What if we couldn’t get caught?

Internet piracy is becoming increasingly acceptable in American society, raising interesting questions about the nature of the authority of social norms. Many of us do not see copyright infringement as a moral issue, but would be reluctant to commit small scale theft like shoplifting.

Very few of us would seriously contend that stealing is not wrong. Even keeping the contents of a lost wallet would be morally objectionable, if we could identify and locate the owner. Internet piracy is just as much stealing as shoplifting from a video store, but it does not carry the same sort of stigma.

I see two possible explanations for this difference: First, internet piracy does not involve actively stealing from a location–it is not tangible deprivation in the same way that shoplifting is. To some, copyright infringement may feel like a victimless crime, as there is no store clerk or door guard trying to prevent you from stealing.

Second, internet piracy does not carry with it the same kind of risk as shoplifting. While some pirates are caught and prosecuted, nobody is trying to stop you. And even if you are caught, nobody physically will grab you, and tackle you to the floor. Just as it is hard to conceive of a victim, an internet pirate may find it hard to conceive of an authority figure trying to stop him.

Why are so few people bothered by the act of internet piracy? Is it because they do not feel they are hurting anyone, or they do not feel they will be punished? Perhaps it is a combination of the two–pirates do not feel they are hurting anyone, and are not worried about negative consequences. It is the fear of hurting someone, or being hurt, that grants most norms power, which may explain why there is no strong social norm against this piracy.

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1 Response to What if we couldn’t get caught?

  1. nimummareddy says:

    I believe that the intangible aspect of internet piracy plays a major role in society not being bothered by it. As long as humans cannot specifically identify the person or organization they stole from, their guilty conscience is repressed. However, if they were reminded of their crime repeatedly, then the situation might change.

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