It’s funny, but whenever copyright or piracy is discussed on the internet someone from the “pro copyright” side of argument will inevitably start using strong words such as “theft” and “stealing” when referring to copyright infringement. Someone will correct them, and then the whole discussion becomes derailed into a fight over what does and does not constitute theft and whether or not is is morally virtuous to condone theft. We should probably have some kind of internet law for this – you know, like Godwins law for general discussions. There should be a piracy related clause for the theft bullshit.
Let me say it here once an for all though: piracy is not theft. If it was theft, it would be called that. We have different names for different things for a reason – that’s the only way we can tell them apart. Sometimes several names mean the same things – we call those synonyms. But piracy is not synonymous with theft. Neither is copyright infringement. Do you know how I know? Because I own a dictionary. When two words are synonyms, their dictionary descriptions should say the same thing. If they don’t the words are not synonymous. Copyright infringement and theft have quite distinct definitions. They are separate concepts both in common usage, and in the legal sense.
It is common to equate the two but they are very, very different crimes. You can ask any judge or lawyer. If you get caught pirating movies or music you will not be charged with theft but with infringement and/or illegal distribution. It is a completely separate domain of crime. Theft is usually considered a blue collar crime, while piracy is usually white collar.
Yes, I know I’m arguing semantics but in this discussion semantics are very important. If you are pro-strict copyright enforcement and anti piracy you should want to help people understand why illegal copying is wrong. Calling it theft is simply misdirection – you substitute one crime with another more serious crime – one that caries a higher social stigma. No one can really argue that theft can in any way be beneficial to anyone. But loosening copyright laws could be culturally beneficial allowing people to create derivative works and remixes easier.
Any argument that starts with “Piracy is like stealing, therefore…” is essentially a straw man argument. You are switching the object of discussion to incite emotional reaction in your opponent. Theft is heavy emotionally charged word, and it tends to throw people off their guard. When you equate piracy to theft, it becomes extremely easy to strike it down and if you do it well it shuts people up. Straw man arguments like this are effective. But they are intellectually dishonest. When you use them you are not wining the argument at hand but rather some other easily winnable argument that you cleverly switched to.
The point is that copyright infringement is just that. There is really no need to compare it to anything else. If it is inherently wrong, the wrongness should be self evident. Whenever you have to say “illegal downloading is like…” you are basically obscuring the issue, and redirecting the discussion. There should be no question about whether or not it is right or wrong.
But if people can’t really see this inherent wrongness, and if it is absolutely necessary for you to use a straw man to convince them otherwise then… Well, then maybe there is a point to our discussions. Maybe we should talk about it, and possibly explore the idea that perhaps the copyright law as it exists right now is not an optimal solution. Perhaps it could be changed to reflect the times we live in.
The problem with copyright infringement is that sometimes it is hard to tell who is hurt by it. When you steal my apple I no longer have an apple. When you illegally download my product I potentially lose a sale, but only if you intended to buy it in the first place. If you wouldn’t buy it if an illegal copy was not available then I technically did not lose anything. This makes the whole problem much more complex than theft.
When you look at copyright infringement you have to keep in mind that:
- Some pirates become paying customers
- Some pirates never were and never will be paying customers. They would never buy from you, so you don’t technically lose a sale when they download.
- Some pirates may actually spread the word about you – so you may actually gain sales
It is easy and fashionable to dismiss all of the above as irrelevant. But these are clearly integral parts of the equation. Why should we hand wave them away? The only reason why people dismiss them so eagerly is because they don’t fit into “piracy is like theft” rhetoric. They completely wreck that argument, and so they must be excluded – otherwise the straw man can’t be spectacularly topped over.
Theft causes an actual loss of some resource that then has to be replaced. Copyright Infringement causes an assumed loss that you could potentially incur from sales under a specific set of conditions without actually being deprived of the original resource in any way. They are very different concepts and they should not be used interchangeably.
I wander what would happen if we started using this same strategy to put an equal sign between unrelated crimes – one of which is a minor infraction that millions of people commit every day, and other a serious crime that is contemptible. I know, let’s try this:
I know, I’m going to start saying that speeding on the highway is technically a premeditated vehicular manslaughter. I mean, look at the statistics. Thousands of people die due to speeding every year. You are probably going to tell me that you can exceed the speed limit without actually killing anyone. You will probably try to tell me that people do it all the time without serious accidents. Bah! I say that’s rubbish. That’s crazy talk. You are just saying that because you think breaking the rules is cool. You like to stick it to the man and drive above the speed limit like a maniac. You are trying to rationalize your crime away, but you are nothing more than a murderer. Every person who speeds should be charged with premeditated vehicular manslaughter because under an optimal set of conditions the two become equivalent.
Wait… That kind of makes me sound like some crazy person. Kind of like you sound when you start comparing piracy to theft. They are not the same thing. If piracy was theft, it would be called theft. The fact that somewhere deep down in your heart you feel it is “like theft” does not change how the courts look at it. I’m not making excuses, I’m not rationalizing piracy. I agree that it is illegal under the current law. But can we please just call it what it is, instead of strawmanning?
Why do we need to keep having this discussion. It’s like watching a bad sketch that has all the absurdity an irony of a Monty Python skit, but none of it’s humor:
“But piracy is not theft.”
“Yes it is!”
“I have a dictionary here that says it’s not”
“Bah! It feels like theft to me, so I shall discard your logic and go with my gut feeling on this!”
“Ok, but what you feel doesn’t really matter here. We are discussing facts.”
“Yes it does”
“So you are saying that your gut feeling trumps common sense, logic and a legal definition of the crime?”
“I give up.”
Ha! So you admit you were wrong! I win.
It’s a bit like that. Only more stupid. And usually someone calls you a fag or a hippie midway through the discussion if you don’t immediately agree with them.
I’m mainly posting this here, so that when we have this discussion in the future (and we will have it many times – it keeps comming back like a bad venereal disease), I can just respond to silly arguments with “Piracy is not theft” and link those words back here. In fact I will probably have to do it in the comments thread below, at which point it will create a recursive loop with no exit. So please, don’t force me to use recursion.