Copyright, piracy and stealing

Copyright, piracy and stealing

Summary: My post yesterday about copyright laws and piracy generated a lot of very interesting feedback, both in the TalkBack section and via email. One thing that struck me from the feedback was how opinion is divided on whether infringing copyright is stealing, and if it is stealing, how far do you have to cross the line to be considered a criminal?

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TOPICS: Piracy
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My post yesterday about copyright laws and piracy generated a lot of very interesting feedback, both in the TalkBack section and via email.  One thing that struck me from the feedback was how opinion is divided on whether infringing copyright is stealing, and if it is stealing, how far do you have to cross the line to be considered a criminal?

What makes discussions about copying digital content so interesting is that content is so easily duplicated that pretty much anyone with access to the material can copy it and then go on doing that limitlessly and be able to then go on to distribute that content to others without the knowledge or consent of the person who created the initial piece of work.  I'm pretty sure that throughout the ages, people who relied on creating something in order to be able to eat and provide for their families worried about having their ideas ripped off, but it's not all that easy to rip off artwork, a piece of furniture, an item of jewelry, a statue or whatever.  The duplication process involves skill and effort.  Duplicating digital content is quick and simple and requires very little effort. (OK, this isn't entirely accurate.  If you don't have the tools then copying, say, a DVD is complex and requires that someone else put in the time and effort to create a tool to simplify the process so that it's accessible to the masses.  The person who creates that tool can then choose whether to sell it - and possibly be ripped off themselves - or give it away.) 

When we think of stealing, I think we automatically think of "real world" examples of theft that don't relate to or apply very well to the digital world.  For example, ask say a hundred people whether they'd steal a car, assuming you've got a representative cross-sample of society, most if not all will say that they wouldn't.  However, what if the same people were told that they could take the car and leave a copy of it for the original owner?  My guess is that more people would now be willing to "take" the car.

Extend the argument out a little.  Let's say that we accept the price that iTunes puts on a song and that a track is 99 cents.  How many people would be willing to steal something worth 99 cents?  A few pens from the post office perhaps?  Stationery from the office?  Cheating the toll booth or parking without paying for a ticket?  Hmmm. 

I used the word "take" in the above example because "steal" is a strong, emotive work that causes people to get emotional.  Equally, rightly or wrongly, many people involved in creating content consider those who violate copyright to be criminals.  People get very upset when negative words are applied to them and they feel the need to go to great lengths to prove that they're not really stealing and not really criminals.  The two sides just can't see eye-to-eye because they see the issue from such different perspectives.  Those who create the content want recognition and reward for it, and they would like to be able to control how their work is distributed.  Those who buy it want to be able to make "fair use" of it (and each person seems to define "fair use" based on their values and beliefs).  Then there are those who want to profit from the work of others.  There's no one point that satisfies all three groups.  Even if you ignore the pirate out to make a profit (and if you do that, do you then also have to ignore the pirate that seeks to undermine the profits of another by distributing a copyrighted work for nothing), I still think that it's hard to achieve a compromise that satisfies both the creator and the consumer.  Heck, there are also times when consumers feel that they are being ripped off, especially when DRM gets in the way of something that they want to do that they believe falls under the banner of fair use.

As a content creator myself, I always try to err on the side of the consumer.  Sure, there are times when I know I'm being ripped off or taken advantage of, but in every business there's a margin of loss that has to be acceptable.  Maybe if I knew the true scale of of the problem I'd feel different though ... hmmm.

"Fair use" is an interesting term and what many fail to realize is that technology quickly changes the scope of what they expect to receive.  A good example is the transition from video to DVD.  I don't know how many video tapes I've had go wrong over the years but I never expected to be able to back up a commercial tape.  However, now with DVD I like to know that a backup is at least possible, even if I rarely bother (must be great for parents with young kids though ... however, I wouldn't like to imagine a world where that the "Tellytubbies" video never wore out).

Despite being a firm believer in a fair form of "fair use", there are some arguments that I simply cannot swallow.  Ideas such as there's no such thing as ownership and such are simply an illusion that the modern world we live in just happens to generate.  Equally, ideas that the whole notion of copyright is bad can only ever be supported by people or organizations that don’t directly create anything or who earn a living in an industry where it's not so easy to be ripped off or which enjoys some other form of protection.  If you still feel that it's morally and ethically right to take the fruits of someone else's labors for nothing, think about how you'd feel if your paycheck was a few dollars short or if you were short-changed at a store or bank.

I also find it hard to buy the argument that copyright laws were never intended to protect profits.  Times change but I think that the idea remains much the same. 

I also don't like the "as long as you don't make money from it you can do what you want" argument.  For some people this seems to extend as far as giving copyrighted materials away for free.  Again, if you feel that there's nothing wrong with this, think about how you'd feel is someone gave away your work for free.

As for the argument that CDs and DVDs cost almost nothing to produce ... well ...

Equally, I find it hard to swallow some of the arguments put forth by the RIAA, MPAA and other interested parties.  I agree that piracy exists but it's hard to put a figure on it.  There are some wild claims being made as to the revenues lost to piracy but given the profits being pulled in by the big studios, it's hard to see that piracy is having a huge impact on sales.  It's also hard to get behind and support the heavy-handed tactics being employed by the RIAA and MPAA.  It's pretty easy to find examples of commercial piracy on the Internet and no need to bother people who upload/download music.  It's also easy to come to the conclusion that DRM isn't really a mechanism for preventing piracy but rather a way to introduce a 1 license per device mechanism and get honest people to pay multiple times for the same content, rather like a tax.  After all, it's easier to get the honest consumer to pay than it is the pirates.

Does DRM protect "good kids from becoming bad?"  No idea, but I guess we'll find out now that EMI is selling DRM-free music.  My guess is that it has some effect, but it's probably small given how easy most DRM is to defeat and how easy it is to find anything on the Internet.  Having said that, we all still protect our cars and homes with locks.  Maybe it makes sense to have some limits on digital content.

Thoughts?

Topic: Piracy

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  • Dismissing an argument.

    The "taking nothing of value" argument is sophistry.

    I haven't heard it used much recently, but it could be revived.

    Quoting the Comment's description of the argument:

    When we think of stealing, I think we automatically think of "real world" examples of theft that don't relate to or apply very well to the digital world. For example, ask say a hundred people whether they'd steal a car, assuming you've got a representative cross-sample of society, most if not all will say that they wouldn't. However, what if the same people were told that they could take the car and leave a copy of it for the original owner? My guess is that more people would now be willing to "take" the car.

    [End quote]

    People pay more for a music CD than for a blank CD. Especially more than they would pay for a blank CD on which they would never be able to record.

    What's producing the additional value? The experience of whatever sort of the material on the CD.

    The cost of the CD is, beyond materials, the cost of experiencing material which someone else has created.

    Take that material without paying for it, even listen to it, and the perpetrator has deprived the provider of the revenue the experience should require.

    The car example is flawed, because the person whose car was copied loses no use of or payment for the car. The value of the car to the owner is not primarily the ability of others to ride around in it.


    Crimes, by the way, can still be crimes even when they are victimless. File-sharing makes money for music content providers now, and could produce even more profit when content company executives accept changes in their business models.

    But because the content providers have chosen not to make the content they own available in a certain way, it appropriately remains a crime to interfere with their property.
    Anton Philidor
    • A better example

      "The car example is flawed, because the person whose car was copied loses no use of or payment for the car. The value of the car to the owner is not primarily the ability of others to ride around in it."

      I think a better example would be a car sitting in a new car dealer's parking lot. Would someone be willing to somehow make an exact duplicate of the car and take that, leaving the original sitting in the lot? A case could certainly be made that the dealer has lost the sale of the original car.

      Carl Rapson
      rapson
    • Spoken like a true RIAA Member (nt)

      nt
      Ole Man
  • Infringement vs. Theft

    I once looked up the citation and could probably do it again, but as it happens the United States Supreme Court has actually ruled on the question of whether copyright infringement is legally comparable to theft.

    Per the USSC, the answer is "no."
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • As it should be

      There is, after all, no "theft" involved since the copyright owner technically still has use of the original material. What's been taken is the copyright owner's ability to control distribution of the material of copies of it - an infringement of a right granted by copyright law. That's what technology has changed, and that's why copyright laws need to be revisited.

      Just as businesses must adapt to technological changes, so must laws. Saying copyright owners' rights decrease with technology but consumers' rights increase is problematic at best.

      Carl Rapson
      rapson
    • Wikipedia: Dowling v. United_States

      See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowling_v._United_States. The answer whether copyright infringement is theft is not so clear, even in the halls of legal justice. This arena is rife for federal legislative action, so the courts have something current they can rule on. But who really controls the US legislature these days?
      phillfri
      • Thanks for the cite

        [i][/i]
        Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Infringement equivalent to theft

      From Justice Breyer's concurrence:

      And deliberate unlawful copying is no less an unlawful taking of property than garden-variety theft.

      From Grokster, page 13 of my copy.
      Anton Philidor
      • Agree with this

        Deliberate copyright infringement (of sale able digital items) is explicitly equivalent to shoplifting because you aquire a good without compensation to the provider or manufacturer.

        I hate the way people attempt to spin doing the wrong thing and attempt to rationalize their behavior. If you download music for free that is otherwise for sale, and use it, you are actually stealing back the money you should have paid.

        It doesn't matter how much you hate the RIAA, want to stick it to the man, disagree with the DRM on the for sale version, if something isn't the right thing to do, it is wrong. Can anyone, even those who say "I just listen to see if I want to buy it" actually state, for the record that "It is the right thing to do".

        TripleII
        TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
        • While correct it is silly

          When you murder you steal a life don't you? So is murder theft?
          voska
          • Actually, not quite correct.

            By murdering someone, you don't steal anything. You do not have the life to do with such as put it in your dog (to finish the silly analogy), you extinguish a life. Neither here nor there though.

            There is a rule I live by "If I didn't earn it, I don't want it". That is a lyric from an Aaron Tippin song, (which I paid for and extracting, quoting, and crediting a line properly is allowed. ;D )

            People know this, and willingly "copyright infringe" anyway. They have to live with themselves, and if they are fine, I don't care. You will never convince me that, in my own personal definition of stealing, that downloading a song for free that isn't in the free domain is stealing.

            TripleII

            I remember a line from a movie, someone might remember. It was an Angel or something, posing as a cashier who deliberately gave the wrong change to test the purchaser whether they would do the right thing. They didn't. The line was something like "If you will sell your integrity for and extra $10, what does that say about the important choices". Something like that.
            TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
          • Doh! "Not Stealing"

            You will never convince me that, in my own personal definition of stealing, that downloading a song for free that isn't in the free domain is [B]not{/B] stealing.
            TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
          • I feel the same way

            [i]"If you will sell your integrity for and extra $10, what does that say about the important choices"[/i]

            I'm one of those guys that has actually gone into the bank to return the extra $20 that an ATM gave me. My conscience is worth far, far, far more than $20.
            NonZealot
          • not me

            I return it to the bank so that bank doesn't stick me with a service charge, interest and such. I don't trust banks one bit, they are borderline criminals in my opinion.

            Now $20 on the ground. I take it. I've lost money and I'm sure someone else found. The way I see it the world ebbs and flows and I lose $20 I gain $20. What goes around comes around.

            So if you want to rip off music giants for what ever reason to be a freeloader it will come back to haunt you. What goes around comes around.
            voska
          • You see my point then

            That's exactly the point I was getting at.
            voska
    • Legal vs Moral

      Legally, you are right and anyone who says that copyright infringement is legally the same thing as theft is factually incorrect. Words, however, have common definitions that are used by everyday people and the common definition of theft describes what people do when they copy copyrighted content. From dictionary.com:
      [i]theft - the act of stealing[/i]
      and
      [i]stealing - to appropriate (ideas, credit, words, etc.) without right or acknowledgment[/i]

      As long as you are not pretending to use the legal definition of the word "theft", it is [b]perfectly[/b] appropriate to use the common definition of "theft" when describing what someone is doing when they copy copyrighted content. The people who attempt to make the distinction are typically doing so to avoid the negative connotations of the word "theft" in a vain attempt to justify that what they are doing isn't so bad after all. I specifically want to use the word "theft" [b]because[/b] of the negative connotations and, since I don't claim to use the word in the legal sense, I am completely justified in doing so. These people are scum and don't deserve to use a sanitized term to describe what they are doing.
      NonZealot
      • Legal Rights are Based on Legal Definitions

        Except you can't go into a court and replace the legal definition of "theft" with your preferred street definition, which you readily indicate you utilize exactly because it assigns to the infringement of copyright the negative connotations of theft that YOU PERSONALLY wish to apply to that action :>) But, so long as one is discussing the scope of legal rights, it is the legal definition that controls.
        phillfri
      • Semantics

        [i]As long as you are not pretending to use the legal definition of the word "theft", it is perfectly appropriate to use the common definition of "theft" when describing what someone is doing when they copy copyrighted content.[/i]

        Well, I could call all sorts of things by names that are vaguely related, but that's an offense against language and leads to some very sloppy thinking. If precision doesn't get you what you want, you might want sloppy thinking but in the end it's a loser for everyone.

        It's fundamentally counterproductive to lump all "property crimes" together. Theft is a property crime which enriches the taker while reducing the holdings of the owner, infringement is a property crime which enriches the taker without reducing the holdings of the owner, and vandalism is a property crime which doesn't enrich the vandal but [u]does[/u] reduce the holdings of the owner.

        It would be silly to lump them all together because they're all "property crime." We have different words for a very good and practical reason, and if we aren't trying to muddy the waters of thought we had best be careful how we use them.

        By the way, the traditional property crime closest to infringement is "trespass:" an infringement of the exclusive rights of the property owner which does not involve transfer of the property.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • I'll be examining your future posts more carefully then!

          If we can't use dictionary definitions when having a discussion outside of a courtroom because the strict, legal definition of the word has specific nuances then almost every single piece of literature ever written (including things you've written) is "an offense against language". I'm not making up definitions for the word "theft", I'm using it in a manner that is appropriate for the setting. It wouldn't be appropriate in a court of law but we aren't in a court of law. As such, my use of the word is fully justified, is not an offense against language, and does not lead to sloppy thinking.
          NonZealot
          • In this context it's criminal

            So you'd be wrong. You have to use the criminal definition not the dictionary definition which include metaphor and such. Like me stealing a few minutes of sleep.

            It's not criminal to steal your idea. It happens all the time. Now if you copyright a work including that idea or patent the idea now we are getting into legalitiies and the legal definition are all that apply.
            voska