Is Copying The Same As Theft?

Recently, a Rutgers professor wrote a New York Times article saying that copying–as in downloading a song for free–is not the same thing as stealing.

This is significant, because it helps validate the hesitation people had when being spoon-fed the notion of online “piracy”. I mean, how can you “take” a song, anyway?

It’s an interesting topic to me, because I like to envision a world where the more people with access to art, the better. Putting up a paywall between an audience and a song or movie is one less person whose life is enhanced. And the more enhancement, the better, right?

Well, where does that put the artist? How do they make money? Performances and donations, I’d like to believe. It may be pie in the sky thinking, but it’s also intellectually dishonest to claim people are stealing from you when nothing is missing.

To be sure, this topic is a sticky wicket, representing the messy transaction society has to take as technology blurs the concrete lines of monetization–i.e. from CD’s to digital downloads.

So to lighten up what can be a pretty heated topic, here’s a fun video:


7 Responses

  1. John M

    It’s not stealing to stay in a motel room without paying; after all, nothing is missing.
    It’s not stealing to tap into somebody else’s electrical system; after all, nothing is missing.
    It’s not stealing to print counterfeit money; after all, nothing is missing.
    It’s not stealing to stiff your accountant, attorney, doctor, or other professional for their services; after all, nothing is missing.
    Maybe we should all work for nothing other than the “common good”, & take for ourselves only what we “need”. I’ll decide what you need.

    1. Hey John, thanks for chiming in. I know this can be a hot topic.

      I do have to say that none of your comparisons are valid, though, because in each case you bring up a finite good, and so not paying for it is, in fact, stealing from someone. Tapping into my neighbor’s electricity is taking electricity. Printing counterfeit money adds to the money supply and devalues everyone’s money a little bit, taking from them. Not paying someone their agreed upon hourly wage is obviously theft.

      The hotel one is trickier, because it’s circumstantial. If the room was just going to be vacant anyway, than what’s the difference if I stay there or not? Well, first off, I use their electricity and water, so there’s theft there if I don’t pay. But the fact I’m just taking up space is usually dealt with by way of a reduced rate, because the hotel will recognize that it’s better to drop the price to fill an empty room than it is to leave it empty. However, if the hotel is full, then I take the room instead of a paying customer, and in that case I undoubtedly am stealing as I took what that customer would have paid.

      Basically, if I use a hotel room, that’s one less room for everyone. But if I take a song if doesn’t affect the supply.

      Thanks for your comments. Like I said in the post, it’s a sticky issue. And I acknowledge that we need to pay our artists.

  2. lz

    Sounds like liberal thinking to me. Intellectual thoughts, music I compose, books I write, are my property and I should have the right to be paid for them as much as my car, cattle, etc. are my property. Stealing one is as bad as stealing another.

  3. Before everyone had pcs, we had tape recorders. We borrowed friends tapes to record our favorite song. Or waited until our favorite song was on the radio to push the play/record button. No one had a poblem with this, or at least it was less publicized. Sharing over the Internet is the same thing. However, the volume increases now that we have portable media players.

  4. Kevin

    So by your definition then the entire copyright and patent concepts are invalid and should be voided?
    Are you telling us that someone who works thousands of hours and expends millions of dollars developing a concept that can currently be protected by a copyright or a patent should have no protections for their work or idea?
    If I understand correctly by your way of thinking an author would have the right only to sell one book with unlimited license, and the world could just copy the book and pass it around?
    Or that an inventor could spend his entire life working out a new device and as soon as the first one hits the streets then anyone should be able to copy and reproduce and resell the device with no responsibility to the developer?
    If these were true it would completely remove any incentive for original thought, and would place all advantage to the large corporations with the resources to duplicate and mass produce and market ideas, artworks, concepts and devices.
    Think it through.

  5. I love Nina Paley.

    While I believe that inventors, authors, musicians, etc should be rewarded for their labors, the protection of ideas goes a little to far.

    The example that only corporations would hold the rights is absurd, because that’s how it is today. In fact, patent trading has become a game, with certain speculators buying up cheap patents and suing everyone then can. This is going too far.

    The Google v. Oracle lawsuit is an interesting debate in our times. Oracle is trying to copyright APIs, it would be like copyrighting the ENglish language and saying you couldn’t speak or write. APIs are the language that computers use to communicate.

    IP is way out of hand in the country and world-wide. Montanso can sue you for their patented products blowing into your field and germinating — claiming theft. They did this for year. Only this year are farmers striking back claiming environmental damage of their own fields.

    Some ideas should not be copyrighted. The current legal way to do this is Creative Commons and public domain patents. India is trying to patent and copyright thousand of year old spiritual traditions and folk remedies because westerners would come in and patent and copyright millennial old texts and healing plants and practices saying they own them. It’s a matter of time before genome sequences are patented that exist in nature naturally — this should be illegal.

    IP law: patents and copyrights are out of control. They need serious reform — world-wide. They’re often too loosely worded and are used way out of context. FRAND is nowhere near fair. What’s going on in the text and biotech industries are just a glimpse of what’s to come if we don’t change things.

What say you?