The morality of copying: a simple Kantian evaluation


Harrison Ainsworth

This is a simple, solid argument for the moral goodness of copying

First, any understanding must rest on the basic elements. So leave aside the secondary consideration of economic effects assuming particular social or legal constructions, and look at copying in itself.

To evaluate something morally, we can follow Kant[1], whose fundamental moral rule is: Act only if the maxim of your action can be willed as a universal law. That is, we ask: would we want an action to be a general law?

If a digital object is good, then copying it duplicates and spreads that good. And the incidental cost of copying is practically nothing. We can certainly wish this were a general law: if everyone copied freely and widely, we would all benefit – we would all receive very much more good, and at negligable cost. Copying seems clearly moral, and any restriction such as copyright must therefore be partly immoral.

Creative production can be addressed similarly, with a similar result: We ought to help cultural items be produced because we will all benefit. So helping production, and copying, are both moral. One is not intrinsically antagonistic or limiting on the other – in fact they are mutually sustaining. You have a duty to do both. And it follows that where there is a system that is self-conflicting, such as copyright – which sacrifices copying freedom for production rewards – you have a moral duty to replace it with something better.

It is difficult to see how, under any rational ethical measure, copying could be anything but highly moral.


The only legitimate argument for copyright is of overall expedience: that doing some bad in restricting copies is compensated by the good of encouraging production. This is entirely empirical. Its proof rests on evidence, and its implementation on practicality. One may advocate this position, but it seems neither of its prerequisites are currently well supported. Even this is effort poorly spent. We want obviously better new systems, not justifications of dubious old ones.

Of course, actual control of copyright is not about rational argument. It is about corporate interest. They want easy money, and monopoly is a splendid means to ensure that. Perhaps we should copy a key tactic from that world, and set the frame of debate with a slogan, something like: ‘Piracy is competition you're frightened of’[2].


  1. ‘Groundwork For The Metaphysic Of Morals’; Kant, Bennett (trans); 1785, 2008.
  2. Inspired by an anonymous comment at Techdirt.