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mark-t's Journal: Copyright infringemet *IS* theft

Journal by mark-t

Yup, you heard me right... what is sure to go over like lead balloon with people who've persistently demanded that copyright infringers aren't actually stealing anything, I reiterate it again, copyright infringement is theft.

And I don't just mean by technicality, or even just legally, I mean quite literally... that is, utilizing the notion that whatever one steals from somebody else the original possessor no longer has, or has as much of.

No, I'm not going to argue that it's stealing the actual work, because the author still has that, nor am I going to argue that it's stealing because one is depriving the copyright holder of potential income, which is a tenuous argument at best and the exact same thing could be said of completely legal competition.

What one is stealing by committing copyright infringement is some measure of the exclusivity that the copyright holder was supposed to have in being able to copy the work. After all, since exclusive by definition means that nobody else is doing it, you cannot possibly argue that the copyright holder really still has exactly the same amount of exclusivity over copying their work if somebody else was also doing it without their permission, right? In fact, about the _only_ way exclusivity isn't really affected in some way by somebody else copying the work is either if one had explicit permission from the copyright holder to make the copy; or, simply by virtue of the fact that it wouldn't actually affect anyone else, if one happens to never share it with anyone nor offer to distribute the copy to anyone else in any way whatsoever, for the lifetime of the copyright. Now, with a file on that contains a copyrighted work that is on one's home computer, utilizing a mechanism that allows it to be accessed freely by other people who connect to one's home computer doesn't exactly fit the latter criteria unless one is also prepared to file charges against people who may be discovered to have accessed it for acts of computer trespass, so unless one had permission to do so from the copyright holder, then doing so deprives the copyright holder of some of his or her exclusivity on copying the work, and is therefore stealing.

By that token, therefore, it becomes likewise ethically questionable simply to download copies of copyrighted materials from sources that were not authorized to distribute such copies by the copyright holder in very much the same way that it is wrong to knowingly buy or otherwise obtain goods that were originally stolen.

One may be certainly welcome to have the opinion that there shouldn't be any sort of exclusivity with copyright, but that's not the way things actually are. In fact, without exclusivity, there's not really any point to having a "right to copy" in the first place, so copyright becomes moot.

It is at this juncture, I would expect that a person who still insists that copyright infringement is not ethically wrong would protest my points, by possibly arguing that this 'exclusivity' isn't anything real, and therefore the holder isn't deprived of anything, although the insubstantialness of something does not diminish its potential importance to some people. Who are we to decide what may or may not be valuable to some other person?

Om fact, about the only way one can sustain any sort of argument that this exclusiveness shouldn't matter is if they are to offer up the notion that copyright itself is a moral outrage, censoring the free exchange of information by persons who may choose to do so. That may be an argument for another time, but I trust I have made my initial point... that at least by the very definition of what copyright is supposed to be, infringing on copyright actually involves taking something away from the copyright holder. Something that we, as a society, continually grant him or her merely by respecting it.

Of course, there are doubtless people who would argue that because this exclusivity is intangible, it can't really be stolen.

But what if somebody is tapping into your internet bandwidth without your consent, or perhaps your power? Neither of those are tangible commodities, but the fact that somebody is taking away some of a finite resource without consent of the person who is responsible for it would seem to make that theft. Tangibility has nothing to do with it... the only thing that matter is that the resource is not infinite in supply.

And a copyright holder's exclusivity is *NOT* infinite... it is only as wide as their distribution capacity - if everyone within the copyright holder's distribution capacity were copying the work without permission, then the copyright holder would have no real exclusivity at all.

So what does this mean, exactly? Well, it means is that that actual damage to the copyright holder's exclusivity for any single copyright infringement is pretty tiny... probably imperceptible, in fact. It can reasonably be argued that this imperceptibility is why personal use copying should reasonably be permitted, since it has no real impact on the copyright holder's exclusivity to determine who is going to make copies. When one distributes an unauthorized copy to someone else, however... particular if they do it via a medium that permits theoretically unlimited copying, such as putting it in a folder on their computer that they knowingly allow everyone on the Internet to copy from, the net damage to the copyright holder's exclusivity starts to mount up... and becomes not just perceptible, but potentially causing measurable damage to the rights and reputation of the copyright holder.

Copyright infringement is theft... and in most cases, it is a very cowardly type of theft... being done in secret, where the chance of being caught is negligible. Teaching that it is not theft only gives people less ethical incentive to respect copyright - something that exists to promote the arts. Why should people who value that disrespect it?

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Copyright infringemet *IS* theft

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"And do you think (fop that I am) that I could be the Scarlet Pumpernickel?" -- Looney Tunes, The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950, Chuck Jones)

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