One More Time: Piracy is not Theft

I first wrote about this almost 20 years ago on the NYMUG BBS, but some otherwise intelligent folks still haven’t gotten the message, and persist in making fools of themselves in public while the pirates laugh their asses off. Software/music/book piracy is not theft. Legally, theft involves specific actions under the law. Distributing unauthorized copies of purchased books/music/software is illegal in most jurisdictions, but it is not now and never has been theft. Anyone who says otherwise (and they are legion) is blowing hot air; and everyone who isn’t in the content business (as well as some of us who are) at least implicitly recognizes this. Trying to convince folks that piracy is theft is as hopeless as trying to convince people the world is flat. The reality is just too obvious for such wrong ideas to take hold. The copyright industry is attempting to preserve a doomed business model by name calling. <sarcasm>Yeah, that’s going to work.</sarcasm>.

Morally, stealing is presumed to be wrong by most folks. When someone steals your car or your food or your book, you no longer possess it. You have lost the value of it. This is recognized as a harm, and most societies have rules in place to prevent this.

By contrast, when someone copies your book or music or software, you have not lost anything. You still have full use of the original item, and now there’s a new copy of the item in the world for the pirate to use too. The net wealth of the world has gone up. There is certainly not universal agreement that this is a bad thing. Even among those who hold that this is a bad thing because it deprives authors and publishers of royalties, or reduces the market for new creative goods, or just because it is illegal, it is not remotely reasonable to claim that copying a book is morally equivalent to stealing a book. In fact, most normal folks find the harm of piracy so innocuous that they pay it about as much attention as the laws against jaywalking.

When authors and musicians and editors rail against piracy by comparing it to stealing from furniture shops and grocery stores, they’re just ensuring that sensible folks tune them out. They’re clearly a little unhinged on the issue, and not thinking rationally. They’re attempting to equate the crime of piracy with a much larger, more serious crime. If you accuse someone of being a thief, that’s pretty serious. If you accuse someone of making a mix tape–well, is that even an accusation? More of a simple statement I think. On the scale of serious crimes, piracy should probably rank somewhat lower than speeding, and a little above parking in front of your own driveway. Piracy is not theft, and it shouldn’t be treated as such.

P.S. If anyone’s curious I can repost my original thoughts from 1991. They’re a little dated. They spend a lot of time ranting about overpriced software that came with manuals (Remember those?) and actually hold up books and music as examples of IP goods that can’t be easily copied with full fidelity–but the basic idea hasn’t changed after all this time. Piracy is not theft. Name calling won’t make it so, and in their heart of hearts everyone knows this.

5 Responses to “One More Time: Piracy is not Theft”

  1. Ed Says:

    What you’ve called piracy isn’t really piracy, either. It’s copyright infringement. That’s “copyright”, as in “the government-granted right to make copies”. Piracy, real piracy, is completely different.

  2. VHF Says:

    DRM just makes the situation worse by having to make us all pirates so that we can make fair use of the product such as backing up DVD’s or copying an ebook to different devices we own.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Ar matey! Ever bin ‘ta sea?


    Might have been a good idea to define explicitly what you mean by “piracy”. Piracy on the open seas is considered rather more heinous than theft by most folks.

  4. John Cowan Says:

    Sure, repost ’em.

  5. Gordon Weakliem Says:

    Ed’s point is my point. Piracy is theft. Copyright infringement vs. fair use is a totally different question. The problem is in allowing one side to frame the question in inflammatory semantics. When you start from demonizing the opposition, you can’t begin to have a reasonable discussion on fair use.

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