Theft or Dishonesty?

Some weeks ago I was sitting in a literature class, listening with half an ear as the professor went over the syllabus.

Classic lecture class, but mine has less math and more literature.

Attendance policy: Be here

Written assignments: Three

Plagiarism: Don’t do it

Materials: Pirate them from the internet

In class discussions: Participate

Last day of class: In November

Any questions about those?  You may have gone back to the same one I did, pirating class materials.  The instructor elaborated that course books could be found in the bookstore, but we’d also be watching all 8 matching films, and each student would be required to pirate them on their own time.  She clarified that as an instructor, she is not allowed to recommend we steal things, but she won’t be providing the material, and we will be required to watch it, so she suggests using X-website, Y-website or Z-website.

This is by no means a new experience for those of us in school during the last ten years.  I usually have 1 or 2 professors a year who have a required movie or text that you’ll need to acquire on your own. I also recently had the new experience of a professor who didn’t care about references when making an educational presentation.  She asked me to remove my links and text citations, because it took away from the attractiveness of the project.  I generally thought it shows research and credibility, but I’m not about to argue with the sole grading power.

It’s also worth commenting that the irony inherent in this situation is delicious.  When your instructor for Education and Ethics tells you to pirate a copy of a movie for class, what do you do with that?  Or a literature professor who tells you to steal the movies, and books if you can, of some of the great classics, works they profess to love.  A Research in Sustainability class that asks for no references, and doesn’t give credit to the researchers in question.  It seems they have all chosen…poorly.

That left me with a rather interesting choice.  Do I decide, despite those densely worded FBI warnings on every movie (sorry, I’m not sure what the global equivalent is), to commit theft via piracy so I can participate in class?  Or do I lie to my professor and commit academic dishonesty when writing essays that contrast the books and film?  It would be a poor choice to admit to either, so I think I’ll move on.

Generally speaking, I don’t take things that aren’t mine.  I dislike, with alarming intensity, when people touch my things without permission, so I try not to do it to others.  However, I fully admit there are a few obvious exceptions to my rule.  If I find something awesome left in the street, I pick it up.  If it’s valuable, I turn it in somewhere, but if not, picture a cute owl pencil-case or a pink lined umbrella, I claim it in the name of Bettina.  If there are chocolate cookies during the coffee break for choir, I sometimes eat three (like a rebel), knowing most people will only get two.  I also constantly eat my roommate Kristjana’s cheese because sometimes I just can’t be vegan anymore that day and only cheese will save me.  The difference is, I asked Kristjana first, and always offer to replace it with more cheese or baked goods.

I’m not really sure why I’m so uncomfortable with pirating media.  Everyone seems to do it, and I’m betting mega-movie companies are unlikely to really feel the pinch.  The chances of being caught seem slim, like picking a needle from an ocean sized haystack, but I think I’m more uncomfortable with the fact that if I wanted to, I could afford to buy the media; I just choose not to.  I could buy a lot of things, but I’m in school, and need that money for rent and food.  I choose not to buy, so it doesn’t seem right to take.  I have no idea if that makes any sense.

Pretty Woman, I think you lied to me, Prostitusion’s prob’ly not for me.

So when would it be okay to take things?

If I couldn’t afford food or necessities, I would probably steal things.  Pretty Woman makes prostitution seem alright, but I’m not sure it’s really for me. It’s probably much riskier for me than Julia Roberts, and the chances of Richard Gere (or equivalent) sweeping me away is also fairly unlikely.  I think I’d rather try thievery.

In a far less drastic scenario, if I were a single parent and wanted some peace and quiet from my two adorable, but incredibly high energy children, I might pirate Disney movies online.  I would want to own the films, because I love them, but if finances didn’t permit any movie purchases, I’d try to rent them from the library.  But I’m imagining I don’t have a car, and the nearest library is 30+ minutes away by bus.  Even if I could afford 3 bus fares regularly, I imagine it wouldn’t always be possible to get new books and movies from the library, and incurring late fees would be a big problem.  Thievery provisionally approved.

My logic seems somewhat amoral.  If I can afford it, but don’t want to pay for it, it’s wrong to steal.  If I can’t afford it, but still want it, it’s fine to take.  I’m not sure what to make of that.

A couple of weeks ago, the professor finally got around to asking me if I had done the reading and watched that week’s film.  We were about to start our whole class discussion, and she usually checks in with a couple of people each week.  The conversation went about like this.

“Bettina, did you manage to read Little Women?  And which movie version did you watch?”

“I did read the book, yes, but I had some trouble catching Alcott’s societal commentary.  I never read it as a kid, and I didn’t really like it.”

“Really?  And how did that contrast with the movie version?  Did you like that any better?”

“I didn’t manage to watch the film.”

“Oh really?  Did the site not work for you?  I know a whole bunch have it.  Susan, which site did you use?  Bettina, did you try that site?  Why not?”

“Well, I uh… I don’t really pirate things from the internet.”

“You haven’t?  It’s really easy, you just type name of book full movie into the search box and it just pops up.”

“I meant I’m not really comfortable with taking it.  It’s not mine.”

She gave me a slow blink.  “Oh.  Well I guess you could watch it with someone else.  Who did download it, Susan?  Björn?”

“That’s sort of the same thing.  I don’t think I’d be comfortable with that either.”

“Oh.”  After a fairly long pause, we started the somewhat delayed class session.

Not that kind of pirate.

The choices we make in life aren’t black and white, and I have no desire to assess what other people choose.  Susan can pirate films until the cows come home, and Björn can upload new ones. I have no opinions on that.  I don’t demand that people prove they purchased the film when they invite me over for a movie night, and I don’t plug my ears when the roommates play music, though I guarantee every bit of it’s stolen; both would be incredibly obnoxious.  I’m the only one who has to make my choices, and I’m a happier person, if incredibly technologically handicapped, by never learning how to pirate things online.

There may come a time when I change my mind, and I won’t agonize over it.  Piracy, in the modern sense, don’t make you a terrible person, and yet I’m holding this line.  I don’t think my professor has a right to ask me to steal course materials.  Media can be used for educational purposes very affordably, and be put online through a University website for students to access legally, but my professor didn’t do that.

Meanwhile, the class final will be coming up in a month, and I’m left with an unresolved question.  Shall I commit theft, or academic dishonesty?




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