A number of people I have talked to claim that they do not engage in filesharing because “it’s wrong,” a sentiment that seems deeply rooted in the idea that sharing files involves taking something that doesn’t belong to you; that is, stealing. These people believe they are taking the “moral high ground” by refusing to participate in this “theft” even when millions of others around the world are doing so. For once I’d like to avoid getting into all of the specific reasons of why filesharing isn’t stealing at all and investigate the idea that this position is actually closer to a moral wrong.
In Society, Sharing is Good
As children, our parents encouraged us to share as soon as our concept of “mine” began to develop. Sharing is one of those behaviors that benefits society as a whole and helps to break us out of a strictly Darwinian existence. If I have two sandwiches, and you have none, I can share with you. We’ll each have a sandwich to eat, helping both of us survive. Instead of a zero-sum situation, where my having food denies you food, sharing creates a net positive situation where both of us can win.
It is through sharing that we develop a culture and advance humanity. Creative works like art and music are, at their core, about sharing with others. They tell stories, reveal personalities, or comment on the world in ways that others can appreciate, forming a part of our culture as they are spread around. Gregor Mendel’s discoveries about genetics had no value while they were gathering dust on the monastery bookshelf; it is only when those discoveries were shared with the world that they became vital.
Infinite Goods Should Be Shared
Say you have something that is good for others, and it is infinite, so you will not lose any of it by giving some away. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people’s idea of morality would dictate that they should share that thing. In general, information is something that can be seen as a public good. If somebody has a discovery or an idea, it costs nothing to give it away, it is not scarce, yet it can potentially benefit the world. Thomas Jefferson said it well:
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.Thomas Jefferson
Content is an Infinite Good
The 21st century has transformed the content that comprises our shared culture from a scarce good to an infinite good. When we were constrained to physical media, a situation was created where only one person could have a given item at a time. Today, thanks to digitization, anybody can make an exact, lossless duplication of their content, effectively increasing the total “units” available. In a situation rather similar to Jesus pulling bread and fish out of a basket, no matter how many times something digital is copied there is always one left.
Thanks to p2p (people-to-people) filesharing technology and the internet, we now have a global distribution network that allows these infinite goods to be shared with anybody who wants it. Anybody with access to content in the form of digital information can spread it around the world, and why wouldn’t they want to? There is no loss to them, yet sharing it can improve the lives of any interested person anywhere in the world with a computer and an internet connection.
Putting it Together
Faced with an infinity of good things in the form of content information, why would somebody chose not to give it away? What is gained by hoarding something that can help others and costs nothing to share? Let’s say you figure out that you can protect people from a deadly virus, say, influenza, with a vaccine. While it costs something to manufacture physical vaccines and mail them to everybody in the world, sharing the information behind it is free. Others can chose whether or not they want to invest money in creating their own, but sharing has given them the option to do so where before it did not exist. Faced with this situation, who would chose to let thousands of people perish by denying them even the potential opportunity to save themselves?
Yet this is exactly the choice many people are making in the name of “intellectual property.” They would rather see others suffer than share something infinite with them, desperately clinging to business models that depend on scarcity. In the 21st century, ideas, information, digitized content are all infinitely available. For these things, the Star Trek replicator has been made, and it’s time to use that as a stepping stone to greater things.
Faced with an infinite supply of information that can potentially benefit billions of people, I chose to share. Those who try to hoard this information are both attempting to drink the ocean and doing wrong.
Also published (with commentary) on TechDirt.