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Saturday, 10 March 2012

Is Copying the Same as Theft?

DJ Alain
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Honest Questions From a Simple Man.

We continue the debate regarding the heading 'When is Theft Not Really Stealing' from last week. If you missed it, you might want to start there. Here's the link:

Theo: Last time, we established that there's a general public attitude about petty theft from the place of work that considers such things as the taking of small items of stationery, chatting around the water cooler in work time and printing stuff for charities as not really stealing, you agree?

Dave: Yeah. And we said the bosses do it as well, when they have meetings on the golf course or travel Business Class to conferences, when they could just as easy meet on video conference.

Theo: So, there's a generally accepted feeling that petty theft is simply a part of everyday life in which most people participate?

Dave: Everyone does it.

Theo: Does this extend to such things, I wonder, as borrowing a book from a friend and never returning it?

Dave: That's not fair, but I don't think most people would think of it as theft. I mean, it's usually just because they've forgotten, isn't it?

Theo: How do we feel about copying a music track from a friend's CD so we can play it in our car?
Dave: Happens all the time.

Theo: No doubt. But is it theft?

Dave: How would it be theft? I mean, the guy who owns the CD can copy it legally so he can have a copy in the car and one at home, can't he?

Theo: That's actually not quite as straightforward, legally, as you might think. But forget that for the moment. The point about the guy with the CD is that he's already paid the artist by buying the CD. His friend, however, has made no contribution to the artist, has he?

Dave: I suppose not. But he might decide to buy the whole CD once he's listened to the track, so the artist gets a new fan.  

Theo: On the other hand, he might not. And if he copies the whole CD from his friend's?

Dave: Same goes. He might decide he'll buy the next CD the artist brings out. So, the artist gains.

Theo: Or not, of course. It's a bit tenuous, though isn't it? Justifying this activity on the grounds that it might result in future payment to the artist? There'll be those who decide never to buy anything from that particular artist but still retain the original copied CD.

Dave: Yeah, well, that's the way things are, isn't it? Any case; look at the sort of money pop stars make. They're not going to miss one or two sales, are they?

Theo: So, what makes it okay to steal income from pop stars is the fact that they're already wealthy from performing? Suppose this particular artist is just emerging, has produced the CD at his or her own cost, whilst working nights as a supermarket shelf-filler?

Dave: Well, no, you wouldn't want to do that from someone just starting out, would you?

Theo: Selective theft, then. Interesting idea. Let me ask you, would you go into a shop and steal a CD off the shelf?

Dave: Jeez! 'Course not. That's shop-lifting.

Theo: But it's okay to do exactly the same thing by copying material without paying for it?

Dave: Not the same. If you shop-lift, you're taking from the shop keeper as well. He's already paid for it and you've robbed him of his costs, haven't you?

Theo: Since the legal purchase of the item would also involve the retailer, the only actual difference I see is that the shop keeper hasn't, in that case, lost his expenditure but merely the opportunity of the profit, which is the part of the transaction that keeps him and his family alive.

Dave: Record companies should make their CDs cheaper, then people wouldn't be tempted to copy them, would they?

Theo: So, it's the fault of the supplier? You think it's the cost of the item that makes theft justified? Champagne's ridiculously expensive for what it is; is it okay to steal that as well? At what point would the theft become wrong?

Dave: What do you mean?

Theo: Well, say for example, that the item was sold for £10.00 ($15.68) for, say, 12 tracks? Is that too much to pay?

Dave: It's a lot.

Theo: So, how much would be not too much?

Dave: Hard to say. But I guess I'd pay, say, £6.00 ($9.41).

Theo: And £0.50 ($0.78) per track would stop you copying in the future, would it?

Dave: Probably.

Theo: Theft, then, isn't an absolute but a quality dependent on certain personal judgements about the worth of the object and the deserving nature, or otherwise, of the creating bodies?

Dave: Jeez, you do like to complicate things, don't you?

Theo: Sorry, Dave, I thought I was clarifying them.
You feel it's okay to steal providing the person or organisation you steal from can afford it? That seems to be what you're saying and I simply want to make sure I understand you correctly.

Dave: Well, yeah, except I wouldn't call it theft.

Theo: What would you call it?

Dave: Dunno.


Please let me have your comments and observations. By the way, apologies for the delay this week: I've been a bit under the weather.

Next time, we'll move on to the next part of the debate, especially as it pertains to written material, which is, after all, what most readers of this blog are involved with.

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