Anyone who thinks copyright violation like downloading MP3s from a peer to peer filetrading network is “theft” doesn’t know much about copyright and property:
- It’s not theft because nothing is taken from anyone. No one is deprived of a possession. Thus, it is copyright violation, not theft.
- Sales are not a guarantee or a pre-existing possession, so the “deprived them of sales” argument is complete crap.
- Even if it was theft when the first person ripped an MP3 from a CD, it wouldn’t be theft for someone else to download it later on a peer to peer file trading network. At worst, it might be accessory after the fact — but you’d have to prove it was knowingly receiving stolen property for that to stick. Because of 1 and especially 2, though, it’s not even theft when the original MP3 is created, so point 3 is kinda . . . pointless.
Unfortunately for those of you who think organizations like the RIAA and Microsoft aren’t doing anything wrong, and want to argue for the ethical and moral necessity of copyright law, that means that most of your arguments have gone up in smoke. This isn’t anything revolutionary, by the way — what’s new is the belief by many that copyright violation constitutes “theft” in some way, or that copyrightable works are intellectual “property”. In fact, back when the debate over whether to include a legal basis for copyright (and patent) law in the Constitution was settled by the extended “family” of the founders of the United States, copyright was understood to be nothing more than a temporary grant of monopoly power via governmental force. The substance of the debate centered around whether this was justified by an unproven, but intuitively appealing, idea that such temporary monopolies might help foster innovation.
If you want to argue for copyright-based protectionist practices, you’re better off trying to prove that such monopoly power fosters innovation better than the freedom to build upon the works of others and the lack of opportunity for corporate copyright holders to lobby for copyright term extensions into infinity (and beyond). Keep in mind that copyright has long since become about far more than mere innovation fostering: it by definition exists for a term that far exceeds the natural life of the creator of a copyrightable work in most of the world (usually the life of the creator plus fifty or more years). With a particularly successful and valuable copyrightable work, this actually seems more likely to encourage an innovator to sit down, shut up, and collect royalty checks for the rest of his or her natural life, rather than to ever create anything again.
Only the chokehold on copyright ownership in various media publishing industries (book publishing, record publishing, et cetera) by large corporations, acquired because of the juicy value for stockholders of such revenue generating contents’ copyright longevity, prompts creators to create again. After all, most of the money that can be had through leveraging copyright goes to the publisher, not the creator, thus leaving the creator somewhat impoverished except in extreme edge-cases, forcing such creators to expend a heck of a lot of time in other industries. The longer the term of the copyright, the more money it can generate — but the more likely large corporations are to sit up, take notice, and dominate an industry in a manner that squeezes the creators themselves out of the picture when it comes to collecting dollar bills. In other words, ironically, the more revenue generating potential delivered by copyright law, the less revenue the innovator is to actually receive. It has gotten to the point now where in the record industry “success” is far more likely to leave you in debt than rich. No, really:
At a major label, most artists are unlikely to earn anything unless they sell at least 1 million albums, and even then, they could wind up in debt. Everything from studio time to limo rides are charged against their royalties, which might be only $1 per disc sold.
This is what you get for strengthening copyright law to foster innovation.
From whom are you stealing when you download a song in violation of copyright law? You’re certainly not stealing from the artist. He or she was already robbed by the record label. What exactly are you stealing? Nobody’s deprived of the song just because you have a copy, and chances are good you wouldn’t have bought the damned thing anyway.
No . . . all you’re really doing is throwing a monkeywrench in the works of the theory of fostering innovation through monopoly grants. If it’s that easy to do, it doesn’t really work worth a damn anyway. That’s predicated upon an unproven assumption that it would be successful in a net beneficial effect on innovation even if copyright law magically made everyone behave nicely toward everyone else anyway.