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. You 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.
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?