Where do you stand on digital media ethics?

Summary:Help me wrestle with some ethical questions related to digital media. We can all agree that it's easy to make perfect copies of digital media, and that there's no such thing as an unbreakable copy protection scheme. But the fact that you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should. Does it?

I'm back from vacation, digging through a pile of e-mail and snail mail and more packages than FedEx and UPS and USPS and I care to count. Anyway, while I try to find my desk under this mountain of paper and stuff, help me wrestle with some ethical questions related to digital media. We can all agree, I think, that it's easy to make perfect copies of digital media, and that there's no such thing as an unbreakable copy protection scheme. But the fact that you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should. Does it?

I'm not asking about criminal law or civil suits or the genuine evilness of DRM or the RIAA or Apple or Microsoft. For the sake of argument, let's assume that your risk of being arrested or sued for any of the activities listed here is zero. The real question is how you feel about the rightness and wrongness of personal actions when it comes to digital media. I use the words proper and OK in these questions, although I could also have chosen moral or ethical or right. Each of those words carries some sort of philosophical baggage that means more to some people than others, so if you feel there's a better way to ask the question, go ahead and rephrase it to your heart's content.

This isn't a "gotcha" exercise. I believe there is a legitimate range of answers to any of these questions, and I'm not looking for a consensus. I'm sure that at one extreme on this issue is a minority that believes all media should be completely free. They're counterbalanced by lawyers and executives in the entertainment industry who have some fairly radical notions and a long list of activities they would like to declare illegal. Most people, I suspect, fall somewhere between these extremes, which is why I ask these questions:

Take the full poll (11 questions)

  • Do you think it's proper to buy a CD, rip it to your hard drive, and then make copies for your own personal use on multiple devices or computers? Are there any types of copies that are more or less acceptable? Vote here
  • Do you think it's proper to buy a CD, rip it to your hard drive, and then trade in the CD at your local used-media store or online? Vote here
  • Is it OK to borrow a CD from a friend and rip it to your hard drive? Is it proper to buy a CD and make a copy for a friend? If your answer to either question is "sometimes" or "it depends," what are the circumstances that make it OK? Vote here
  • If you buy a DRM-protected track from an online music or video store like iTunes, is it proper to strip the DRM and make an unprotected backup copy? Vote here
  • If you rent a DVD from Netflix or Blockbuster, is it OK to make a copy before you return it? Vote here
  • If you miss an episode of your favorite TV program from a broadcast network, is it OK to download it from BitTorrent or a file-sharing network? Does it make a difference if it's a program from a subscription-only channel like HBO? What about if the same program is available for free with ads from an "official" website or for a charge from an online service? Vote here

I have my own ideas about some of these issues, but I don't want to prejudice anyone's answers. So I'll tally your votes and read your comments for a few days before posting my thoughts as a follow-up. Have at it.

Topics: Security, Hardware, Mobility

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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