Is digital piracy really stealing?

By Christian Barry

Many millions of people throughout the world have illegally downloaded the fifth season of Game of Thrones.

Legally speaking, what they have done is a violation of intellectual property rights, or 'piracy'. But is it morally wrong?

It might seem obvious that downloading is wrong. After all, it is illegal.

But there are many things that have been illegal that people don't think are morally wrong.

Same-sex relationships, divorce and many other practices that are now widely accepted as morally acceptable were once outlawed and criminally sanctioned.

Few people think they were wrong just because they were illegal.

Rather, they tend to think the laws governing these behaviours were unjust, so appealing only to the illegality of downloading doesn't settle whether it is okay, morally speaking.

Two rival camps dominate public discussion around the ethics of illegal downloading.

On the one hand, there are what might be called "fundamentalist libertarians".

These think that all ideas and artistic creation should be held in common and be freely accessible to all.

In their view, intellectual property, in the form of copyright and patents, unfairly restricts access to ideas and expression.

They consider illegal downloading to be a victimless crime and do not think it imposes significant cost on anyone.

On the other hand, there are what might be called the "fundamentalist protectors".

This camp thinks that illegal downloading is equivalent to common theft.