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Information Downloading: Right or Wrong?

March 30, 2004

WALTHAM, Mass. - When Dr. Norman Bowie saw the mostly-student audience as he began his lecture at Wilder Pavilion, he cautioned, "the good news is I'm not an attorney, but what I'm going to say today is pretty unpopular."

Dr. Bowie, the Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Corporate Responsibility at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, was the Verizon Visiting Professorship in Business Ethics and Information Technology presented by the Center for Business Ethics.

His lecture, "Digital Rights - And Wrongs: Intellectual Property in the Information Age," touched on the ever-present issues of music and movie downloading and file sharing.

Dr. Bowie presented arguments on why downloading and file sharing are unethical. He cited a recent New York Times article which noted that 56% of all college students download and share music and movies, and that most don't care if the material is copyrighted.

"Students think that it's illegal, but not immoral," he said. "Copyright protection is defensible, referenced in the Constitution."

He was also surprised to see a standing-room-only crowd.

"I don't think I've seen this many students at a lecture at one time," he joked. "There must be some bribing going on."

Dr. Bowie discussed both the utilitarian notion - the legitimate and morally worthy goal of protecting creativity - and the fairness argument, wherein those who invest the time and risk deserve the financial rewards when they 'make it.'

"These two justifications are widely accepted in ethics," he said. "Your arguments against them would somehow have to prove otherwise."

Referring to the 'cat and mouse game' between the recording industry and the so-called 'pirates' taking place today, Dr. Bowie stated that CD sales revenue is down one-third since 1999, and that it's not necessarily the superstar artists that are suffering.

"The people who are really feeling this are the songwriters, and those who count on royalties from record sales to make a living," he said.

He then listed five common arguments that students and others make for illegal downloading and sharing:

  • One good song, many lousy songs - why should someone buy the entire CD?
  • You can't get some songs, except via the Internet
  • There's nothing to steal, since nothing physical is stolen on the computer
  • The artists aren't hurt, only the big record companies are
  • The notion of artistic creativity is all a smokescreen. It's about the companies' strategies and gaining an advantage over their competitors

Dr. Bowie noted that many people are becoming cynical about morality, and that technology is making it easier to be immoral.

"Morality becomes demanding when it's harder to do the right thing," he said.

During the rest of this week, Dr. Bowie will be based at the Center for Business Ethics. An interactive faculty workshop elaborating on the public lecture will be held on Thursday, April 1 at 8:30 a.m., in the Adamian Commons. Dr. Bowie will also be lecturing in several classes during his stay.

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