When I was in college, one of my wise old professors showed me something I had never seen. It was a dual CD player/recorder. You could stick one CD in on one side and a blank CD in on the other side. Within minutes, you would have identical copies. Although CD burning drives at that time were relatively new and quite expensive, the dual player/recorder had been around for quite a while in Japan, my professor said. It faced legal issues in the US, mainly from the music industry, that prevented its success.
The following should not be construed as legal advice. For advice on actual copyright cases, consult a qualified legal professional.
Finding a Definition
According to Merriam-Webster the definition of stealing includes:
- to take property of another wrongfully
- to come or go secretly
- to steal a base (in baseball)
- to take by force
- to take surreptitiously (i.e. steal a kiss)
- to make oneself the focus of (i.e. steal the show)
You can steal a cookie from the cookie jar or even steal someones freedom. Linguistically speaking, however, you cannot steal a copy of digital media.
What is Copyright Infringement?
If it is not stealing, what is it? According to U.S. law, a person guilty of copyright infringement is Anyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner… Those rights include the right to sell, make copies, perform, publish, distribute, place online, or claim responsibility for its creation.
In other words, to have any rights to a work, beyond those assigned through the normal act of buying and selling, the customer must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Through the sale of a copy, whether it is a book, CD, DVD, MP3, or photo, the copyright owner gives the customer certain limited rights to view, listen, watch, make backups, and save for personal use. Anything beyond that, especially giving away, sharing online, selling, or claiming ownership is considered copyright infringement and is against the law in most countries.
Is Copyright the Same as Intellectual Property?
Many throw around the term intellectual property with no real sense of what the word actually means. Property is obviously something you own, but for it to be intellectual property implies that it is an idea, rather than something actually tangible. Written work is quantifiable. You can count the number of words and analyze the arrangement of those words. To copy the idea, the intellectual essence of a written work, is not copyright infringement, but someone might consider it a violation of intellectual property, which is usually not a crime.
Is Copyright Infringement Stealing?
In the traditional understanding of theft, a persons property must be appropriated by someone else. In other words, ownership changes hands. Suddenly, your 60-inch LCD TV is now owned by Joe Bread. He took it unlawfully, and that is considered stealing. If, on the other hand, Joe Bread is a genius who invented a device that can scan any object and create an exact copy (like a replicator on Star Trek), Joe Bread copied it but did not steal it.
The car manufacturer may not like what Joe Bread did, and they might even have a case in court, but it is not stealing. It is copying and possibly patent infringement.
For published works, Joe Bread may download some music files or movies from the Internet without paying for them. He may use file sharing technology like BitTorrent to accomplish this task, but that act is not stealing. (Note: According to virtual dedicated hosting company 34SP.com, BitTorrent file sharing accounts for about 20 percent of all Internet traffic, slightly less than Netflix).
Vice President Joe Biden and many others seem to have this confused. To him, copying something is the same as smash and grab — going down the street to a jewelry store, breaking the window, swiping some diamonds, gold, and silver, and running away. In the case of the jewelry store, however, those goods are gone. The jeweler lost inventory and therefore loses income. In the case of downloaded music, movies, and other digital media, the copyright owner loses nothing, despite what some would claim.
Why Make a Distinction?
The RIAA has won some rather absurd trials against copyright violators who downloaded music files illegally. One woman, Jammie Thomas, found guilty of downloading 24 songs, was fined $1.5 million for those songs. The judge overturned the jurys decision, lowering the fine to an amount still much more than the actual cost of the songs, and the RIAA has repeatedly appealed the judges decisions.
The songs, which in total cost consumers less than $24, cost the music companies absolutely nothing to make. They are digital copies that anyone can duplicate at no cost, without any novel equipment. Despite this reality, the record companies think they are entitled to more than $60,000 per song. Why? They argue copyright infringement is stealing, and the damage is extremely severe.
Oddly enough, stealing does not carry as heavy a fine, especially for $0.99 items. First offenders may not even serve jail time for such an offense. A child can steal from a store and may just get hit with a broom by the store owner, but if that same child downloads a song, his family could lose everything.
The distinction is important to make because copyright infringement is not stealing, and in the case of peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, it is a victimless crime. When some steals, they hurt the person who no longer has the stolen item. File sharing is just that: sharing. Just as someone might make a mix CD for a loved one, he or she might also send an MP3. Both are definitely illegal, but if we start associating them with the immoral and cruel act of stealing, we are heading down a dangerous path.