Sharing <> Stealing

July 2, 2008

I just saw this story on TorrentFreak, about how the FBI busted the tracker site. Inevitably, a few commenters tried yet again to push the tired notion that everyone reading the page should feel guilty for “stealing” all that content. To which I would make the following final and irrefutable reply:

The law has always been perfectly clear: “theft” and “copyright infringement” are not the same thing.

That was true long before the Internet and digital sharing, and it remains true today, even under ludicrous legislation like the DMCA. This is largely because ‘intellectual property’ is not the same as actual physical property. The similar terminology is deliberately misleading, but creators have never ‘owned’ their works, they way you own your car, your computer or your pants.

There are good reasons for this, which you can learn very quickly by doing a search on the history of copyrights. But at least take a moment to notice that taking a unique physical object away from someone is quite different from making yet another copy of something that’s infinitely copyable in the first place. The act of copying may reduce the copyright-holder’s revenue from the work, but this is not a given. (It may actually increase the value of the work, for example.) True, the basic intent of copyright laws is to allow creative works to achieve some “reasonable” value. But that actual value is determined by market forces and negotiation, not by any absolute moral principle.

The point is, the debate over copyrights is never going to be simple. So let’s at least insist that everyone chooses their words appropriately. If you want to argue that copyright infringement is a scourge on the economy and the creative landscape, go ahead, make your case. But don’t get off to a bad start by trying to claim that it’s the same thing as stealing. Because it’s not. Never has been. Never will be.

(Updated 11-01-03, mainly for clarity.)