The Ethics of Cyber Mooching

David Sirota explores the question:

Healthy interpersonal relationships always involve a careful dance around the hard-to-define line between friendly sharing and selfish mooching. Homeowners wonder: How many times is it OK to ask to borrow my poorer neighbor’s lawn mower? Family members ponder: How often can I ask to borrow the museum pass from my economically equal cousin? Friends consider: How frequently can I ask to use a wealthier buddy’s NBA season tickets? In each of these questions (and you know you’ve asked yourself one of these), we are really asking when the other person will think we’ve crossed the Mooch Line, and when that person will angrily implore us to just save up and buy what we want for ourselves.

In the Internet age of frictionless data transfer, such unanswered — and potentially unanswerable — queries are now even more pervasive. Whether sharing legally (lending Kindle books, etc.) or illegally (ripping DVDs, pilfering Netflix or an MLB.com pass, etc.), whom we ask and how much we ask them for are ethical quandaries whose rules shift depending on familial connection, types of friendship and economic status (among other factors). (A disclaimer: Nothing in this article condones any illegal sharing of anything. It is only to acknowledge that such illegal sharing does, in fact, occur — and then to explore the ethical implications of that kind of behavior.)

Sirota presents three options to avoid mooching:

Option 1 is bartering. If someone gives you something that they are paying for, return the favor with something they want that you already have or purchase. Lend them a Kindle book. Let them have access to your Wi-Fi network. Something.

Option 2 is putting up some cash to help defray the cost of what you are getting. In the case of HBO Go, TechCrunch’s data tell us that many believe a fair market price is something along the lines of $12 a month (less than the full HBO subscription, but still fair because you don’t get all of the versatility of that subscription).

Option 3 is getting the service in question from someone higher on the economic food chain, preferably within your family, where (theoretically) the Mooch Line is a bit more forgiving, and where parents and grandparents in particular have a near ancestral obligation to permit mooching.

Do the same options work for pirated content? They arguably do as between the moocher and moochee, although they don’t do anything to address the injured content distributor.

Personally (in the context of legal sharing only, of course), I usually go with Option 1, in the form of looking for opportunities to help those who have shared with me, rather than in the form of outright bartering.

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