Which High Horse? Piracy, Entitlements and Morality
February 25th, 2012 by ravi

Andy Ihnatko (a tech columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times) doesn’t like free[down]loaders. Marco Arment (one of the founders of Tumblr, proprietor of the very useful Instapaper service) and John Gruber agree. Ihnatko carves his argument against the pirates hooked to the torrent tubes using the device of a hypothetical conversation with one of them. It’s a fine bit of Socratic entrapment, this hypothetical conversation, wherein Ihnatko corrals the conversation through the various emotions of the offender to justify his own emotional (or should I say aesthetic?) response:

The single least-attractive attribute of many of the people who download content illegally is their smug sense of entitlement.


Here’s the terms of use for commercial content: you have to pay for this stuff. […]

If you avoid purchasing the media in some form, however…you’re just one of those people who prefer to steal things if they think they can get away with it. Simple as that. Get off your high horse.

As with the Socratic dialogues, the kicker is in the setup. If you buy the setup, then the conclusions are uncontroversial. However I suspect the majority of torrenters are less likely to make the arguments outlined and more likely to plead the 5th. But the reference to “high horse” is appropriate because at bottom Andy’s argument (it seems to me) is a moral one: stealing is wrong especially when you have the option to buy it. Andy calls it a “simple grown-up fact”:

The world does not OWE you Season 1 of “Game Of Thrones” in the form you want it at the moment you want it at the price you want to pay for it. If it’s not available under 100% your terms, you have the free-and-clear option of not having it.

There are a lot of well considered qualifiers in there. They pertain to the consumer… his churlishness over price (“the price you want to pay”), his urgency (“at the moment you want it”), all of which add up to a demand by the consumer for satisfaction of 100% of his terms. The hypothetical consumer of Ihnatko’s argument.

What about the obverse: the real world producers/distributors? In the non-hypothetical world, isn’t it the case that the demand to meet “100% of the terms” comes from the producers/distributors? Perhaps that’s not clear in the 51 or so pages of the iTunes agreement that we are encouraged to read in full before we go click crazy on that guy who assures us against all evidence that it’s going to be a good life, a good, good life? Don’t feel like reading through those 51 pages or sacrifice some fine demand within? Heck, you have the free-and-clear option of not having the good, good life!

Now consider this hypothetical: the proverbial impoverished college student, staggering under student loans, paying tuition that grows at multiple times the rate of inflation to fund that fancy football team and fancier University President that they just hired, who has to buy mandated textbooks at a cost that equates the academic windbag who wrote the thing to a minor Renaissance artist. It’s not a decision made on the student’s time. Can’t buy this semester’s textbook 10 years from now using that bonus at Bloomberg. It’s not a decision made at a price set by the student. Try bargaining at the campus bookstore (or trying to beat the rest to the library for one of the two copies therein). Should the textbook magically appear on torrent, what is the right action?

You could probably get a used copy from somewhere online or a bookstore if you are lucky and know the right places to look. Or you could share a book. But the thing with hypotheticals is that you can ignore these details. And I will. So, ignoring such possibilities, consider this consumer. I doubt Ihnatko would recommend the free-and-clear option of not getting an education.

It seems to me, it doesn’t really matter what a free downloader thinks of himself or his post hoc rationalisation of his actions. The more interesting matter is in fact what we can say, each from his or her high horse, about stealing things, what kinds of things, when and for what reason, and why not?


Commenter “JR” on Ihnatko’s blog has some very worthwhile things to say from an economic perspective. You can follow this link to one of his comments and read the rest in the same page. I had made a conscious decision not to explore here, on this post, the sort of things he highlights in his comments. These include issues in market economies such as the “free rider” problem with “public goods”, and the process of using “artificial scarcity” (copyrights and patents) to set pricing and extract profits from such goods. I am not an expert on these issues but the Wikipedia article on Public Goods is a good place to get an overview. Now that I am commenting, however briefly, on this dimension, I feel inclined to include a quote from Thomas Jefferson (who is writing in the quote below about ideas and using patents to restrict the use of ideas) that I had previously edited out:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Jefferson, who is no chump, is aware of the claims of property rights to the invention, which he addresses thus:

Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody.

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