In college I wrote a document called the "Warez Manifesto" which laid out the principles by which the use of unlicensed software becomes moral. In a recent email exchange with a friend relating to someone else who was talking about their own software piracy I had occasion to revisit the topic and briefly (and crudely) summarize my feelings...
My basic argument regarding the rights of property which can duplicated without a further resource required of the producer (i.e., duplicating a song) is that if the individual is making or receiving the duplicate for their own use and they would have otherwise not have used that property legally, then in my eyes they are doing nothing immoral. Obviously the part that must be factored in, to some degree, is the collateral damage done by someone's passive (or mildly active) support of piracy which serves a large audience of people who would be behaving immorally because this illegal use is an alteration of their behavior (they would have otherwise paid for the product).
But there is a stronger, though more peculiar, argument which says that such piracy is not only not immoral but is in fact a moral imperative. I started to write this argument to my friend before running out of time and leaving it somewhat incomplete... But I think it still has some merit in this form.
Our little society is hurtling its way somewhere... We're racing towards the cliff and whether we'll fly off the edge and ascend into the heavens or plummet into the abyss I'm not sure... Immortality, elimination of suffering, ubiquitous joy, technology can usher all those things in (or kill us all quite dead)... I am not sure to what degree we can protect ourselves from the downside. For though we evolve our society by leaps and bounds, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bushel, and we've got a big bushel, and the bad apples are getting more infectiously rotten. Our killing capacity is growing by leaps and bounds as well, and we're approaching an age where someone with modest resources and modest knowledge will be able to kill nearly everyone in one go through biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc. and I don't think we can do much to modify that threat. We might be able to delay it 50 or 500 years by limiting access to information, restricting some technologies, but the information and the technologies will eventually be available to all. So I figure, oh well, might as well roll the dice sooner rather than later (why put off the inevitable?). Progress begets progress. Advances in curling iron technology is just as vital as advances in defense technologies, -ish. Obviously not really, but the idea is that technology and society are never elevated in only one sector. A society which has fabulous fashion design abilities will be directly and indirectly raised up by those mad skills. Maybe the fashion produces the GDP which lets the society buy other people's technology, which feeds the development of that other technology, or perhaps the fashion sense literally invites new ways of thinking about problems in general, about society in general, and the society and technology are elevated. Of course it can go the other way, too. But rarely does it, really... I mean, inexorably we move forward, accepting the odd dark ages here and there. Our darkest hours in recent years may kill tens of millions (see WWII) but boy do we rapidly advance in times of trouble! So, my logic has it that if advancement is inevitable, if we might as well race towards it as meander towards it, and if even unrelated progress is progress, then I think we are improved if as many people have access to as many "advanced" tools as possible. So, if little college Johnny can't afford to buy a copy of $1600 Photoshop, I think his purloining one helps us progress. His access to the tools will give him access to the knowledge which will give him the opportunity to contribute, and our society moves one step closer to our fate one day sooner. And I think, given our peculiar circumstances, that's the right thing to do.
Nothing I said or feel on this subject conflicts in any way with the notion that everyone deserves to be compensated for their work, as they are currently. My argument that theft (as currently defined) can be moral requires that the individual act of theft engenders no loss (of any significance) to the producer/creator. I'm all for cracking down brutally hard on "immoral" piracy while legally codifying "moral" piracy. Essentially I'm just arguing in favor of an updated and digital version of squatter's rights/adverse possession protection. Instead law seems to be going the opposite way, extending copyrights and patents ridiculously beyond their original intended runs, and granting patents to the first in line with utterly unremarkable and obvious nonsense ("one click" shopping). And that hurts everyone by enriching only the already enriched, and not encouraging continued ingenuity.