The Absurdity Of Comparing Copying To Stealing
from the preach-it dept
"Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data, or dollars," US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement. "It is equally harmful to the victim, whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away."Reader jjmsan points us to Matthew Yglesias' wonderful two paragraph debunking of this absurd statement, and the fact that US law enforcement continues to make such obviously false equivalency claims:
This is absurd. I wrote a book once, titled Heads In The Sand. I both own physical copies of the book and own the copyright to the content of the book. It is obviously not equally harmful to me if you break into my house and steal my physical copy of the book than if you were to somehow go to the library and make a photocopy of the book. The difference, not at all subtle, is that when you steal something of mine (be it my book, my iPad, my shoes, my money, my immersion blender or whatever), I donít have it anymore. If you copy something that youíre not allowed to copy without my permission, thatís a very different issue. Perhaps you deprive me of income I would have had if you hadnít done that, or perhaps you donít deprive me of anything. As Iíve said before, I sometimes beg online for someone to send me a copy of an academic article that I canít get free access to. Itís never the case that my fallback option in this situation is to purchase an extremely expensive academic journal subscription. Nobody is harmed when this sort of copying occurs, and even in the cases where there is a harm the nature of the harm is quite different from the harm incurred in actual cases of theft.It's that second paragraph that's really the crux of the issue here. We've all argued way too many times over the issue in the first paragraph. But there's simply no good reason at all for officials to use such language when it comes to copying, because copyright laws are entirely unrelated and have a totally different purpose than laws against stealing.
Iím not really sure why the people charged with enforcing copyright law are obsessed with obscuring this fact. The laws against stealing are hardly the only laws on the books. There is a perfectly sound public policy rationale for requiring cars to have license plates, but nobody would say ďstealing is stealing whether you take someoneís car or just drive your own car without license plates.Ē The regulations against copying are supposed to ďpromote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.Ē Thatís a good reason to have a set of rules, but itís a reason that has nothing to do with ďstealing.Ē The question is whether the rules we currently have are actually good ways to achieve this goal.
Of course, it's also worth pointing out a key point that Yglesias seems to skip over which makes Ortiz's statements here even more ridiculous. For all the "stealing" talk regarding Swartz's attempts to copy JSTOR documents, he wasn't even charged with copyright infringement. The "stealing" claim rings even more hollow than usual because he's not charged with either "stealing" or "copying." He's charged with hacking into a system, against their terms of service. Now, I guess someone could try to claim that's some sort of "theft of service," but even that claim doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, because anyone who had access to the MIT network -- which allowed guest access, as Swartz was using -- had free access to JSTOR.