Presenter: Hugh Breakey (Griffith University)

Under what conditions – if any – is it morally permissible to breach existing copyright laws in order to pirate creative works? Literature on this topic, and self-asserted justifications by pirates themselves, often collapse this question into two quite separate enquiries: Is the copyright holder behaving appropriately towards potential users and their needs? And: is the existing copyright law legitimate (in the abstract, and from first principles)? Yet neither of these questions exhaust the moral issues in play. In particular, even if a positive law would not be justified from first principles, it may still demand respect – as the outcome of a legitimate democratic process, for example, or because others acted in the reasonable expectation of their legal entitlements. Of course, further countervailing factors may press in the opposite direction: even if the law in general warrants respect, if violations are ‘victimless’, or only performed under special circumstances, these factors may complicate the ethical situation. Set against this backdrop, the ethical question of copyright piracy (in its canonical form at least) is an intriguing one: In what situations can one can be morally justified in breaking established law, primarily for reasons of self-interest – rather than, say, as a public act of civil disobedience? This paper aims to improve clarity on the multiple layers of ethical concern implicated by various types of digital piracy across literary, music and film domains, and it draws particular attention to the worrying biases plaguing prospective pirates as they reason about the moral appropriateness of any given act of piracy.


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