Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stealing? Sharing? Stearing?

An LA Times article discusses the debate over whether it is stealing or sharing to replicate music, movies and other non-scarce goods for the benefit of those who don't pay for it.

The legal owners of copyright protections have been campaigning to have public opinion and the law recognize it as stealing, on par with lifting a CD from the shelf. As the article notes, this has met with some skepticism from the public, which apparently recognizes that replication has some aspects of both stealing and of sharing. As with stealing, the person receiving the benefit of the transaction confers no benefit on the owner. But unlike stealing, and like sharing, the person receiving the benefit does not deprive the owner of the right to enjoy the property.

Geoff Pullum on the Language Log compares it to "giving" someone a kiss. Of course, most kisses are not exchanged commercially the way music and movies are, so Pullum then compares it to a service, like giving someone a massage. If you give someone a massage and they don't pay for it, we tend to see that as stealing of a service. But that's still not a good analogy, because giving a massage requires effort on the part of the massager and takes up her time, creating opportunity costs. It therefore involves deprivation to the provider of the service, which makes it more like lifting a CD from the shelf than copying a song.

Is it a semantic debate? In a way it is. Both sides in the debate want the public to broaden its understanding of a concept to include the act of intellectual property replication, but disagree whether that concept should be "sharing" or "stealing". But what this is really about, of course, is whether, like stealing, replication is morally wrong and the law should allow the legal owner to bring a private action against the thief, or whether like sharing, it is benign and gives the owner no right to recovery.

The law, of course, does not have to declare that it is stealing or sharing. It can create a category for it in between the two, recognizing that it has elements of each, and ordering the state to treat it somewhere between its treatment of stealing and of sharing.

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