‘Moral squalor’ of illegal downloads condemned

Have you ever downloaded a song without paying for it? Watched a film online for free? If so, the celebrated author Philip Pullman believes you are no better than a pickpocket. Is that fair?

‘You wouldn’t steal a car,’ ran a famous advert made in 2004. ‘You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t steal a movie.’ Then, as a woman shifts her mouse across a screen towards a ‘download’ icon, the punchline appears: ‘Downloading pirated films is stealing. Piracy – it’s a crime.’

This short, which appeared before countless feature films in cinemas and on DVDs, was repeatedly parodied and derided. ‘I wouldn’t steal a car,’ admits a Facebook page with almost 300,000 likes, ‘but I’d download one if I could.’

Now, however, the analogy has been resurrected by one of the most popular and respected of British authors. In an article for the campaign group Index on Censorship, Philip Pullman, creator of the His Dark Materials trilogy, launched an uncompromising attack on anyone who illegally downloads books, films and music.

‘It’s theft,’ he said, ‘as surely as reaching into somebody’s pocket and taking their wallet.’ Technology must not obscure the ‘moral squalor,’ he insisted. ‘If we want to enjoy the work that someone does, we should pay for it.’

The argument is straightforward enough. Artists have intellectual ownership of any work they produce; they alone have the right to sell it or license it to be sold. Without this law, creativity simply would not pay. Campaigners estimate that illegal downloads cost the creative industries over £1 billion per year, as well as tens of thousands of jobs.

Yet unlike any other kind of theft, internet piracy is widely considered acceptable. One 2009 survey showed that 70% of people felt no guilt about downloading content illegally, while the majority of teenagers believed they had an absolute right to access films and music for free.

It is estimated that the average iPod contains £500 of pirated music and that 75% of computers harbour illegally downloaded files. Can something so widespread really be criminal and immoral?

The dread pirates

Anyone who downloads art illegally is a contemptible petty thief, say thousands of struggling artists, and these unscrupulous scavengers will soon make our cultural landscape barren. If you love music, film or literature, the least you can do is grant those responsible for it a living; otherwise, artists could soon be a rare breed.

But a few writers and musicians, instead of attacking illegal downloaders, have embraced the pirate revolution. Instead of fighting it, they say, creative types should spread their work as widely as they possibly can. If your work is good enough, such exposure will win it a dedicated following – and then the money will come. People will always want and need good art; and as long as they do, society will find a way to make it pay.

You Decide

  1. Is there a moral difference between downloading a film illegally and stealing a DVD?
  2. ‘When the majority of people ignore the law, it’s the law that needs to change, not the people.’ Do you agree?


  1. Conduct a poll of your class designed to measure people’s attitudes to illegally downloading music. How many have done it? How many think it is wrong?
  2. Think of one alternative way to fund artistic endeavour. It can be as ambitious or far fetched as you like!

Some People Say...

“You can’t own an idea.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is it really illegal to download files off the internet? Can I be punished?
If they’re out of copyright, it’s fine: a book that was first published 70 years ago or more, for instance, can be freely downloaded and reproduced. But if you download anything that is protected by intellectual property rights (and that includes all but one of the 1,000 most popular files shared online) you are technically breaking the law. It’s rare for ordinary consumers to be punished, but if you’re caught and singled out you could theoretically be fined up to £50,000.
Yikes. What about streaming applications like Grooveshark and Spotify?
Both legal: they earn money from advertising and pay royalties to the artists they host; but for most musicians these payments are very small indeed.

Word Watch

Not, of course, robbery at sea, but a colloquial term for copyright infringement. Although today this is mostly an online crime, it also includes selling bootlegged CDs and DVDs. Some label all file sharing as piracy, while others say that it should only count if it is done for profit.
Index on Censorship
An international organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression around the world. It publishes a quarterly magazine and supports artists who feel their voice is being suppressed.
Philip Pullman
Most famous for his young adult fiction, in particular the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, which opens with Northern Lights. Pullman is a prominent atheist and has recently been chosen as president of the Society of Authors – a prestigious honour first awarded to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Disgusting, filthy, sordid.

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