ livelihoods are still impaired.)

    Of course this argument is fallacious, as Bastiat pointed out: it’s a variant of the argument that says that breaking windows is good because it gives glaziers income. (The more extreme case of DMCA takedowns of things on YouTube for using things like birdsong erroneously detected as copyrighted background music are more like the claim that the sun should be illegal because it deprives candlemakers of income.)

  21. Q1 is stupid but it reminded me that nobody uses “Happy Birthday” in movies because of copyright trolls, thus we get piracy

  22. Thank you to nearly everyone who’s commented — some fascinating ideas here. (Nearly everyone? Yes — I am not so impressed by the comment of ryanlrussell, who seemed to think I was trolling.)

    Most mystifying comment: Michael P’s: “If you’re going to write a piece like this, don’t you feel more responsibility to understand the arguments that would inspire each “That’s not okay” answer?”. No. I am asking questions here, not proposing answers.

    With 99 votes now in, it looks like 40% feel the break-point is the last step — pirating the music in the first place instead of buying the CDs. In my gut, I more or less agree with this; but I couldn’t justify it logically. More interesting to me is that for more than a quarter of us, the break-point is giving the CDs to Oxfam instead of destroying them.

    So imagine this scenario. You’re taking a box of CDs to the dump and someone suggests “Hey, give them to Oxfam instead! You can get some good music into the hands of people who will appreciate it, and help save lives at the same time”. And you reply “No, that would be immoral” and chuck the CDs down a hole. I can’t get my head around that.

  23. If you want to give the CDs to a charity, by all means, do that! But if you want to respect the artist and copyrights, make efforts to delete any copies you have of the music on those CDs. I don’t think you must do that before donating them, but you should do it before you forget, and you should try to not listen to the copies after donating the originals.

  24. Yeap! The “moral” action would be to give the CDs to Oxfam and to destroy your copies, because you agreed to the terms of the commercial “contract” in the first place (without giving a thought to it, perhaps).

    If you don’t like the terms, don’t buy the CDs and fight for a change in the contract rules like any good activist would. :-)

  25. Indeed, I suspected you were purposely constructing a strawman in order to make a point. If you don’t think the term “trolling” is a good description of that, or if you sincerely don’t see the problem, then I apologize for offending.

  26. David Starner

    “Hey, give them to Oxfam instead! You can get some good music into the hands of people who will appreciate it, and help save lives at the same time”.

    If it’s okay with store-bought CDs, why not home-burnt CDs? Why shouldn’t some charitable person start mass-producing CDs for Oxfam? The same argument applies: getting good music out there and providing money for charity.

    From another direction, why does Oxfam come into it at all? If you can give your ripped CDs to Oxfam, you can sell them yourself. Section G’ could be “Buying the CDs, ripping them, and immediately reselling them”, which I would argue is basically the same as Section G.

  27. Everyone has probably wandered off by now, but I’d like to add this response to Chris’s comment:
    “There is value in having something now rather than later”
    True, and there’s also tremendous value in format shifting – I’m very pleased to have access to all my music on my phone without having to carry hundreds of CDs around, and to be able to stream my DVDs to any room in my house (or anywhere else with an Internet connection via Plex). I think the logical conclusion of that line of thinking is an exit at Section B, which aligns quite nicely with UK law. To me, that feels like it’s tilted too far towards the “creator” side though, and I say that as both a consumer and a creator (of software, specifically).

  28. Mike:
    To me (and apparently to other commenters here), giving the CDs to Oxfam isn’t the immoral part – it’s giving the CDs to Oxfam *while keeping copies*. I’d hate to chuck them in a hole though. That’s how I ended up with the “store them more efficiently” approach.
    This conversation has definitely been thought-provoking… :-)

  29. Ryan,

    I don’t see what the strawman is supposed to be in this scenario. What is the position that you think I am advocating? As far as I can see, the post is pretty clear that “The more I think about this, the more I think that all of these positions outlined above are unsatisfactory”. In other words, I don’t know what I think the right answer is.

  30. How about these hypotheticals?

    1) Rather than going to Oxfam, you pirate a CD and donate a couple of quid to charity.
    2) You buy a CD, rip it, then return it to the shop for a full refund. You use that money to buy five blank CD-Rs, burn twenty copies of the original CD, and give them *all* to Oxfam, complete with copies of the cover art.

    Are these any different from your penultimate option?

  31. I was proposing that the strawman was the stated list of scenarios in the original post, and that you did already have an answer in mind, but were taking it past the point where you already had your mental line for purposes of discussion. Or perhaps specifically to not color the discussion so that people weren’t prejudiced by your opinion, and that’s why yours supposedly wasn’t provided. Hence my use of the word trolling (pretended opinion to generate discussion.) Please believe that I wasn’t trying to imply any maliciousness in this flavor of trolling on your part.

    If in fact your opinion on this really was unsettled (and I don’t doubt that now that you persist with that), then I stand surprised but corrected.

  32. @Vometia: “if they’re entitled to take someone’s money now, then that person is equally entitled to access the thing they’ve paid for IMHO.”

    That seems reasonable to me. Maybe that’s why places like Amazon don’t actually charge you until they ship you the product?

    “I know they would say the T&Cs state otherwise, but I think morally that kinda stinks: I don’t really care for the argument that one can avoid accepting onerous T&Cs by not buying the product at all.”

    UK law generally agrees with you in that regard. Lots of onerous T&Cs are just plain illegal. It’s sad that format shifting was removed from that list again.

  33. OK, Ryan, thanks. No offence taken on my part then, and I hope none on yours.

    I am trying to figure this out.

  34. Your fundamental problem is that this logic only works if you accept the premise that two actions which have the same practical outcome are morally equivalent. That is, if two actions are functionally equivalent (both transform the state of the world from the same initial state X to the exact same terminal state Y) then they are ipso facto morally equivalent.

    But this premise is obviously bollocks. Consider the following two scenarios:

    1. My friend and I are walking alone down a street. Neither of us sees an open manhole cover; my friend falls down it, bangs his head, and dies. His organs are used in transplants to save the lives of five people.

    2. My friend and I are walking alone down a street. I see the open manhole cover before my friend and give him a shove so that he falls down it, bangs his head, and dies. His organs are used in transplants to save the lives of five people.

    Two scenarios which have exactly the same practical result, just like yours, but which are very different morally.

    Hence, whatever it is determines the morality of a situation, it must reside either wholly or partly in aspects which cannot be captured simply by comparing practical outcomes.

    Once this is understood, your confusion about how some actions can be moral and others immoral when they have the exact same outcomes will be seen to be misplaced, based entirely on a false premise

  35. Or one could compare it to tax law, where the exact same sequence of actions could be either entirely legal and moral, if done for a valid business purpose, or immoral and illegal, if done simply for the purpose of evading tax.

  36. @Chris: “That seems reasonable to me. Maybe that’s why places like Amazon don’t actually charge you until they ship you the product?”

    That is true in Amazon’s (UK branch at least) case: I’m not sure if they’re legally compelled to not take money until something ships, but the fact that they immediately make e.g. the mp3 immediately downloadable for music purchases I think shows pretty good service on their part, whatever else I may think of Amazon. And I’ll attempt to resist the urge to incoherently dribble about the wonders of FLAC as I tend to do every time I see mp3 mentioned, even though I was the one who mentioned it.

    I am aware of purchases where payment is taken well before the product is available for despatch let alone use, though it may be the case (as my memory is not the most organised source of information) that the purchases in question were from other jurisdictions such as the US, which is a situation where I might be rather more tetchy.

    “UK law generally agrees with you in that regard. Lots of onerous T&Cs are just plain illegal. It’s sad that format shifting was removed from that list again.”

    I must admit to have long since become perhaps slightly carelessly cynical about T&Cs to the point where I automatically assume that at best I’m going to get the absolute legal minimum, so consequently at best I tend to skim through them and likely miss whatever particularly unpleasant and hopefully laughably unenforceable clauses they may contain buried somewhere in the reams of tedious and impenetrable waffling (re-reads own paragraph, thinks “hmm”).

    Pity about the format shifting thing. Hurrah for lobbyists, or whoever.

  37. Q, your manhole-cover example is helpful. Thank you.

  38. After trying to tidy up my study, Question 5 is suddenly becoming very relevant.

  39. I’m with those who regard the physical CDs as my license. I have a piece of paper that entitles me to use my house. It’s called the title deed here in the US, and it basically sits around gathering dust even though I use my house quite frequently. I suppose I could sell my title deed to some interested party, but odds are they will insist on me moving out of my house. I’m not 100% sure I want to tinker with this system. I gather we in the States had some kind of financial crisis after certain parties started playing fast and loose with title deeds.

  40. I have a piece of paper that entitles me to use my house. It’s called the title deed here in the US

    I think you’ve misunderstood. The title deed isn’t what entitles you to use your house. What give you the right you use your house is that you have title to it; the title deed merely attests to that title, it doesn’t constitute it.

    Think of it like measles. If you have measles, you have spots. But the spots aren’t what gives you measles.

    the title deed is the spots. It shows you have measles, sorry, I mean, your house, but it isn’t what gives you the house, sorry, I mean, the measles.

  41. (Oh, and the financial crisis, insofar as it was about housing, had nothing to do with title deeds: that aspect of it was about the pooling of hundreds or thousands of mortgages together, then chopping and recombining them, in ways that were so complicated that nobody knew how much each slice of each pool (and if that metaphor sounds crazy, well, that’s not entirely inappropriate…) was worth [and therefore nobody knew how much collateral they had to balance against loans, so they stopped lending each other money, so the whole financial system froze]. Nothing to do with title deeds, only to do with who was entitled to which mortgage payments in which order each month.)

  42. Randomly, or not, an interesting take on how copyright infringement can have an effect on Joe Public as well as major corporations. Recently, Bethesda Softworks (a significant computer games company) facilitated the use of user-made modifications on consoles. This was kind of a big deal as mods are hugely popular with their games, if not always especially well supported by the company itself, and are a large part of their popularity.

    There’s always been a bit of a problem with appropriation of what officially has the rather tedious name of “intellectual property”, which rests with the author, regardless of whatever caveats Bethesda and its notorious army of lawyers adds about having rights and no exclusive copyright and whatnot. Even as a fairly low-level modder who’s uploaded very little stuff, I’ve found pretty much everything I’ve uploaded has been nicked and credited to someone else, though the more serious, well-known guys have been able to hold their own.

    Until now. Since it’s been possible to upload mods to consoles, there’s been a *huge* amount of what can be politely termed “appropriation”. Not just from the point of view of disregarding the original author’s wishes that a mod isn’t redistributed to another site (which is fair enough in itself, “just because” but also for the technical difficulties that are likely) but also because the authors aren’t being credited, and worse still, the appropriators are asking for donations. On the basis that they nicked somebody else’s work without credit.

    What is quite interesting is that Bethsoft used to have a zero-tolerance approach to anybody who even alluded to software piracy on their official forums, which resulted in the culprit being perma-banned. Okay, that’s not a financial penalty handed down by a court nor even difficult to work around, but it kinda sucks for someone with an established identity. But curiously they’re now apparently refusing to act when faced with people openly and brazenly stealing other people’s work, their attitude being the legal minimum of “file a DMCA takedown if it bothers you so much”.

    Funny old world, this copyright business.

  43. I’m not sure if it was mentioned in the comments (they are too many to read thoroughly), but an important thing in this issue is to make the distinction between the actual thing being copyrighted (the music) and the means of distribution – the CDs. In this light, the CDs have little part in the whole thing.

    Morally, you should repay the creator of the music for his creation. If you just pirate the MP3s, you basically stole from them. If you pay for the CD, then you should feel morally satisfied with yourself, even if you rip it for convenience.

    But if you choose to give the CDs to someone else, then you have a moral dillema. The issue is that the music is digital, not physical. For example, if you have some old furniture and instead of throwing it out, you donate it, you no longer use it anymore, so you pass the ownership to whoever you give it to. But if you give the CDs, you don’t give the actual music, you give the means of distribution. So if you still keep the MP3s, you’re not actually giving up your ownership of the music. This is why the donation scenario makes such a difference to the just throwing out scenario.

    I’m not saying whether this is OK or not, because it’s a really hard issue, but I think this is where about the division should be.

  44. Crash Random

    It’s pretty easy to come up with other situations where if one person performs an action one time, it’s hard to see any meaningful downside to weigh against the upside… but if a billion people perform the same action ten thousand times each, the downside is catastrophic.

    It’s hard to see how a few CDs in the Oxfam store can harm civilization, but easy (I think) to see how universal contempt for copyright law can harm civilization.

  45. I think (one of) the problems you’ve got here is that you’re treating moral acceptability as a yes/no boolean, when, outside of situations involving fat people and trolleys, it’s more complicated than that.

    When you give the CDs to Oxfam in question 7, it’s not a simple matter of destroying something versus giving it to someone else. It has both positive outcomes and negative ones:

    – Oxfam get some money, some of which (hopefully most!) will be used for good causes,
    – Someone else gets to listen to the music for less money than they would have spent buying the CD new,
    – There is a *possibility* that the record company loses a sale of a newer copy of the album: record industry bigwigs will lose a little money, maybe the recording artist might, too,
    – The money that someone saves by buying the CD second hand might be spent on something else, benefiting the final recipient, (and so on, and so on).

    Can these multiple issues be boiled down to a simple acceptable/not acceptable answer? I don’t think so.

    One other thought:

    “So we think it’s better to destroy a thing than to allow others to benefit from it? Isn’t that just as silly as thinking that it’s better for cafes to destroy their left-over food than to give it to homeless people?”

    Thinking these are equivalent is the same mistake that the “you wouldn’t steal a handbag!” types make. If food could be copied freely an infinite number of times I wouldn’t feel so bad about seeing cafes bagging it up at the end of the day and leaving it by the side of the road.

  46. Rich,

    In this case I am specifically talking about destroying the physical object, the CD — not just a copy of the bits. So the analogy with the left-over food does hold. You are of course quite right that it wouldn’t in the case of bits.

  47. “In this case I am specifically talking about destroying the physical object, the CD — not just a copy of the bits. So the analogy with the left-over food does hold. You are of course quite right that it wouldn’t in the case of bits”

    But surely the only value of the CD is the bits it holds?

  48. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 15 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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