Herman Tavani develops a framework for analyzing intellectual property issues that rests squarely on Aristotle’s virtue ethics. On this view, information is taken to have as its ultimate purpose both personal expression and utility; this further means that information is best understood as a common good, something to be shared – rather than treated as an exclusive property (as in the US and EU, as we have seen). At the extreme, a focus on information – whether as computer software or a popular song – as an exclusive property, the right to which can be controlled by one person or corporation, would lead to the end of “the public domain” – that is, a kind of “information commons” that benefits the whole community. (The analogy here is with the commons in preindustrial England, a parcel of land as inclusive property that is accessible to all for the benefit of all, in contrast to individual and exclusive private property.)
Arguably, much good – both individually and communally – has come from the existence of such commons. Indeed, as Niels Ole Finneman has documented, part of the Scandinavian approach to information technologies and their supporting infrastructures is based on understanding these as common or public goods – ones that thus require and deserve the material support of the state. Direct state support of ICT infrastructure and development has thus contributed to the Scandinavian countries enjoying the highest presence and use of these technologies in their daily lives. (This approach obviously directly resonates with allemannsretten as well.)
From the perspective of virtue ethics, then, we would pursue excellence in our abilities to develop, manipulate, and distribute information as a common good – not primarily because doing so will benefit us personally in primarily economic terms; but rather, because, in doing so, (a) we foster and improve upon important capacities and abilities as human beings, including our ability to communicate with one another and benefit one another using these new technologies; and (b) doing so thereby contributes to greater community harmony and benefit. (Cf. Peter Yu’s account of copying as “an important living process for a Confucian Chinese to understand human behaviour, to improve life through self-cultivation and to transmit knowledge to the posterity”
Tavani emphasizes that this approach is not opposed to individual economic gain. The ideal here would be to develop a system that could conjoin these notions of virtue ethics and the common good with a recognized need for “fair compensation” for the costs and risks individuals and companies take in developing products and making them available in the marketplace. Tavani sees the Creative Commons initiative (discussed above) as one way of institutionalizing such a virtue ethics approach to information.