Sample Paper on File Sharing in the Film Industry

File Sharing in the Film Industry


The film industry has substantially exploited the benefits that came with the internet and web 2.0. Despite the significant benefits that the industry derives from this technology, the same technology has made it easier for millions of people across the globe to share files, especially the youths. The film industry is unhappy with this development as it threatens their profits. On the other hand, those who are involved in file sharing argue that there is nothing wrong sharing their files with others. Therefore, the industry and online users have different perspectives on the issue. However, after careful consideration, the ethical issues surrounding file sharing in the film industry can be best addressed by the utilitarian perspective. This memo seeks to shed light on the ongoing social and ethical debate on the issue of file sharing. The paper offers a utilitarian perspective on the ethics of file-sharing and proposes two solutions to the issue.

Film Industry vs. Popular Perspective

Given that much of the industry`s revenue is derived from exploiting the intellectual property rights of various films, the film industry paints file sharing in an unethical light, calling it piracy and equating it to petty theft. The most notable example of this is the Motion Picture Association of America’s anti-piracy ad that plays before DVD content: “Downloading pirated films is stealing; Stealing is against the law; Piracy: it’s a crime” (Green 168). In 2012, lobbyists for the film and music industries even tried to create two pieces of anti-piracy legislation on the grounds that piracy is stealing – the Preventing Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Threat of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Clearly, as a whole, the film industry believes file sharing to be an unethical act, comparable to theft or stealing. This is understandable, as every illegally shared film is a lost opportunity for revenue generation. However, it seems that most consumers have a very different opinion. In 2002, studies reported over 3 million users online at any given time file sharing movies at 12 to 18 million files per month (Moore 1). A University of Albany study that surveyed the students of six university courses showed that “a majority of university students do in fact use peer-to-peer networking,” and that “few respondents even perceive the use of the [peer-to-peer networking] software as either unethical or illegal” (Moore 16). When asked open-ended questions about the ethics of file-sharing, respondents revealed they did not find file sharing to be equivalent or as unethical as shoplifting, despite both acts involving obtaining copyrighted items without payment. In fact, multiple respondents even responded, “it’s too easy to get to be illegal,” when asked about the legality of file sharing. The researchers offered two possible explanations for these perceptions: either the anonymity of using the Internet makes the act of file sharing seem less severe than something physical like shoplifting, or respondents believe their actions are too insignificant to seriously affect the film industry. Since younger demographics are heavy Internet users, it is reasonable to assume many other active users share their perceptions of file sharing. Indeed, it is hard to perceive file sharing as illegal when digital technology makes the act so simple and unregulated. It is also easy to believe that giant movie companies cannot be impacted by the actions of one individual. However, both of these viewpoints are gravely mistaken.
Why File sharing is Unethical

From intellectual property standpoint, the act of file sharing is unethical on utility grounds. Films are high-risk, high-reward collaborative efforts between business and creative professionals with the end goal of profitability. A film is ultimately a cultural commodity. In other words, it is a creative work with an artistic value, which is translated into an economic value. From an economic perspective, that artistic value is made possible by the incredibly expensive production budgets required to create popular films, which make them a valuable piece of intellectual property. The creative and business professionals that sacrificed time, resources, and energy for a film’s production and distribution expect to profit from intellectual property through licensing or royalties. To trespass on intellectual property via illegal file sharing without consent from its owners amounts to unethically denying the creators the benefits of their labor. Thus, disrespecting intellectual property via file sharing has the effect of discouraging the quality filmmaking that brings artistic value to international audiences – this is highly unethical on the grounds of utility. When debating the ethics of file sharing films, it is important to understand why a film is such a valuable piece of intellectual property. David Thorsby, a renowned cultural economist, defined three characteristics that make up the artistic value of a cultural good in his book “Economics and Culture”: the creativity involved in its production; the creation and communication of symbolic meaning; and its value as a piece of intellectual property (Thorsby 12). By this definition, the artistic value of a film is derived from all stages in the production process, from screenwriting and directing to special effects and costume design. A film’s production process requires incredible amounts of resources, especially with the popularity of digital effects involved in today’s films – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) had a production budget of $410.6 million dollars alone (Forbes 1). In 2005, total negative costs associated with film production in the U.S. totaled $9.7 billion dollars (Piazza and Olausson 4). Due to the high production costs of filmmaking, the film industry is an inherently risky business because a film’s revenue “depends primarily on its acceptance by the public, which is difficult to predict” (Piazza and Olausson 3).


From a film producer’s point of view, a film is a multi-million dollar investment that that presents significant risk – if the film is unpopular then the producer will have wasted years of his time and money. Ultimately, making a profit is the primary incentive for modern film production, which involves the complex task of recruiting and managing a team of talented filmmakers, actors, and artists. Film producers generate revenue with a simple but lucrative profit strategy to make a return on their financial and creative investments: “create compelling content and exploit the intellectual property rights of that material in a sequential order across a variety of distribution channels” (Piazza and Olausson 4). Traditionally, there are six major windows of exploitation – box office theater tickets, home entertainment (DVD, VCR), pay-per-view TV services, subscription-based TV channels (HBO), first-run broadcast on TV, and TV syndication. With digital media, online streaming, purchases, or rentals have also become revenue sources. File sharing deprives film producers of the revenue sources listed above by infringing on intellectual property, which weakens the incentive for creative and business professionals to produce feature films. Therefore, file sharing is unethical on utilitarian ground. The consequences of file sharing will result in economic disincentives for further film production. As movie screenings and home entertainment products lose their appeal and TV networks no longer seek movie syndication deals, films will lose their value as pieces of intellectual property.

How Online Users Justify Their Behaviors?

“But it is not stealing.” Many Internet users who are involved in file sharing do not believe it is an illegal or unethical act. This is likely because file sharing is so anonymous and simple that it lessens the seriousness of the act. Various empirical studies indicate that people do not equate shoplifting to file sharing, despite both acts involving taking copyrighted materials without payment (Green 165). This perception is gravely mistaken. By participating in file sharing, Internet users are actively perpetuating a social trend that ‘steals’ opportunities for profit from film producers. As stated above, film producers and creative professionals invest time, energy, and resources in a high-risk venture for profitability. This profit is earned through generating revenue through exploiting intellectual property rights. To encourage, participate, or perpetuate in file sharing is to deny all involved in a film’s production the benefit to their labor, and discouraging film production in general. On the ethical grounds of utility, file sharing is unacceptable.

Recommended Solutions

To possibly prevent or at least reduce the level file sharing among internet users, two solutions are recommended. First, Internet users must be educated on the business models of films. Knowing that their actions do affect even the largest of movie companies may help deter their illegal behavior. Educating users on the ethics of intellectual property will be the first step. Secondly, the film industry should correct their public messaging on file sharing. It seems that common moral intuition is rejecting the argument that file sharing is stealing. Indeed, they are not taking the film from someone, but merely making a copy. Instead, the film industry needs to characterize file sharing as intellectual property infringement or misappropriation. Internet users will not be as likely to reject this interpretation of file sharing.



Works Cited

Forbes. ‘Fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean Is Most Expensive Movie Ever With Costs Of $410 Million’. Forbes., 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.<>

Di Piazza, Guy, and Martin Olausson. ‘The Television And Movie Industry Explained: Where Does All The Money Go?’, 2007. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.<>

Green, Stuart .Thirteen Ways To Steal A Bicycle:Theft Law in the Information Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.

Moore Robert. ‘Perceptions of Peer-to-Peer File Sharing Among University Students’. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 11.1 (2004):1-19

Throsby David. Economics And Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.