A word on “piracy” as “stealing”

The idea that “piracy” is “stealing” is ridiculous.

I wanted to start with that to be sure that you know where I’m coming from, if not necessarily where I’m going.

To explain what I mean, since apparently some people haven’t thought about what the word “stealing” means, I will use an analogy:

If you have a thing, say, a wallet in your pocket or purse, and I take that thing from you (which is to say that you no longer have it and I do have it) without your permission, that is stealing. The idea of stealing extends beyond items on your person; if you own a television set and it it in your home and I go into your home and – without your permission – take your television (where by ‘take’ I still mean that I go away with it so that I have it and you no longer have it), that is stealing. And probably breaking and entering, which is another subject. Stealing even extends to objects which are not owned by people, but by companies and corporations and governments; if I take something (just to be clear, if I am taking something, it no longer remains where it was, otherwise it is not taken) owned by any person or entity other than myself without that owner’s consent, it is stealing.

On the other hand, if you have an idea in your mind, and you release it from your mind (by speaking it, writing it down, or otherwise transmitting it from the domain of your thoughts into the physical world) and by some means that idea gets into my mind (by hearing it, reading it, or otherwise having it communicated to me), regardless of the consent of the original thinker, that is not stealing. If you think it is, then you are currently stealing the idea of this sentence from me.

Furthermore, if you had an idea and if you communicated that idea from your mind into the physical world and if that communication got the idea into my mind and if then or later I communicate the idea from my mind into the physical world, regardless of the consent of the original thinker, that is not stealing. If you think that it is, then if you ever speak or write or otherwise communicate anything in any way about this or any other thing you have ever seen or heard without first obtaining consent from whoever thought of it originally, you are stealing. If it is, then telling someone what a movie is about without first getting permission from the screenwriter and director and studio and perhaps dozens of other people would be stealing. Most communication would be stealing.

Also, if someone had an idea and they put it out into the world and another person received it and it got in their mind and they later put it out into the world themselves and YOU receive it and it gets into your mind, you are not stealing. Not from the person who communicated it to you and not from the person who thought the idea in the first place. No matter how many people it’s gone through to get to you, having an idea communicated to you is not stealing. If you don’t understand this, or if you think that thinking can be stealing, please email me so we can discuss your thoughts and I may revise my position as necessary.

Moving on, back to the physical world, let’s say you have a wallet again. And let’s say that, without interrupting your day or taking it from you physically or in any way alerting you that I am doing so, I create an exact duplicate of your wallet and everything in it – perhaps by using magic or some highly advanced technology. So you still have your actual wallet and everything in it, and I also have an exact duplicate of your wallet and everything in it. I have not taken anything from you, and in fact no stealing has taken place. If you think it has, then maybe we disagree about what “stealing” means.

Let’s check the dictionary (okay, I used the Wiktionary):

steal – transitive verb – To take something from somebody against their will.

take – verb – To grab and move to oneself.

So just to be clear here, stealing would be to grab and move to oneself something from somebody against their will. If you disagree, feel free to stop reading now, your thoughts and opinions don’t matter to me because you and I do not agree that words have meaning. (Or at least, we do not agree about the meaning of “stealing”, in which case it does not matter whether you think “piracy” is “stealing” and I do not, because we mean different things by “stealing”.)

Okay. So, when I made the exact copy of your wallet without taking the wallet or your time or resources, I was not stealing. How about the TV? Let’s say you have a TV, and without going into your home, without interrupting your Tivo recordings or screwing with the wiring or modifying your TV in any way, using magic or some advanced technology I create an exact (or nearly exact) duplicate of your TV. It has the same design, construction, and functionality as yours, it even has the same dust on the top and the same partial image burned into the phosphors. You still have your TV, and in addition I also have a TV very much like yours. Still, I have not stolen anything. If you think I have, you probably skipped that little part about the definition of stealing.

For the rest of you, we’re going to move into the meat of the subject now: Intellectual property.

Intellectual property isn’t really property. It’s ideas. That’s why it has its own category, separate from “property”. And thinking, no matter how the thoughts got to you, is never stealing.

Let’s consider, say, a piece of art; a painting. You have a painting, an original, hanging in your elegant dining room. You bought it recently for far too much money from an established art gallery, and you have the paperwork to prove it. I happened to see the painting hanging in the gallery before you purchased it. I am an art student, and I happen to have photographic memory. I decided to reproduce the painting from memory, and after hours and days and weeks of hard work, I create a reasonably accurate copy of the painting. I hang it in my much-less-elegant eat-in-kitchen. I have not stolen anything. You have your painting, the gallery has their money (and perhaps the artist, if they are alive and weren’t ripped off by a bad contract), I have my copy of the painting, and nothing was taken without consent. No stealing took place.

But what if – in a desperate bid to be able to pay next semester’s tuition – I sell the painting? Let’s assume for a moment that I’m honest, and I make sure the buyer is aware that it is my own work, and not the original work, and we’ll even go so far as to say that I have marked the painting (perhaps on the back, so that the functional part of the painting remains nearly identical to the original) so that there will be no confusion that it is a duplication of someone else’s work. You still have your painting already, so the gallery did not get paid any more or any less than it would have been paid if I did not sell the duplicate. I can afford to go to another semester of art school and hopefully I’ll eventually develop an original style rather than merely an uncanny ability to duplicate other people’s work. I have not even committed fraud by representing that the duplicate was the original. No stealing has taken place; no thing was taken without the owner’s consent.

Aha – but the courts might say it was. They might say that I needed to turn the money I got for selling the painting I had created using another artist’s idea over to that other artist, and put me in jail. But thinking isn’t stealing, communicating isn’t stealing, and I didn’t even commit fraud by representing that the work was original. So what crime did I commit? Ah, well, something about intellectual property, I suppose. Maybe something involving a copyright law. Not real clear what the offense is supposed to be, though. If you do, please email me, and maybe you can enlighten me as to who was harmed in that transaction.

But if you can’t see any harm there, you’re still with me, and let’s move on together.

Let’s say you have something that is easily reproduced. Something so easily reproduced that you, the creator and owner of the thing, broadcast it freely to whoever is willing to take it. In fact, you broadcast it in such a way that there is no way for you to know who is receiving it; you’re just putting it out there and not asking for anything in return from the people who receive it. Maybe it’s a newsletter you leave in stacks at the local coffee shop. Maybe it’s a minicomic you leave a few of wherever you go, just for laughs, or maybe because you hope that someone who reads your minicomic will buy your full-sized ones, but you’re giving these out for free, broadcasting them without asking anything in return. Maybe it’s a television broadcast of shows, news, and whatever else, beaming out through the air with no way to track it or to stop it or find out who is receiving it or to ask for anything in return. It doesn’t matter what it is, you’re giving it away for free.

Someone receives it. Let’s say it was the minicomic. The liked it, it gave them a nice chuckle. The want to share it with their friends; spread the laughter, you see? So they show it to one of their friends, and their friend laughs, and they share a laugh. No stealing has taken place. You gave it away for free; the only ‘taking’ that took place was the person taking what you freely gave away. But let’s say this someone has a lot of friends and doesn’t want to give up the copy you left somewhere and he took for free, so he goes to his local copyshop and xeroxes a dozen copies of the minicomic, and then hands them out to his good friends at school. No stealing has taken place. Even if he’d charged his friends money for each copy, there still isn’t any “stealing.” Copyright law says there was a copyright violation, and if the creator can afford the lawyers, maybe the receiver who made the copies and sold them for a profit could get that profit for themselves, but there certainly wasn’t any stealing. The creator gave the comic away for free, willingly. The receiver’s friends took the copies with the receiver’s consent, either for free or for money, but always with consent. So. No taking something without consent, no stealing. Not even any theoretical reduction in income for the creator, in this situation or the one with the painting above, since the creator in this case wasn’t making any income from the minicomics and the artist had already made all the money they were going to make in the other.

And what’s true for a minicomic is true for a newsletter and for a newspaper and for a television broadcast and for a web page served freely to any application that puts in an HTTP request or any other thing that is duplicated and broadcast by the creator and given freely. No matter what the recipients of these freely broadcast things choose to do with them, stealing is not and can not be one of them. If you disagree with this, you must have disagreed with something I said earlier too – probably with the definition of stealing, but maybe with something else – and if you didn’t think you disagreed with anything I said before, but you think making copies of broadcast TV shows is stealing, or making copies of web sites is stealing, you better go back and figure out where the real problem is, what you actually disagree with. Again, I’m not saying fraud might not have been committed, or that copyright laws as they currently stand might not have been broken, but those things are not the same as stealing, and in cases such as these, the income of the creators can not logically be said to have been impacted, because they were not selling the duplicated things, they were giving it away for free to as many people as would take them.

Ah, but what about something that is not being given away for free? What about something like a music CD? Let’s look at two scenario, one without taking at all, and another with copying:

First, let’s say there is a new CD for sale at a local record shop for $18.95. I go into the shop, I see the CD, and I don’t touch it or take it, I just wave my magic wand (or advanced technological device) at it and an exact duplicate of it appears on my desk at home, the CD, the case, the liner notes, everything duplicated to be as identical as all the other copies the record shop has for sale. I leave the ‘original’ (though it is a duplicate of a duplicate of … who knows how many generations of duplication it represents…?) in the store, I don’t take anything, but I go home, open the copy I made, and listen to it and enjoy it. No stealing has taken place. I did not take the CD, so the question of whether I took it with consent or not does not even come up. The store still has the CD, and someone may still come in and exchange it for their own $20, and someone may still come in and steal it, but no stealing took place between myself and that CD. I didn’t even touch it.

Next, let’s say there’s a new CD for sale at a local record shop for $18.95. I go into the shop, I see the CD, I pick it up, I pay my $20.49 (with tax), and I take it home with the full consent of the record shop who owned the CD before they transfered ownership to me. I put it in my CD player and listen to it and enjoy it, and I’d like to share it with my friends. I call one up and invite them over and we listen to it together and both enjoy it. No stealing has taken place. Very few would argue that it had, at this point. But then I call my other friends and invite them over to listen to it, and friend after friend has other plans, they’re too busy, they can’t make it, one of them is in an iron lung and I can’t even figure out why I thought they might come over since they can’t even get up. Still, I want to share it with them, it’s a great album. I try telling them about how great it is. This clearly isn’t stealing. I try playing it over the phone to them. This clearly isn’t stealing. In the end, I decide to use my trusty magic wand (or other advanced technology) to create duplicates of the CD for all my friends, and I give it to them freely. Still, this clearly isn’t stealing.

How could it be? What was taken without the owner’s consent? I don’t see it.

The same situations apply to computer software, DVDs, books, magazines, wallets, televisions, paintings, and anything else you can buy in a store. If you don’t take it from the store, having a copy of it isn’t stealing. If you do buy it from the store, making copies of it at home – even if you give those copies to other people – is not stealing. Maybe it’s breaking copyright law, but it isn’t stealing. Stop mixing those two things up. And in cases where the person with the magic wand (or advanced technology), when presented with the same situation and no magic wand (or appropriate advanced technology), would not or could not have purchased the thing with money anyway, there cannot even logically be said to be a reduction in the potential income of the owner or creator of the thing. In the other cases, where the copies were given by a legitimate purchaser to friends, as long as the friends would/could not have purchased copies of their own (or if they would have, they do), the same is true – there is no real reduction in the income or potential income of the owner or creator. Definitely no stealing, probably no reduction in cashflow.

Continuing, it doesn’t matter how the copy is made. Whether I use a magic wand, an advanced or alien technology, a dual-deck VCR, a computer’s CD burner or DVD burner, a tape recorder or minidisk recorder (to record the live audio at a concert, say), a video camera (to record a live stage performance or a film, for example), a paintbrush and canvas, a pencil and paper, heck, even a typewriter, it’s all the same. My making a copy of something I have purchased is not “stealing.” Receiving that copy, whether for free or for money, is also not stealing. It may be against the law, but is is not stealing. I cannot even see how it harms anyone in any way, which I’m pretty sure is the point of making something a crime – to prevent harm. If you can point out ACTUAL HARM here that I’m somehow not seeing, please email me to explain it, and perhaps I can gain a deeper understanding of the issue.

But for now, I think that covers it. The idea that “piracy” is “stealing” is ridiculous. I’m not saying it isn’t illegal under current laws, and I’m not even suggesting that those laws should be taken off the books (though that is an opinion that I hold), I’m just trying to explain to people what the word “stealing” means and how it has nothing to do with having, making and/or sharing copies of things. Thanks for your time.

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