This week The Ethicist takes a question from a man posted in Vietnam who buys bootlegged copies of DVDs because "legitimate copies" are mostly unavailable in his area. Under such circumstances, is it ethical to buy pirated movies? If the man pays a monthly fee to a video rental service such as Netflix in order to make sure the studios get a little money, is he in the clear?
Cohen heads down the right track, advising the man to have his send him DVDs from the States and analyzing the sometimes tricky balance between adopting the accepted practice of the local community and staying true to your own ethical beliefs. Ask Gothamist agreed with this line of thinking, understanding that ethics depend highly on geographic locationl, local culture and even moment-to-moment calculations.
After reading his final paragraph, however, Ask Gothamist put down the magazine and shook our heads in complete disagreement. "Your being abstemious would benefit nobody; your being briefly imperfect does little damage," Cohen writes, thereby condoning the practice. Randy, Randy, Randy. Wouldn't having his mail him new DVDs from the U.S., as you suggest, benefit everyone? He gets the DVDs he wants and the creators get their royalties. (Although his do have to make multiple trips to the Post Office, an undertaking that Ask Gothamist would be loath to request of anyone.)
Cohen is right in his assertion that brief imperfections typically do little greater harm. Tossing one soda can on the side of the road will hardly exacerbate global warming, after all. The problem the Motion Picture Association of America has with piracy, however, is the grand total of everyone's "brief imperfections." Each person might think his purchase of a bootlegged Return of the King has little impact on New Line's bottom line, but what if a large number of individuals choose the same movie as their sole bootleg purchase of the year? Even when purchases are spread over a number of movies from different studios, the revenue lost to piracy would surely total the budget of more than a few blockbuster and independent flicks. The greed of the movie industry aside, "brief imperfections" can add up to long-term problems for artists and producers.
The simple fact is that if no one bought bootlegs in the local Hanoi market then there would be no market for bootlegs. With his purchase, the question writer not only contributes to the growing problem of digital piracy, but he also funds an industry that is becoming the 21st century's new drug trade. Turf wars and gangland style shootings are not uncommon among competing pirates and the ex-Pat would be well advised not to give his money to such criminals. Instead, he should make sure his money goes to industry-sanctioned criminals like studio executives, talent managers and agents.
Now, if you'll excuse us, Ask Gothamist is going to go out and purchase a Xeroxed copy of Cohen's book, The Good, the Bad & the Difference.