Does Copying = Stealing?

Here on the Linux blogs, it’s a pretty safe bet that any discussion on the topic of copyright is going to be a heated one.

Few, however, reach the heights of conflagration seen in the one that’s currently creating billowing black clouds of smoke high above the blogosphere’s main downtown.

“Copying is stealing” was the title of an editor’s note by Carla Schroder on Linux Today earlier this month, and it’s sparked a firestorm of controversy the likes of which are not often seen.

‘We Can Hardly Criticize the RIAA’

“Linux and Free/Open Source software are entirely dependent on copyrights, and some FOSS fans get pretty righteous on the subject, especially for GPL violations,” Schroder began. “And yet when it comes to music, movies, and books some think the same respect for copyrights doesn’t apply, and it’s OK to collect copies of works without paying for them.

“We can hardly criticize the RIAA, MPAA, ASCAP, Sony BMG, and all the other hostile, clueless over-reaching forces of darkness without having clean hands ourselves,” she added.

Not criticize the RIAA? Unclean hands? To many, those words came as a lit match to a painfully short fuse.


“Copying is *NOT* stealing!” exclaimed Jeremy Akers in the Linux Today comments, for example.

“BULLSPIT” shouted Spanky. “I can’t believe you have bought the RIAA’s goal of spreading the idea of ‘Piracy’ and that it’s stealing.”

On the other hand: “Finally, a writer with a spine,” countered Bernardo.

And “yes yes yes,” affirmed blackbelt_jones.

A barrage of nearly 125 comments peppered the post in short order before it was picked up — and treated similarly — over on LXer, to the tune of 200-plus more comments.

Linux Girl donned her best fireproof gear and bravely headed into the blaze.

‘There’s a Reason Why It’s Called Ripping’

“People keep going on with the ‘it’s not theft, it’s copyright infringement.’ Methinks they doth protest too much,” Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, told Linux Girl.

“They still have their copy!” is just “an argument of convenience. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘ripping a cd’ — as in ‘ripping off,'” Hudson opined.

“Sure they didn’t steal the music, video, game, software, book, whatever,” she explained. Instead, “they stole something else: the remuneration that the title owner had a right to, as well as the feedback (good or bad) from customers.”

Just as not all fires are arson, “not all thefts are copyright infringement, but copyright infringement is theft,” concluded Hudson. “Someone, somewhere, is not getting their end of the bargain.”

‘Sexual Harassment is Not Rape’

On the other hand: “No. Simple statement of fact. Equating them confuses both,” countered Slashdot blogger David Masover.

“I am not commenting on whether or not copying is OK; I am not making an ‘excuse,'” noted Masover. “I am simply correcting that single point: It’s not stealing — it’s copying.”

To offer an analogy, “sexual harassment is not rape,” Masover suggested. “Obviously, neither is ok — it’s simply a fact that they’re not the same thing.”

‘I Would Pay MORE’

It’s not clear “whether ANY form of intellectual property is valid,” Masover asserted. “I agree creative artists deserve to be paid; what I question is whether IP is the best way to go about this, and whether it’s worth the collateral damage.

“That said, I have so little time to spend on entertainment these days, I tend to seek out the people who are doing it right and buy legitimate copies,” he said. “That generally means cross-platform, DRM-free, open source and digitally distributed, though I’ll often compromise on a few of those points.”

Plenty of material is available in that way, he added — “I just finished playing through Aquaria, which meets all of the above.”

In fact, “I would pay MORE to have the kind of product BitTorrent offers for free, but no one is doing it,” Masover concluded. “Now, does that give me the right to just torrent it? No, which is why I watch far less TV and far fewer movies.”

Nevertheless, “provide what I’m looking for, on my terms, and I _do_ pay for it,” he said.

‘Show Me How to ‘Steal’ a Ferrari…’

Indeed, “theft deprives someone of something, while copying it potentially reduces or increases its value,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza pointed out.

“Clearly, copyright infringement is not theft, or we would not need a whole separate body of law to address it,” he added.

Similarly: “Show me how to ‘steal’ a Ferrari without actually moving it or leaving the owner without the Ferrari, and then I’ll agree” with Schroder’s assertion, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told Linux Girl.

‘Just the Free Market at Work’

“I love how supposed capitalists scream about copyright infringement, when copyrights are about as socialist as you can get,” hairyfeet asserted. “What we see with copyright infringement is simply what we’ve always seen when a market gets skewed too far in one direction: a black market erupts to balance the system.”

The implication for businesses is simple, hairyfeet added: “Give people a good value for their money, have a reasonable price — and NO, ‘every last penny I can squeeze’ is NOT a reasonable price, it is gouging — make it fast, easy and convenient to buy from you, and people will buy from you,” hairyfeet advised.

“Trying to charge (US)$60+ for a game PLUS $15-45 for the DLC to actually give the customer what they should have gotten in the box — in a dead economy — is just suicidal,” he said. “Do that, and don’t be surprised when a black market pops up to service the customers you’ve given the finger to. It is just the free market at work.”

‘They Are Punishing Their Paying Customers’

Copyright may or may not be stealing, but “I can say that I bought more CDs when Napster was in full swing than at any other time in my life,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack offered.

“There is a certain segment of the population that hoards movies, music and software just for bragging rights,” Mack pointed out. If a way could be found to prevent that, “they would simply stop collecting, since they don’t actually use what they hoard anyhow.”

In the meantime, “we have CD copy protection that messes up computers, game copy protection that is really annoying to deal with and Blu-ray players that are slow loading and require constant software updates for no other reason than they keep updating the copy protection, and failing to update will cause the player to fail to play new disks,” Mack asserted.

“How is it smart that they are punishing their paying customers while failing to prevent piracy?” he asked. “I just don’t get why they seem to be going out of their way to make pirated content seem like the better deal.”

‘They Risk Losing Their Customers’

Indeed, “if the recording industries prosecute their customers aggressively, they risk losing their customers,” blogger Robert Pogson agreed.

“I make backups of stuff for which I have legal CDs and I record stuff off the air for playback when convenient,” he explained. “I respect copyright in digital multimedia just as I do in software. I remove software I find installed on PCs at work for which I cannot find a license and I replace it with Free Software.

“If people do not want to share their stuff for 70 years, that is their business,” Pogson concluded. “I would prefer they kept it out of circulation.”


  • Copying a protected work is an illegal conversion under the law. Stealing is something whereby the owner is deprived of ownership whereas the conversion is using the item without permission. For example, watching a ballgame by peering over the fence or sneaking into the park without paying admission is a conversion.

    The harm to the owner is the amount of revenue that he does not receive due to the conversion. The RIAA uses the statutory provisions of the copyright law to set an arbitrary value on the copyright violation that is far in excess of the benefit to the violator.

    The copyright owner is only truly harmed if the violator would have been somehow forced to purchase the work legitimately or else would have been highly likely to have done so. If you take the case of someone, say, pooching AutoCAD from some warez site and using it to see how AutoCAD works and/or doing some work at home rather than going to the office at off hours, there is no real harm to the owner since the person would have not paid for a legitimate copy or would have gone to the trouble to go to or stay late at their office and use their legitimate copy.

    The copyright laws were created to ensure that an author received the income from those who benefited from using the protected work. It could be argued, as with the case of "stolen" Windows that the piracy actually helps the owner by making Windows more ubiquitous and avoiding some proliferation of Linux which would harm Microsoft in the long run.

  • What has truly been stolen is our culture. Music, art and entertainment created by people, for people. What is also gone is the mechanism for people of creative talent to make a living (NOT get richer than everybody else) in a balanced, natural society. Instead I have to listen to the people who flaunt Li’l Wayne’s two Ferraris on Cribs complain about how they are being stolen from (while my musician friends struggle to get by because a recording contract is the only obvious vehicle to make a living). ‘Pirates’ are not thieves, they are just people taking back what is rightfully theirs. The renaissance is nigh.

  • Few years back I **legitimately** purchased a

    "download copy" of EverQuest I. Sony, in their infinite wisdom provided neither a torrent style method, at the time, of getting a copy (no Station Launcher, or simple, ‘download this patcher, then have it run’), their server was set to, "do not allow resuming", and I was on dialup. Every 2 hours, doing nothing but downloading, the machine would disconnect. It would have taken me like 5 days to download, as it was, but every 2 hours I would have to dial back in, restart, then *hope* the damn file would keep downloading.

    Needless to say, my solution was to hunt down someone with a torrent of their own copy of EQ1, then use that…

    Sometimes just being able to use the stuff you purchase requires breaking their stupid rules. And, its completely idiotic.

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