Center for Interdisziplinary Research

ZiF Research Group

The Ethics of Copying


Convenors: Reinold Schmücker (Münster, GER), Thomas Dreier (Karlsruhe, GER), Pavel Zahrádka (Olomouc, CZE)

Copying has always been a widespread human practice. It is crucial in many ways for the cultural development of any society as well as for economic success, and it supports democratization processes by providing access to important cultural goods and information.

But it is often controversial, in which cases and to what degree it might or might not be legitimate to copy an artefact or certain aspects of somebody's physical appearance, or imitate patterns of someone's behaviour, and who should be entitled to raise normative claims that restrict other people's copying activities. Beliefs about the legitimacy and moral permissibility of various types of copying processes, individual acts of copying and ways of handling copies differ profoundly across different cultures, and they are subject to historical changes - due to technological developments as well as religious, political and economic factors.

In modern societies, the most important medium for normatively restricting copying processes is the law - not only copyright law, but also patent and trademark law and laws regulating unfair competition, among others. However, there seems to be a growing discrepancy between the existing legal situation and common morality. Major parts of the existing intellectual property law are not regarded as normatively appropriate by a growing number of people. This discrepancy tends to become even greater given the current shift from owning and copying physical things to merely having access to electronic data.

So far, there is no ethics of copying that could present a just balance of interests for those affected by copying practices. The overarching aim of this research group, a collaboration between legal scholars, philosophers and scholars from art history, art sciences, book studies, comparative literature, German literature, media studies, popular music and sociology, is to develop proposals concerning such a balance which might influence future legislation and facilitate the formation of inter-subjective moral standards for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate forms of copying.

In order to develop the foundations of an ethics of copying, the group will work on questions like: What kinds of copies should be allowed to be produced by whom and for which purposes? Which forms of copying activities should be restricted from a moral point of view? And how can different interests with regard to property rights and copying permissions be weighed against each other?

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