Feb 16, 2012

The morality of content

Kevin Drum has a provocative thought:
I am, as always, speaking only for myself, but I think this is too cramped. The Constitution says that the purpose of patents and copyright is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," but the fact that the Constitution says this doesn't mean it's the only reason to grant patents and copyrights. There's another reason too: because creators have a moral right to profit from their works. In real life, pretty much everyone acts as if they believe this, and I suspect that for most of us it's the real underpinning of our support for IP law.
I don't think this works, though as a broke-ass writer I would much like it to be true. The act of writing, or making music, or whatever, is not an intrinsically worthy undertaking. Suppose I write some book and put it in a cabinet in my basement. Do I deserve to profit from that, simply from the act of creating it? If Hitler yet lived would he have a moral claim to monopoly rents from Mein Kampf? Does everyone who borrows a book from a friend, or checks one out from the library, have a moral obligation to pay the author? This is absurd.

I do think, however, that some moral principle might be salvaged. The readers are what is missing from the equation. No one deserves to profit from something that is not read. Here's a try: anyone who consumes some content, and likes it, has a moral obligation to compensate the creator in some way. This is to say that abject illegal downloading is morally wrong. It could take several forms, including just passing the word that it was a great work and you enjoyed it, especially if you are famous yourself. Publicity, especially for relative unknowns, is often more valuable to the creator than cash.

Can anyone come up with a better principle?


  1. Three issues: The main problem I have with your principle is that it doesn't specify the nature of the consumption of the content. Does someone who drives past an advertising billboard with a funny slogan have an obligation to the creator of that content, even if the content, while enjoyed, wasn't consumed entirely willingly? Or what about a man standing on a public street playing guitar. Does everyone who passes by the artist have an obligation to the artist? Or just those who stop to listen? Or just those whose aesthetic experience was heightened by the artist's music?

    Second, what exactly constitutes compensation? Recommending it to a buddy? Buying a hardcopy? Giving away a digital copy of it? I would posit that, because the driving force behind the creation of art is the eventual spreading of the art, simply sharing the work of art would constitute compensation.

    Lastly, why limit those consumers who "liked" the content to have a moral obligation to the creator? If I download a film instead of seeing it in a theater, and dislike the movie, have I deprived the creator of the work any more or less than if I had liked it? While I like the idea of paying for art on a sliding scale based on how much the consumer enjoyed the art, I don't think that's what we're talking about here. The artist/creator "suffers" from their film being downloaded all the same regardless of whether the people who downloaded it enjoyed it.

    Here's my try:
    Anyone who willingly and purposefully obtains and consumes artistic content has a moral obligation to the creator(s) of that content to share it further.

    That said, I believe in the absolute freedom of information. No "moral principle" should stop someone from sharing or spreading information that is beneficial to human society or the world as a whole. I don't really think a moral person would allow that to happen, but such a "moral principle" can be interpreted in many ways. Cheers!

  2. A great work and I enjoyed it! And I do promote your writing! You are a rising star!

  3. Good thoughts. I left the "compensation" deliberately vague to include things like that. I'm mulling this over, there could be more to come.