Over the last couple of years the issue of internet piracy has become extremely heated, both because piracy has become easier and copyright holders have become more determined to stop pirates. Because copyright holders like the movie and recording industry have money on their side, they also have the government on their side, earlier this year that combination resulted in the attempted passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. These bills ultimately did not pass because of a vocal and dramatic public outcry. However, the fact that online piracy generates so much controversy forces one to consider whether it is morally permissible, independent of whether or not it is legal (because many things that are legal might not be morally permissible). When considering the issue on internet privacy from multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that not only is it morally permissible, but that it is actually a good thing because it helps diminish the current system of copyright which favors a few wealthy groups over the population as a whole.
The first thing that is important to point out is that despite its name, online piracy is actually not that similar to actual piracy. This is important because determining the moral permissibility of something depends on figuring out that action's potential harmful consequences, its possible violation of others' rights, or whether it embodies certain vices or moral failings. With actual piracy, the most central harmful consequence is that someone is actually deprived of something, because that thing was stolen. This is not the case with online piracy, because nothing is actually being stolen; instead, it is being reproduced without the permission of the copyright holder. This might seem like a minor distinction, but it is very important, because there is a major difference between reproducing a digital version of a movie and actually stealing a DVD, even if copyright holders argue that their "intellectual property" is what is being stolen.
Instead, what is actually being "taken" is the potential profits that the copyright holder would have gotten if the online pirate had instead decided to buy whatever it was he or she downloaded. However, even here it is hard to determine if something was actually taken, because saying that online piracy means losing potential profits assumes that everyone who pirates something online would have purchased that same thing if piracy was not an option or if the consequences seemed too steep. In reality, many people would simply not buy or pirate the product because the purchase price and the potential punishment for piracy were both too high. As Peter Singer (2012) notes, in that case "we are now a long way from the standard cases of stealing," and thus one cannot easily say that online piracy is not morally permissible due to its harmful consequences, simply because it is too hard to accurately say what those harmful consequences are.
One could make the argument that online piracy violates the rights of copyright holders, but even then it is a difficult argument to make, because it is nearly impossible to actually demonstrate how online piracy actually violates those copyright holders, especially if they are not actually losing potential profits due to the piracy. Even if they are losing potential profits, the right to profit from holding a copyright is very different from the kinds of rights considered inalienable, and it is hard to argue that society is morally responsible for protecting the profits of copyrights holders (especially if one believes that the entire system of capitalism is itself immoral). Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that some reasonable amount of online piracy is actually a good thing, because not only are people still spending money on other things, but the coverage and exposure something can get from being pirated can actually help increase legitimate sales (Yglesias, 2012). Furthermore, online piracy increases competition, because no matter how much of a monopoly the film, recording, and publishing industries might have, they still have to compete with people being able to access content for free (aside from the cost of a computer and internet connection).
Finally, one could attempt to argue that online piracy is not morally permissible because it embodies certain vices and transgresses certain virtues. However, when considered in detail, one can see that online privacy actually encourages virtues like dialogue and openness while essentially "punishing" vices like greed. In this context, online piracy can actually be considered virtuous, because the decision to pirate something says a number of things about someone's character that are ultimately good. For one, the decision to pirate something online means that the pirate does not buy into the opposition to piracy provided by either the government or the mass media and content industry, which demonstrates critical thinking skills and a resistance to blind obedience.
Furthermore, the decision to break the particular legal or social rules against online piracy demonstrates a willingness to put oneself at risk of punishment in order to defy a system that is automatically unjust and immoral itself (since capitalism as it exists today depends entirely on exploiting people so that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, with occasional exceptions). In this case, online piracy can be considered a moral act in the same way that people defying segregation laws were being moral; even if getting to watch a movie for free is very different consequence than being beaten by the police, the fact remains that in both cases the people acting are demonstrating their unwillingness to continue to participate in an unjust system. That this comparison might seem exaggerated or nonsensical says more about the mass media and content industry's success in vilifying online piracy than online piracy's potential immorality.
Finally, online piracy actually helps the people creating the content in the first place (as distinct from the copyright holders, who are often an entirely different group of people) because it encourages a much wider dissemination of that content. As one author who encourages people to pirates his books argues, "pirating' can act as an introduction to an artist's work. If you like his or her idea, then you will want to have it in your house; a good idea doesn't need protection" (Coelho, 2012). Thus, online pirates are actually contributing to content creators by increasing their potential audience.
Despite the discussion above, many people still have reservations about online piracy because it simply "feels" wrong, either because it is against the law, or because of some less well defined reason. In the case of its legality, it is true that online piracy is against the law, but the legality of something has little to nothing to do with whether it should be morally permissible, as the entire history of human society demonstrates. For example, slavery was actually legal for the majority of human history, but practically everyone would now agree that slavery is not morally permissible In addition, interracial marriage used to be illegal, even though most non-racist people would now agree that interracial marriage is morally permissible. In the same way, online piracy is against the law, but there is no real moral argument against it, because the only thing it violates is the economic system that currently exists, and it does not say anything morally negative about the pirate's character, because the decision to pirate something has little to no bearing on a person's decisions or beliefs in other contexts.
Furthermore, the feeling that online piracy is simply "wrong" independent of its legality does not stem from any actual moral argument, but simply from the way the practice has been framed in the discussion of it in the media. For example, the decision to call it piracy was not accidental, but instead seems like an intentional…