A group of British academics has just published a paper similar to one I was planning to write about the need to re-evaluate the ethics of the copyright system given the drastic changes in the new digital landscape. Here’s the abstract for “Framing the consumer: Copyright regulation and the public” by Lee Edwards, Bethany Klein, David Lee, Giles Moss and Fiona Philip:

With illegal downloading at the centre of debates about the creative economy, various policy initiatives and regulatory attempts have tried (and largely failed) to control, persuade and punish users into adhering to copyright law. Rights holders, policymakers, intermediaries and users each circulate and maintain particular attitudes about appropriate uses of digital media. This article maps the failure of regulation to control user behaviour, considers various policy and academic research approaches to understanding users, and introduces an analytical framework that re-evaluates user resistance as expressions of legitimate justifications. A democratic copyright policymaking process must accommodate the modes of justification offered by users to allow copyright law to reconnect with the public interest goals at its foundation.

Exactly. We must have a public conversation about just how powerful copyright holders should be, particularly amid “legitimate justifications” of resistance. I will probably build on this paper to create a more overt ethical argument for individuals to follow as they wait for policymakers to adapt.

For instance, I think one can ethically justify downloading illegal content that has been paid for in some fashion. If I pay iTunes for the rights to watch a television show, then I should be able to watch it by hooking the computer up to my TV. However, some copyright holders digitally block that type of arrangement. (I’ve literally had iTunes tell me that my license didn’t allow for content to be displayed on a TV screen, only on a computer.) I have “resisted” this copyright over-reach by downloading the show illegally and watching on my TV via a USB port. This action, I believe, is a legitimate ethical justification.

Other specific examples of group resistance are probably equally justified — but we must be careful that we don’t justify wholesale theft of copyrighted works. I look forward to thinking about this problem further — and using this work as a welcome starting place.