The Moralistic Dimensions of Unauthorised Copying of Software – Selected Issues

Mikko T. Siponen and Jorma Kajava


In this paper, we share the view held by mainstream computer ethics researchers that unauthorised copying of software (in a general sense) is immoral (we refer to it in this paper as SW piracy). Nonetheless, software piracy is an incontrovertible fact and, in this respect, we go from a descriptive perspective to a prescriptive one. The scope of this research is limited to discussing some general issues concerning software piracy as a moral problem. As our own research shows (taken from different students and from literature) software piracy is seen as one of the most difficult problems in computer ethics partly owing to conceptual muddles (outlined by [Moore, 1984]) and partly due to inconsistent moral behaviour and lack of awareness [Siponen & Kajava, 1997 (b)]. In spite of all efforts to prove otherwise, there are currently a lot of people who view SW piracy either as morally acceptable behaviour or as something that is totally amoral ^V i.e. something that has nothing whatsoever to do with morals. We have formulated the following treefold approach partly from literature reviews and from our questionnaire studies. It consists of postulations, which have been mainly offered as arguments in favour of SW piracy. In this paper, we start off by dealing with conceptual muddles, by arguing that they constitute the only aspect of SW piracy where the application of ethics and moral thinking is actually necessary. Mentioned factors that prevent us from seeing moral values intuitively, are not new. They are, in fact, the main bridge into the realm of ethics (Ethics relates to finding out about right and wrong. According to Hare this is, in essence, where we need a higher level moral thinking). It seems to be that a far more appropriate explanation would be that software piracy is a good example of inconsistent moral behaviour and lack of awareness. Thus, we believe (which our preliminary results support so far) that it is usuful to examine these kinds of comprehensive approaches in hope of finding ways to improve the particular situation. we proceed from a legal perspective to outline central issues concerning the morality of software piracy. . In the case of legal issues with respect to morality discussion, arguments such as “it is illegal” do not constitute an adequate reply to the moral problem of SW piracy: the issue is more complex than that. Therefore, e.g. in this respect, the relevant aspects such as status (e.g. source and meaning with respect to well-being) of the law from the point of view of computer ethics is explored. Secondly we use both the analogy and moral philosophy approaches whenever relevant in our discussion on the morality of software piracy. Even we think that the analogy strategy comes under serious pressure as a tool for solving ethical problems, the approach will be used in this content, however, because it is easy to understand without ethical thinking skills (and knowledge). Also, it may invoke people to see intuitively the moral principles underlying certain issues. Then we move on to explore different philosophical frameworks regarding SW piracy. Though the philosophical approach forms the foundation of this paper, we do not present any in-depth study about different ethical theories^R views concerning SW piracy.