Thinking Of Copyright As Property Is As Natural As Thinking Of Smells As Property
from the it-ain't-property dept
For many years we’ve explained why copyright isn’t property. This debate flares up on a regular basis in various circles, and even here on the blog we just had the discussion all over again on my post about why copying isn’t stealing. The comment thread on that post is already quite epic, with much of it getting into a semantic debate. And, while there is definitely a fair amount of circular talk, there are a number of really interesting and insightful points made in that (very long) discussion that are worth checking out. In the end, though, part of it is just a semantic debate. My point is merely that “property” has certain facets and “stealing” implies certain facets — and when you’re talking about copyright infringement, it matches some but not all of the key qualifications of property and theft. Pretending that the parts that match are sufficient simply means that you ignore the rather important parts that don’t match.
But perhaps getting bogged down in semantics (even if they are important) is the wrong approach to getting past this debate.
As we were discussing those issues, Paul Graham published one of his typically thought-provoking essays in which he discusses how the definition of property is changing, such that copyright is no longer property. Whether or not you agree with the way he frames things, he does provide a a great parable that makes a strong point:
As a child I read a book of stories about a famous judge in eighteenth century Japan called Ooka Tadasuke. One of the cases he decided was brought by the owner of a food shop. A poor student who could afford only rice was eating his rice while enjoying the delicious cooking smells coming from the food shop. The owner wanted the student to pay for the smells he was enjoying. The student was stealing his smells!
This story often comes to mind when I hear the RIAA and MPAA accusing people of stealing music and movies.
It sounds ridiculous to us to treat smells as property. But I can imagine scenarios in which one could charge for smells. Imagine we were living on a moon base where we had to buy air by the liter. I could imagine air suppliers adding scents at an extra charge.
Here’s the point. Even if you believe to your core that copyright is absolutely property in every sense of the word, and that copyright infringement is — without question — the absolute equivalent of stealing, to the “net native” generation, thinking of copyright in that manner is as unnatural as thinking about a smell as property. That’s the key point in all of this. Argue semantics all you want. It’s not going to matter to the generation of folks who grew up on the internet. No amount of “education” or semantic debate is going to convince them that copyright is property, just as no amount of education or debate is going to convince you that smells are property.
Given that, you have two simple choices:
- Continue to argue that copyright is property.
- Get on with your life and figure out how to thrive in a world where copyright isn’t considered property.
Which one do you think is going to be more effective? Yeah, that’s the point.