There seems to be an awful lot of confusion surrounding the ethics of illegal downloading these days. Most people have a general sense that it's probably wrong, but they'll keep doing it anyway, because they doubt that anyone will really get hurt as a result of their actions.
This attitude is further exacerbated by a number of misleading rationalizations (many cooked up by those who profit from piracy) out there waiting to sway people in favor of illegal downloading.
One such justification supposes that if ideas were physical things, like bicycles, it would be easy to see how making a copy would be harmless. If you have a bicycle, and I steal it from you, then you no longer have a bicycle, and that's why it's stealing, because you get hurt. But if you have a bicycle, and I copy it, we both have a bicycle. So in other words, copying can't be stealing because no one is harmed. Now we can both ride happily off into the sunset on our identical bikes, and seemingly nobody gets hurt. That seems pretty cool, right?
But like all things that appear too good to be true, there's a catch. Someone had to make that original bicycle -- a team of people designed it, figured out how to manufacture it, safety tested it, and another group of people- perhaps the owners of a mom and pop store in your neighborhood sold it to you. When you give your friend a copy of your bike, those are the people that get hurt. Those are the people that get put out of business. Then when you and your friend's bikes get old and you want newer, cooler ones, there won't be any, because you've destroyed the business model that produced the original version. Sure, you and your friend could then create "user-generated" bikes that might work okay for awhile. But since you and your friend aren't in the business of creating bikes, you probably won't have much time for that, since you have to spend most of your time doing whatever it is you do to make a living. As a result, the bikes you build might not be very good, or even safe. Without a dedicated business model in place for the production of bikes, the quality of the product would go down.
Your actions have now caused a chain reaction that has robbed good people of their dream of producing good work that you can enjoy in the future. Also, those who were training to go into the business of designing and building bikes will now see that there is no business model in place that will allow them to make a living doing what they love, and so they will be forced to go into a different business.
So, what on the surface may have seemed harmless to you as you were making that copy, has now hurt absolutely everyone, including you and your friend, because the quality product that you liked and wanted to copy in the first place can no longer be produced.
Sadly, this scenario is exactly what is now happening in the world of intellectual property creation. People are "sharing" movies and music with the thought that no one is getting hurt in the transaction. They don't realize how many people were involved in the process of creating those original films and songs and that when these creators are deprived of compensation for the use of their work they go out of business.
Also, the economic implications of the theft of intellectual property could be even further-reaching than the theft of physical property. Over the past few decades, America has become a culture that increasingly produces and exports innovation and ideas more so than physical products. If, as a society, we propagate the concept that ideas and innovations have no monetary value, we destroy the basis for our future economic system in America. We kill the American jobs of the future.
When you really take the time to consider all the ramifications of the "copying isn't theft" scenario, you discover that not only is illegal copying (ie. copyright infringement) a form of stealing, it's stealing from yourself and from your own children's future.
Each time someone thoughtlessly copies someone else's intellectual property and gives it away for free they cast a single vote against a future that would most benefit themselves and others. Eventually, all those single, thoughtless votes could change everyone's future for the worse. What we're asking from each and every person is very simple -- cast your vote in favor of the future you want by doing what you know is right.