Shifting Morality

Originally posted on Half an Hour, December 23, 2007.

Doug Johnson writes, "I am not sure that these kids are less moral - only differently moral."

I think you may also want to examine how publishers and their supporters are changing (or trying to change) the concept of 'morality'. Let me highlight some areas:

- the 'doctrine of first sale' is in the process of being repealed. What this doctrine states is that, if you buy something, you own it outright. You can, in turn, lend it, sell it, use it as a doorstop, whatever you want. Increasingly, manufacturers are retaining rights - not just regarding copying, but where something is used, how it is used, for what purpose it is used, and more. It's fair enough for them to try, but how does it become *immoral* for people to defen their rights under the doctrine of first sale?

- the doctrine of 'fair use' or 'fair dealing'. It has long been understood that a creator's rights under copyright are not absolute. In particular, under 'fair use' (or 'fair dealing' in Canada) we have historically had the right to copy a small portion of the work to use when citing, referencing, criticizing, parodying, or teaching. Publishers simply refuse to respect this doctrine - try publishing work with citations allowed under fair use but explicitly cleared by the other publisher. Or try showing a logo in a video without blurring it our. Meanwhile, DRM and similar technology makes fair use impossible. And such use, we are told, is immoral. How so now?

- the distinction between personal use and commercial use - we have had a longstanding understanding that restrictions on certain commercial activities - making copies onto blank media, for example - are perfectly legal in the noncomnmercial domain. That sharing copies among friends is a fundamentally different type of activity. In Canada, moreover, the government collects royalties on blank media, distributed to content providers, in explicit recognition of such activities. How, then, do they become immoral?

- the idea of 'free access' - from time immemorial, we have grown up believing that performances of various media are free to the viewer or listener. From listening to musicians play on the street or in bars, to watching TV or listening to the radio, to reading books in the library or billboards on the wall, if the media was available, then we could access it for free. There was never a *way* to act immorally in this regard. But now we are required to 'avert our eyes' - to not view, to not listen, to not download - in certain cases (and somehow, to magically know what those cases are). Why is this? Why is it OK to listen to a song for free on the radio but not listen to the very same song on the internet? How does the one behaviour remain moral but the other, somehow, become immoral?

- the doctrine of 'sharing' - as children we were told that sharing is good. And that when there are things that everybody can use - parks, roads, museums, culture - these are good as well. But more and more, we are being told that sharing is bad, and that everything must be owned by some person, who in turn has a 'right' to be compensated. How so? What gave *this* person, rather than the thousands of generations before him that nurtured the concept or the idea, ownership? How did sharing, always a virtue, become *bad*?

You get the idea. Children do not have some fundamentally different morality. Rather, they see - while adults, for some reason, are blind - that the game is shifting, that some very self-centered and greedy people are trying to change the rules. The children - who have no stake in this sudden 'ownership society' - are not fooled. We shouldn't be either.

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