The Difference Between Stealing and Copying

From The Boy Who Could Change The World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz, loc 253-268:

The law about what is stealing is very clear. Stealing is taking something away from someone so they cannot use it. There’s no way that making a copy of something is stealing under that definition. If you make a copy of something, you’ll be prosecuted for copyright infringement or something similar—not larceny (the legal term for stealing). Stealing, like piracy and intellectual property, is another one of those terms cooked up to make us think of intellectual works the same way we think of physical items. But the two are very different.

You can’t just punish people because they took away a “potential sale.” Earthquakes take away potential sales, as do libraries and rental stores and negative reviews. Competitors also take away potential sales. One reason people might be buying less CDs is because they’re spending their money on DVDs. Or, as Philip Greenspun has argued, they’re spending their time on cell phones. I mean, talking to your girlfriend can often be more enjoyable than listening to music, but I don’t think we need to start suing girlfriends. So the question then becomes what’s a reasonable form of taking away sales, and what’s an unreasonable one. And that’s a tough question, but I think we need to evaluate it by looking at what’s best for society. Some people say that getting people to stop copying, whether through threats of lawsuits or technological restraints, is the only way to get people to keep coming up with interesting things.

I’m particularly interested in the political consequences of enforcing this conflation of copying and stealing. The effective repression of copying would necessarily entail a growing and worrying authoritarianism, as Swartz goes on to write:

So if we choose this option of stricter and stricter enforcement, we’re heading down a very dark path where law enforcement gets more and more heavy-handed and authoritarian, and copying goes farther and farther underground.

Posted In: