the ethics of sharing

Normally I have a lot of respect for much of what Mike Masnick says on Techdirt. But this irks me

“Despite what some people think my position is on the issue of unauthorized sharing, I absolutely do not condone it (nor partake in unauthorized sharing). I think the laws covering this type of thing tend to do more damage than good to the very industry it’s supposed to help — but that doesn’t mean people should be free to ignore them.”

Sure, in any given case it might be a better strategic move to obey unjust laws and fight the good fight through other means. However, to argue that law should be obeyed simply because it’s law is amoral.

Update: More amorality here:

“So in view of all that, should Jammie be punished for simply living in the future? Well, yes. It’s still illegal, […] if you’re breaking the law you’re breaking the law.”

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21 Responses to “the ethics of sharing”

  1. Alex Says:

    Thanks for letting me know about the quote. In actual fact what I’m arguing is that if you break a law you will be punished for it. It is right that you are punished for it while it is still law. This does not preclude you from campaigning against such a law or doing what it is within your rights to amend that law (as I say in the next sentence).

    To say that you should always be free to break a law you think is unjust without fear of punishment is just as dangerous – and definitely amoral as it adheres only to very wobbly moral relativism -as suggesting that blind allegiance to the law just because it is the law is correct.

    I suspect we’re probably agreeing with each other more than it appears!

  2. ruharper Says:

    Hmmmn, the point being that until a more acceptable model is introduced, there are still IP laws surrounding the sharing of music – and an embattled music industry is prepared to fight tooth and nail to defend its position and prevent change.

    Of course anyone who understands creative commons, data sharing and new models for making money also understands that parts of the music industry have nailed their colours to the mast of a sinking ship.

    What Jammie did wasn’t immoral. But it *was* illegal. She’s been strung up on a technicality because the RIAA are terrified of what comes next.

    I reckon the easiest thing would be to scrap the whole system and find some new popstars who don’t have idiot labels and stupid immoral laws getting in the way, thereby neatly avoiding all this mess in the first place and possibly getting some more interesting music to listen to… just a thought.

  3. gnuosphere Says:

    In actual fact what I’m arguing is that if you break a law you will be punished for it.

    You may or may not.

    It is right that you are punished for it while it is still law.

    I disagree strongly. It is right to to face the consequences of a law if the law is just, not because it is law.

    This does not preclude you from campaigning against such a law or doing what it is within your rights to amend that law (as I say in the next sentence).

    I agree. In fact, often times it is better to try to change a law through this approach rather than disobedience. But it always depends on the circumstances. There is no general rule that is safe to follow.

    To say that you should always be free to break a law you think is unjust without fear of punishment is just as dangerous

    You are always free to choose to break laws so I don’t understand what you are saying here. In fact, I explicitly mentioned in my post that in any given case a better strategy might be to obey the law and fight it using other means.

    My point is that to argue that Jammie *deserves* punishment because the law says so is amoral.

  4. Mike Masnick Says:

    However, to argue that law should be obeyed simply because it’s law is amoral.

    I’m not saying it should be obeyed just because it’s the law. I’m saying that if you do ignore them you do two things: you run the risk of getting caught and in trouble (as in this case) and you also lose the moral high ground in fighting to change those laws.

    People accuse me all the time of simply trying to rationalize and justify unauthorized copying — but the fact is that I don’t engage in it, in part because I know that it would hurt my position on the topic. Instead, I hope that I can convince people through logic and economics that as content producers, it’s in their best interest not to use copyright this way.

  5. gnuosphere Says:

    Mike, I agree with everything you just said. Perhaps then, a more accurate way of putting it would have been “I don’t suggest that people do it” rather than “I don’t condone it”. That would send a very different message.

    Thanks for clarifying.

  6. gnuosphere Says:

    ruharper says:

    I reckon the easiest thing would be to scrap the whole system and find some new popstars who don’t have idiot labels and stupid immoral laws getting in the way, thereby neatly avoiding all this mess in the first place and possibly getting some more interesting music to listen to… just a thought.

    Well those artists are definitely out there. It certainly would be nice to scrap the whole system but that’s next to impossible at this time as American democracy is not well. It’s going to take some time for that ship to sink.

  7. Alex Says:

    Quote: You are always free to choose to break laws so I don’t understand what you are saying here. In fact, I explicitly mentioned in my post that in any given case a better strategy might be to obey the law and fight it using other means.

    Yes, you are free to break them, but not free to break them without fear of punishment, where “fear” means likelihood. It is a side-effect of it being law and the ways laws work (at this point I’m not casting judgement on whether this is wrong or right). But we agree on the strategy point, absolutely.

    I will take back my lazily phrased statement about it being right to face punishment while something is still law, and amend it to say that it is to be expected in the majority of circumstances, and because of Jammie’s responsibility in knowingly breaking the law – a law which I personally do not consider necessarily unjust – a punishment was appropriate.

  8. gnuosphere Says:

    I will take back my lazily phrased statement about it being right to face punishment while something is still law

    followed by…

    a law [against file sharing] which I personally do not consider necessarily unjust

    OK then, what should Jammie be punished for?

  9. Verbal DiarRIAA Says:

    She should be punished for stealing our intellectual property. She is a pirate. We need to protect the artists from the harm piracy causes. Would you defend a thief who walks into a music store and steals a CD? No, I didn’t think so. This fine demonstrates that our intellectual property system works. Let’s work together to educate people about this.

  10. gnuosphere Says:

    All joking aside, this is a serious question. If one admits that laws should not be followed simply because they are law yet proclaims that the law against file sharing is not unjust, then Jammie should face the consequences of the law because she has done something wrong.

    What should Jammie be punished for? What did she do that was wrong?

  11. Michael Says:

    Hello, new here…this post and the news story raises some good, tough questions.

    I have to agree with Alex. I understand your position though. What you say is logical:

    “If one admits that laws should not be followed simply because they are law yet proclaims that the law against file sharing is not unjust, then Jammie should face the consequences of the law because she has done something wrong.”

    But I think it’s wrong. I think you’re oversimplifying the matter. I think you got it right when you said that there is a fine line that has to be balanced between choosing to disobey unjust laws or find other ways to amend them (or a combination of both).

    I think Thoreau and MLK, Jr. covered this issue of “civil disobedience” thoroughly. MLK would be a great example. He realized certain laws were completely unjust so he stood up against them — through civil disobedience. But he understood the consequences and was willing to face them as a byproduct of his deliberate disobedience. He was jailed (enabling him to write his awesome “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) and persecuted. But the cost was worth the result.

    I don’t mean to sound preachy or pretentious or superior or anything of the sort. I’m sorry if I’m coming off that way. I’m just saying that there is always a cost for change. And when this change involves laws of society, the cost includes punishment. I’m not entirely sure “civil disobedience” is the most effective way to go about changing laws that pertain to the “ethics of sharing,” although it was the right way for MLK, Jr to go about it.

    I’m thinking maybe a healthy combination of things will be a better route. Something like Radiohead’s recent approach to bypassing the record labels might be a start, even if they didn’t set out to change the music industry or anything like that.

  12. gnuosphere Says:

    Michael, what is confusing me about your comment is

    A) you say what I claim “is logical” yet
    B) state that I’m “oversimplifying”

    This is not possible.

    If I’m oversimplifying, then what I say is illogical. Oversimplification is a logical fallacy. But if what I say is logical, then I can’t be oversimplifying.

    My question – to anyone – is, What did Jammie do that was wrong?

  13. Michael Says:

    my bad. I meant “seems logical” and on some basic levels, may be logical, but I believe the issue is more complex than the logic that you’re using…basically

  14. Michael Says:

    Jammie broke the law. You face consequences when you break the law. Sometimes, in cases where laws are obviously, thoroughly, and offensively wrong on the level of the Civil Rights Movement, the simple act of disobeying those wrong laws is sufficient to change them. Even then simply disobedience by itself won’t change anything.

    Jammie broke the law and she’s being punished for it (even if the law is wrong or unjust). I’m not saying she’s in the wrong for breaking the law. I’m just pointing out what happened makes complete sense.

  15. gnuosphere Says:

    I believe the issue is more complex than the logic that you’re using…basically

    Please clarify. I don’t find what is complex about this issue at all.

    I’m just pointing out what happened makes complete sense.

    Of course. The law is industrial age nonsense. Therefore, the RIAA’s decision to attack a digital network age citizen through this law is unethical. But the fact that this happened is not surprising at all.

  16. Michael Says:

    I’m sorry, i screwed up again…I’m not really proof-reading on these comments. But I see that you’re a very…careful reader. So I’ll clarify where I think i slipped up.

    the simple act of disobeying unjust laws worked for the Civil Rights movement because of the degree of injustice in those laws, which was massive. But even then, disobedience in itself didn’t change the laws. Influential people (like MLK, Jr) and common people got together and made it a “movement” (which is also a culmination of many things happening).

    Now, media piracy/sharing laws of today don’t hold the same clear, obvious color of injustice. The injustice/justice of the laws are of a much more ambiguous nature — which is why there is room for such heated debate on both sides of the issue. So yeah, disobedience, in this case probably won’t provide much force to change the laws with. It has to have a lot of help through other means of changing the laws.

  17. Michael Says:

    You know what? I’ll agree to disagree and leave it at that =)

    have a good day!

  18. gnuosphere Says:

    Now, media piracy/sharing laws of today don’t hold the same clear, obvious color of injustice [relative to the Civil Rights movement].

    If you’re arguing that abusing people based upon the color of their skin is a more tragic (i.e. produces significantly more suffering) injustice than a RIAA lawsuit, I agree.

    However, arguing that abusing people for sharing culture becomes an ethically ambiguous situation simply because the social effects are not as negative as in other situations, is nonsense.

    Using the law to stop the sharing of culture is wrong. Please explain the ambiguity you perceive.

  19. gnuosphere Says:

    You know what? I’ll agree to disagree and leave it at that =)

    If you took the position that using the law to stop people from sharing is OK, then you would be in a position to say that we “disagree”. Instead, you have said that I am not grasping the “complexity” of this “ambiguous” issue yet chose not to explain what you mean. That’s too bad.

    I hope you’ll come back some other time. Thanks for stopping in.

  20. Michael Says:

    wow…yeah i don’t think i’ll be coming back (even though I came back to write this comment). maybe Alex will come back to argue with the wall that you have set up here as your blog.

  21. gnuosphere Says:

    Well, this journal has posts related to other areas alongside free culture (or am I oversimplifying everything?). But if by “wall” you mean the view that people should be free to share (shackled or not) culture in cyberspace – then yes, you’re spot on.

    As for Alex, I hope she doesn’t come back to argue. I hope she lets me know she agrees with the argument (aka “the wall”). But of course, if she decides to come back and present a counterargument, I will read her words carefully and ask for clarification if needed.

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