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This short post on the Freakonomics blog got me thinking more about copying, piracy and intellectual property. If you pay attention to the tech world recently, you’ll know that the future of technology innovation is being affected by patents. There are companies whose entire business, literally, is owning intellectual property and suing other companies in an attempt to collect royalties from their patents. In many cases, these so-called “patent trolls” didn’t even invent the intellectual property in the first place, they are merely leveraging patent law to make a profit from the creative work of others.
I see nothing inherently wrong with all of this focus on intellectual property. It does create wealth, and some of that wealth will trickle down to the little people, perhaps creating a job or two.
The Freakonimics blog post points out that copying is generally not considered theft in the traditional sense. When I copy a song, I’m not taking it away from anyone. So, even though I now have something that doesn’t “belong to me” and that I didn’t have before, you still have your song, so I haven’t “stolen” anything from you. Most people, according to the linked NY Times op ed, draw a distinction between copying music or digital media and stealing. It makes a certain amount of sense.
But it seems to me that in the case of digital media, when someone copies (or, “pirates”) the media, they might not be stealing the artifact (because there is no artifact, per se). Rather, they are stealing access to the media. The currency of digital media is one of access – probably because copying is easy, and there are no more artifacts (or, artifacts are on the wane). No one buys records any more, very few people buy CDs these days, and if they do, they won’t be buying them much longer.
So, copying is not theft in the traditional sense, but copying is stealing access, which is the modern commercial equivalent to the old fashioned artifact distribution model. Copying really is stealing.