Posts for January 2017

Is online piracy ethically different to theft?

Sunday, January 22, 2017 2:00pm

During the holidays, many Australians are downloading TV shows and movies. A significant number of Australians are accessing sites to enable them to illegally download material for free, which should be paid for.

Online piracy is the illegal act of copying digital goods without explicit permission from and compensation to the copyright holder.

In 2015, BitTorrent reported that Australia had the most illegal downloaders per capita for the Season 5 finale of the hit TV show, Game of Thrones.

On 15 December 2016, the Federal Court of Australia made a series of orders to block Australians accessing sites such as BitTorrent. However, promptly, mirror sites appeared on the internet, allowing users to effectively bypass the orders.

Copyright holders have extensively advertised the illegal nature of the activity. Most notable have been the phrases “downloading pirated content is stealing. Piracy, it’s a crime.”

Australians are not morally unconscionable. Those Australians (and there are many) who continue to infringe copyright perceive their actions to be justified. Until the Government in Australia effectively deals with the reasons for that belief, the problem for copyright holders will continue.

Piracy only destroys the proceeds from the sale of an object, whereas theft also removes the object from its owner. In 2016, the Neuroscience Department of Monash University discovered, using MRI scans, there was less activation of the part of the brain associated with guilt and moral decision-making when intangible objects were stolen.

Authorities seek to deter piracy by imposing severe penalties for individuals of up to $117,000 per offence. But the chances of getting caught and punished for committing piracy is perceived to be very low compared to stealing from a store.

Contemporary deterrence theory needs to include other inhibitions such as shame and moral beliefs. In Australian society there is currently a lack of pressure from family and friends to refrain from the behaviour.

A further factor is an element of a Robin Hood syndrome. Large corporations are seen as unfairly profiting from the Australian consumer. The cost of accessing a TV show in Australia can be up to three times the cost in America. Australia is perceived to be a wealthy nation whose consumers will comply with additional expense. This has been dubbed “The Australia Tax”.

In 2014, CHOICE found that discrepancies between price, availability and timeliness of content in Australia are factors driving piracy. For example, the Australian version of Netflix is very limited in content when compared to the American version.

Moreover, unlike stealing from a store, the victim of the crime of piracy is not easily identified by the consumer.

A combination of these factors allow some Australians to consider piracy to be morally acceptable.

Online piracy is a serious crime. By 2011, it was estimated that it was costing the American music industry some $US12.5 billion and 70,000 jobs annually. It hurts the Australian entertainment industry and costs jobs here too. However, whilst Australians continue to see online piracy as ethically different to theft, the problem will continue.


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