Intellectual property rights and computer software

John Weckert


The unauthorised copying of computer software is generally considered to be theft and therefore morally wrong. Even just a casual browse through the literature on computer ethics shows that this is the presumption of most discussions of the issue. These discussions tend to focus on the damage caused by this activity and on ways, either legal or technical, to make it more difficult. Rarely is the claim that it is wrong examined, although it is questioned by some not in the mainstream of the computer industry. In this paper it will be argued that it is not at all as obvious as it is commonly assumed, that unauthorised software copying is morally wrong (except insofar as it is morally wrong to act illegally).

That we have a moral right to own things is a generally unquestioned assumption. It is taken for granted that cars, houses, televisions sets, computers and so on can be owned. In order to set the scene for an examination of computer software, we will begin by briefly considering the arguments for ownership of this tangible property, and then move on to the more intangible intellectual variety, of which software is one type.