Intellectual Property and Theft

There's quite a controversy brewing over intellectual property (IP) these days, thanks to the computer and the internet. Music companies and movie companies want to preserve and increase their profits, and think that illegal downloading of music and movies is depriving them of revenues.

I've argued before that there is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship between an illegal download and a lost sale. It's quite possible that someone would download a file where they would not be willing to pay the full retail price for an album or movie. Or someone might download it, and then decide they like it enough that they do go ahead and buy it, and/or recommend it to friends who may also buy it. Thus, there may well be no loss of sale related to the download, and it may actually increase sales.

But while that may be a good, practical argument, it is far short of an adequate moral argument. Does the downloader have the moral right to download a file without the creator or owner's permission? Frankly, as much as I might like it otherwise, I tend to think the answer is no, you can only justify downloading or copying if it is with their permission, allowing for fair use exceptions and back-up copies. After all, let's be totally fair. If I have legal ownership of the file, I may want to put it on more than one computer, or on a portable player, or back it up to an external drive or disc in case my hard drive crashes and loses the data.

And I might argue that the creators and companies should change their business models to recognize the ease of copying digital files, and how that can help sales as well as hurt sales.

One problem I see is in how the problem is actually defined. I referred to the problem as illegal downloading, but many pro-IP people refer to it as theft or piracy, and for that matter, we say that we are talking about "intellectual property". But ideas cannot truly be owned, only thought of. Only the physical media that an idea is saved or incorporated in can be property and be owned, not the idea itself. Real property is stolen by depriving the owner the use of that property so that the thief can use the property instead: a cd player, a computer, a television, a car, etc. When an illegal download occurs, the downloader can enjoy the content, but the owner is not deprived of the content, either. So how can it be considered as 'theft'?

Again, I'm not saying that it's okay to download without the owner's permission, but I do think that thinking about the problem in the wrong way, with the wrong terms and concepts, will do nothing but muddle the issue and make it that much harder to deal with and resolve. The law and the legal system too often gets in the way of achieving true justice, and this is just one more example of that, unless we start thinking about this issue in terms that are closest to the reality of the situation.

Epistemology has a profound impact on how we think about things and how we act based upon that thinking. A proper understanding of the problem is necessary to work on the best and most workable solution to the problem. Improper use of the terms 'property' and 'theft' not only makes illegal downloading more difficult to deal with, it also muddles our thinking about real property and real theft. More confusion in the legal system is the last thing we need.

No comments: