Morality, theft, and Netflix

Theft is wrong. Most – although by no means all – of us can agree on that. We have an instinctive feel for what this means at the basic level; if someone owns something we shouldn’t take it from them if they don’t want us to. The law backs this up too; the most basic definition of theft under UK law tells us “A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.”[1] I doubt that the laws of most other countries significantly deviate from this.

So why do we hear so much of people “stealing” intellectual property on the internet; music, books, film, software, it seems that little that can be sent down a fibre optic cable is sacrosanct. If you know how, it is relatively easy to avoid paying for such items on the internet – certainly much easier than it would be to enter a shop and take the physical copy of these items. So has society lost its way? Has the spirit of morality died? I don’t think so. I believe that many people who might download a copy of their favourite movie for free if they came across it online would be shocked at the thought of going into a music shop and walking out with a DVD in hand unpaid for, so something else is clearly going on here.

One obvious difference is the fact that we are dealing with intellectual property rather than physical property. However, we have already grown accustomed to the idea that someone can own a thought, a collocation of words or notes, a formula, a process and that it is therefore wrong to buy a boot-leg DVD, for example, long before the advent of the internet. But a DVD faithfully copies the original and represents a viable alternative to an original – it is clearer to make the moral link to simply stealing an original copy. In cases where we performed the copying ourselves the line between right and wrong was perhaps not so apparent. I know many people who, back in the day, would tape the top 40 from the radio or not worry too much about exactly how much is “fair usage” when photocopying information from a reference book in a library. Perhaps this idea that enjoying intellectual property without payment is “not so bad” if we are doing the copying ourselves still persists in the internet age where digital formats allow us to make perfect copies indistinguishable from ones bought from a legitimate source.

Yet this is an excuse rather than a reason. It is still clearly wrong to copy intellectual property even if we are doing it ourselves. However, although personally I prefer to make my own decisions about what is correct others may prefer simply to allow the law to dictate to them what is right and wrong, and there’s nothing so bad about that. But here the law has lagged behind the moral imperative somewhat. In the early days of the internet it was possible for people to upload the intellectual property on to content sharing sites where others could then download it. They argued that they were not doing anything wrong, that there was nothing illegal in giving other people access to content that they own. It is easy to see why this is unfair – after all if I put a book I own on my doorstep and someone takes it then I have lost the book forever and only one person has gained a copy losing the author the possibility of one sale. By uploading content the material is never lost and can be copied multiple times losing many potential sales. This was a potential grey area that is only now being clearly addressed by our legal systems. The law is restricting or even banning such sites – the original Napster is no more and thepiratebay seems to be in its death throes.

Yet this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There are many file-sharing sites where nefarious activities are not the main aim of most users – and where it would seem unfair to penalise users who have no intention of infringing the rights of others, either by the letter or the spirit of the law. Youtube springs to mind here. Many people simply want to share content at no cost that they themselves have produced with anyone who might care to view it. This might be in the form of home videos or demos from aspiring musicians who are keen simply to showcase their work. However there are a growing number of professionals who are happy for their work to be viewed for free. Their reasons for doing this are personal, multiple, and pragmatic. I can guess at some; the desire to have a presence amongst fans, an opportunity to channel interest to their own sites, a way to drum up sales of official high-quality material and merchandise, a way to advertise upcoming tours etc. etc. There is also content which might strictly speaking be under copyright, perhaps created before the birth of the internet, but where the owner is more than happy for it to be on such sites for some, or all, of the reasons above.

I think this “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” attitude is the way forward. The internet has created so many ways for people to extend their reach – and thus their ability to make potential sales – and the complications it creates are a necessary part of this. While the law catches up with the brave new worldwide web morally it seems hypocritical for an artist to make millions of digital sales which wouldn’t have been possible without the internet whilst wishing to curtail the functionality of the process. The internet is basically – it seems to me – built on a system where “free” content is provided and paid for by the advertising on the sites where it is found. This goes back to the foundation of the internet, built on an idealism where there is no restriction on freedom of information[2]. It is not therefore always very clear if any copyright restrictions are in force when content is posted. There is no reason not to buck this model; certainly I have nothing against music, films and ebooks being sold on line, and wouldn’t try to download such items illegally. Many people make their living this way, and good luck to them. But if this is the chosen vehicle for selling material we have to remember what the underlying model is and that deviating from it is not necessarily going to be unproblematic.

This model is clearly far from perfect; for example there can be no excuse that I can see for “file sharing” when this in fact distributes content with no remuneration making its way back to the author. The internet is relatively young and I think we are still a long way from a workable and fair system to distribute material – and the law, as always, is a fair way behind that. While we wait for a happy medium to be established I think there is no choice other than to make our own moral decisions on a case-by-case basis, although that implies that we might have to be less judgemental about those whose moral decisions don’t coincide with our own.

I’ll end with a specific example that I’m currently wrestling with myself. Netflix provides content licensed on an old-fashioned geographical basis and it determines geography by new-fangled IP address location (which tells the wider world where the computer is physically located, at least down to the country level). However IP addresses don’t necessarily reveal the true location. It is perfectly possible (and legal) to join a VPN (virtual private network) which can assign your computer with an IP address from anywhere in the world. In this way it is possible to be in the UK and log on to Netflix with a US IP address and view US content. Similarly someone in the US could have a UK IP address and view BBC content. I’m not a lawyer, but with my limited understanding I can’t see anything illegal has happened here. It might be against Netflix’s terms of use to do this (although I couldn’t see anything when I skim-read them) but I can’t see how it could be more than that. However, is it morally OK? Is it moral theft to view content Netflix intends only to be viewed in one geographical location? I can’t decide. As a libertarian I hate to see information restricted and my knee-jerk reaction is to say “If you want to use the internet to distribute content but want to restrict where it goes then wake up and smell the keyboard – the internet is without boundaries” and yet a niggle remains. Anyhow, I could write about this for hours – I’m off to watch Netflix. Interestingly it seems that series 6 of Dr Who, although produced by the BBC, is on Netflix in the US but not the UK site. Hmmm, which IP address to use…. What do you think?


[1] Theft Act 1968
[2] Tim Berners-LeeQ: Do you have mixed emotions about “cashing in” on the Web?A: Not really. It was simply that had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”