Ethics @ Work: Are property rights in ideas unethical?

Occasionally we are privileged to encounter a truly innovative ethical doctrine that seeks to challenge existing paradigms.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
Business ethics usually have little to do with ethics. In most practical cases the ethical value is agreed upon, and the ethics professional is charged with making sure they are reflected in practice. However, occasionally we are privileged to encounter a truly innovative ethical doctrine that seeks to challenge existing paradigms. A fascinating example is the "free content" movement, often identified with programming pioneer Richard Stallman who leads the related "free software movement." Most people agree that respecting intellectual property is the most ethical course of action. To the extent that they engage in "piracy" of software, music, movies etc. they justify their actions with a variety of excuses and exceptions. But the free content movement adopts the opposite ethical position: property rights in ideas and information are fundamentally unethical; they should be at best tolerated and kept to the absolute minimum. The movement often employs a pithy expression of Stewart Brand who noted that while information wants to be expensive because it is worth so much, ultimately "Information wants to be free." Brand meant that the information wants to be free of charge since, after all, it costs virtually nothing to copy it; but the "free" in this expression has since picked up the added and inspiring meaning of "liberated." The theoretical underpinnings of this view are varied. Stallman is a bit of an extremist who seems to have an inherent aversion to intellectual property, but most advocates would claim that the change in ethical approaches is necessitated by a change in the material conditions of society. Before Johannes Gutenberg and moveable type, copyright was a useless concept. The main concern of authors in those days was to ensure that their works were copied as much as possible. Far from protecting their identities to appropriate sales, they often hid their identities and used pen names of famous individuals to augment the spread of their ideas. The invention of printing meant that works could be cheaply reproduced by printers, but not by users. This meant that an author could actually make money from his or her book if given a monopoly or limited monopoly on printing and sale. Granting a copyright became an effective way of encouraging the creation and dissemination of ideas. An individual author could not invest creative effort without the promise of compensation; and without these efforts, artistic and scientific works could not come into being. So copyrights became the norm. But in the twenty-first century a new paradigm is needed. The norm now is for collaborative, rather than individual, efforts so granting property rights to an individual seems less justified; copying has become free and anonymous so granting these rights is impractical; and anonymous networks are so efficient at generating and disseminating knowledge that these rights are, in any case, superfluous. Two hundred years ago, the dictionary was not going to get written if Dr. Johnson didn't sit down and write it, and Dr. Johnson was not about to sit down and write it unless he was sure to get paid. ("No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money" was Johnson's creed.) But today unpaid mass participation gives us a very creditable encyclopedia (Wikipedia), a treasury of video artistry (some people might describe YouTube this way), and high quality software (open-source software such as the Linux operating system, the Open Office office suite or the R statistics program). What about the fact that staples of culture like spectacular movies with nine-figure budgets or extravagant production values in music recording depend on sales from DVDs and CDs, which in turn depend on effective copyrights? A shallow answer to this question is to deny that it is a problem; media companies will find their own way around the problem, perhaps more emphasis on live performance or cinema screening. A more profound (not necessarily more correct) reply is that canons of artistic taste should be dictated by our human values, not the other way around. According to this approach, an extravagant film that is a monument to the artistic vision of a single director is just not an appropriate artistic ideal for the democratic decentralized human society of the twenty-first century. My view is that all these claims are valid to a certain extent, but taken all together they are the tail of the dog. Dogs' tails are certainly important and they tell us a lot about the dog's mood and well-being, but ultimately the dog wags the tail and not the other way around. Once you have a humongous, multi-trillion dollar content industry (software, music, cinema etc.) protected by adequate intellectual property rights (the dog), then the fringes and interstices of this culture can produce an impressive subculture of free content, including YouTube, Linux etc. (the tail). After commercial companies like Apple and Microsoft created applications that spread computers to every home, people began to use these computers to create invaluable decentralized content. A lone person could live a decent lower-middle-class existence solely on the garbage of an affluent suburban neighborhood, but this person is hardly justified in mocking a bourgeois lifestyle, as he owes his livelihood to the market economy that enriches his neighbors. I admire many of the "free content" products available today, and some I adore. There is no doubt that some changes in legislation, funding and artistic standards are needed to enable this type of content to find its niche. But, ultimately, when I smile at this friendly wagging tail I remind myself that the dog in front of it needs a healthy diet of commercial sales from products protected against content piracy, and I make sure to pay for any content that is owned and licensed. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.