April 13, 2004

Palmer: File Sharing Is File Stealing

by Guest Contributor

Greg Palmer, a frequent contributor to many websites, is an upcoming graduate of Lehigh University and authors a personal blog about life and politics. - Ed.

Martha Stewart. Bernie Ebbers. Dennis Kozlowski. The entire Enron crew. We take a serious view of these thefts, often coming to the conclusion that the people at the center of the scandals are greedy, morally destitute business-people who deserve what they get. We sit on our high horse, righteously decry the greed that has overtaken America, and fill our iPods with thousands of the latest tracks without paying a cent.

What is it about stealing the hard work of our favorite music artists that makes it so acceptable?

We obey stop signs even when there is no chance of being caught. We don’t steal CDs or electronics from the store because we know it’s illegal. We think it’s wrong for Martha Stewart to trade off of insider information. But overwhelmingly, young people sign on the Internet every day and "trade" millions of dollars worth of songs on peer-to-peer networks.

For the most part, we follow laws, even when it is clearly more convenient and desirable to break them, as in the case of the stop sign and shoplifting above. If I won't get caught or hurt, why stop at an intersection? If no one will catch me, why not take the CD? Laws don't exist for convenience's sake, and they often proscribe a desirable course of action, yet for the most part, the great majority of citizens follow the laws to the best of their ability. Of course, there are plenty of people who run stop signs and shoplift, but we cast them off as deviants and undesirables.

Why then, is Internet file-sharing so popular? In the virtual world, activities we clearly shun in everyday life are applauded as an entire social movement. As we download, we think about how “we’re poor students, anyway,” and how “those guys are rich enough already.” We'd like to think downloading music is wealth distribution worthy of Robin Hood, but in reality it’s just garden variety theft.

The truth is that file “sharing” is indefensible, and just below the surface we all know it. Though we'd prefer to pretend we're the same righteous Holy Rollers who prosecuted Martha, we’re really just hypocrites who lack enough moral direction to know better. Fact is, we’re not much different from Martha – she traded stocks, we trade music, but both Martha and music-downloaders are out to save money.

Internet law (and more importantly, enforcement of said laws) is in its infancy, but somehow we've interpreted that as a carte blanche ticket to break laws we know exist, whether written in stone or into our minds by social institutions. In civilized society, social mores play as big a part in molding behavior as do written laws. It almost seems as if the generation of file-traders, of which I am most certainly a part, hasn't socialized this impulse that prevents us from stealing. We split hairs to differentiate stealing from the store and stealing songs on the Internet, but in the words of my favorite lawyer, Cousin Vinny, none of the arguments "hold water."

Despite our best delusions, the Internet hasn't changed anything. Making it easier to break the law doesn’t make file trading justifiable theft. Social change that involves theft is illegal, whether the crime is committed online or on the streets. Music is like any other product, and we need to start thinking of it as such, because the fight over file-sharing has larger ramifications. Intellectual and creative property is the basis of the information age economy, and the battle fought over trading may have great consequences on future application of copyright and IP law. So far the courts have done a decent job of upholding these laws – but until we find an efficient way of enforcing the laws, file-sharing will continue en masse.

We steal because it’s easy. We steal because we hate paying exorbitant prices for music. We steal under the guise of social change. We steal by pretending we're trading. We steal because we know the day will soon come when we can’t anymore. Call it what you want - it's all theft nonetheless, and we're all guilty.

April 13, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack

Bart: "Uh, say, are you guys crooks?"

Fat Tony: "Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?"

Bart: "No."

Fat Tony: "Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?"

Bart: "Uh uh."

Fat Tony: "And, what if your family don't like bread? They like... cigarettes?"

Bart: "I guess that's okay."

Fat Tony: "Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?"

Bart: "Hell, no!"

Fat Tony: "Enjoy your gift."

Posted by: Brian at April 13, 2004 01:37 AM

Do I think it's stealing?
yes, of course it's stealing.

Do I think it's wrong?
No, the record companies are assholes.

Am I allowed to say "assholes" on De Novo?
Not sure.

Is stealing from all corporations permissible?
No, only corporations I think are evil.

If it were possible I would steal from:

Cellular phone companies
big oil
insurance companies
land developers
pharmacudical companies

I hasten to add that I would do so twice as fast if I could steal music from these companies.

So yeah, I respectfully dissent.

Posted by: Gump at April 13, 2004 03:34 AM

I would have to disagree as well. "File sharing" has become a great ASSET to the music industry. Well, I partially take that back. Not to the INDUSTRY, but rather to actual musicians.
You can divide music groups into two main categories:
(1) Those who are famous and well-known
(2) Those who desire to be famous and well-known.
Those in the first category usually make the majority of their money playing shows and are complete assheads (a la Metalicca) if they get pissed about file sharing.
Those in the second category would LOVE for their songs to get spread all over the internet and often strive to do so themselves. I have been in many bands where we posted songs on file-sharing servers like mad in hopes that someone, ANYONE would download it and like it.
It's all about getting people out to shows nowadays. It's a file-sharing world out there and smart musicians are taking advantage of that.

Posted by: runquik at April 13, 2004 04:11 AM

File-sharing is NOT stealing, and I tire of hearing file-sharers defamed in this way.

Stealing requires asportation. In other words, it requires that the theif take something with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it.

Thats not what happens with file-sharing. Nobody is denied the use of anything. If Jimmy goes to Walmart and take a CD off the rack, Walmart no longer has that CD; that is stealing. If Jimmydownloads a song off of Kazaa, nobody else is deprived of it.

The US Supreme Court has specifically said this in 1996 in Dowling v US. Its not theft, its copyright infringement.

Copyrights are not a natural right. Nobody has a natural right to an idea or a concept. Thomas Jefferson even stated this in his opposition to the patent clause of the Constitution.

Copyrights are a right solely because Congress says they are. Congress could turn around tomorrow and repeal all copyright laws if it so desired (as unlikely as that is). Ones rights in a copyright are specific and very defined, and a violation of these specific rights is not theft; its merely infringement.

The use of the word theft is a neat trick, as it implies that there is a moral issue involved. However, some of us do not consider copyright infringement to be a morally repugnent act. Its a violation of the law, yes, but I consider it no more immoral than letting the parking meter run out. In fact, I think that the extreme length of time for which copyrights are protected is immoral.

And now they want to put people in jail for non-commercial copyright infringement. That is patently absurd, pun intended. Recording companies can bilk consumers out of hundreds of millions of dollars (re: price fixing), and they get a little fine. A 12 year old girl downloads a Brittney Spears song and gets 60 days in juvi?

I don't even download anything, but it really burns me up when file-sharers are considered the same as some thug who holds up the Qwiky Mart at gunpoint.

Posted by: Anthony 2 at April 13, 2004 12:59 PM

Whether under the guise of theft or copyright infringement, downloading music is still depriving the music industry of the profits that they are "due" for the music that they market.

Whether or not this is morally wrong is the same issue you have with stealing. Did anyone thing that what Robin Hood did was morally wrong? No, yet that was stealing. Not all stealing can be considered morally wrong (such as stealing food for your starving family) just as not all copyright infringement is morally wrong. Yet when we start deciding which laws to follow based on whether or not they are "morally" wrong as opposed to "legally" wrong, you invite a plethora of actions that are not legally wrong.

If you let a parking meter expire and then receive a ticket, if you refuse to pay the ticket because the action wasn't "morally" wrong, the state can bring sanctions against you. Yet people don't complain about this.

Though I don't condone their lawsuits, all the RIAA is doing is bringing sanctions against those people who are committing a crime that isn't "morally" wrong.

Posted by: Justin at April 13, 2004 01:55 PM

Anthony 2,
W E L L S A I D . . . . . . . .!!!!!!1:)

Posted by: Iysam @1 at April 13, 2004 02:26 PM

Gump - I'm not sure where your dissent is coming from: theft is only wrong if you respect the company you're stealing from? I don't think that justification works, because very few thieves respect the companies or people they steal from. If they did, they wouldn't commit the crime at all. Laws are meant to protect people from other people who don't respect them.

Anthony2 - I'm not sure I agree that copyrighting is not a natural right, though Jefferson certainly didn't think it was. We have a natural right not to be deprived of our property. In Jeff's day, physical property was far more valuable than intellectual and creative property, so it was almost unnecessary to protect ICP rights. With the dawn of the industrial, and more recently, information ages, ICP is far more valuable than physical property. I think that should lead to a conclusion that it needs to be protected the same way.

Justin - Well said.

Oh, and runquik, you're right that many argue that sharing has been an asset to the industry, something I don't dispute.

Posted by: Greg at April 13, 2004 02:51 PM

Anthony 2 et al, you beg the question. The demarcation between copyright and "physical" right is not as clear as the theoretical line between natural right and social right.

Posted by: Craig at April 13, 2004 05:24 PM

Another comment -- the difference between natural right and a legal right is that a legal right is at least enforceable. For example, everyone has a natural right to life. Everyone also has a legal right to life. Of course, "Congress could turn around tomorrow and repeal all [murder] laws if it so desired (as unlikely as that is)." In that case, your natural right to life doesn't mean anything. The concept of natural rights makes for great philosophical musings, but without legal rights they mean nothing.

Posted by: Justin at April 13, 2004 05:32 PM

Ok. Let's not call it "stealing". Let's call it fraud.

What's the traditional definition of fraud? Generally: "dishonestly obtaining a benefit". You're getting the benefit of music whilst dishonestly depriving the copyright owner of their fee.

"Copyrights are not a natural right. Nobody has a natural right to an idea or a concept. Thomas Jefferson even stated this in his opposition to the patent clause of the Constitution." says a poster. Well, hot tip, Copyright is not protection of an idea or a concept. It's the onwership of the expression of an idea or concept.

You can think about music and those crazy jams you want. Hell, talk smack to those block hangin' hoez at the corner about yo music. But if an idea or concept is as far as it goes, you aren't talking about Copyright.

Let's take an example, say, a book. Just because you can now scan it, drop it online and share it - does that make it any better? No. You're stealing from some poor bastard who had to sit and write the bloody thing, working from instalment cheque to instalment cheque. But publshing houses haven't been demonised in the same way that Sony or Warner have been.

Is 'file-sharing' wrong? No. I should be able to share the entirety of my hard drive were I to choose. Just like the ability to leave my entire house open. But if someone knocks off a copy of Usher-"Yeah" that I've just paid for off (insert-music-service-here); then, that's a problem.

The RIAA have a right to protect their property. To say they're big heartless corporates is probably entirely accurate, but irrelevant. They got to be big heartless corporates by being much smaller companies. They deserve their due.

As for criminalising copyright infringement? Got to say, not a huge fan; yet attitudinal change has to happen somehow. But that's a matter for lobbying the legislature. Of course, the downside being, you don't have the cash to do it with; or maybe just not the motivation.

Posted by: SparkytheWonderDog at April 13, 2004 07:55 PM


I didn't mean to imply that the laws protecting companies from theft shouldn't be enforced because we don't respect them.

What I meant to say is that I don't think it's morally wrong to do bad things to corporations that are evil.

If these corporations were people for instance I would probably not steal from them, rather, I would probably beat them up. Or get a bunch of my friends to beat them up. and that would probably be ok.

Can you imagine what kind of life a record company would lead if it were a real person? Nobody would think twice about laying the smackdown on him. He would have to leave town and change his name, and he would deserve it.

Posted by: Gump at April 13, 2004 08:03 PM

Gump -

Imagine this: [Insert company you like] is a person. Some people think that this company is evil because [insert some problem]. You happen to be a friend of this company. Would you think it was alright for somebody else to beat up your friend, and be justified, just because they don't like them?

Posted by: Justin at April 13, 2004 11:01 PM


I'm certain that you've been somewhere, and some guy is being a total jackass and you've thought to yourself "you know what that guy needs? A serious ass kicking." And you're right, he probably does. In fact, there's probably nothing morally wrong with you walking up and handing him his ass right there. (this is of course in the hypothetical world where we aren't a bunch of law nerds) You would probably be doing him and society a favor. Thereafter he knows not to spill beer on you, or wear Abercromie, or say that Jeremy Blachman is a big sissy. You get the idea.

The problem is that these corporations are that guy, but you aren't allowed to kick his ass. It's like all his buddies are there so he's allowed to go right on being a douche.

Except with file-sharing. It's the chink in his ass goblin armor. It's like he's standing around with all his buddies and you can just walk right up and kick him in his stupid head and just be like "yeah, how's that feel, how does that make you feel??? Quit being an ass!"

Ok, the analogy only goes so far because file-sharing actually benefits the artists by spreading their music, but you get the idea.

Sorry about the violence and profanity.

and I'm certain Jeremy isn't a sissy.

Posted by: Gump at April 14, 2004 02:16 AM

Its data f***head not cash

[Eds. - Respectful commenting is appreciated.]

Posted by: Deez at April 14, 2004 02:36 AM
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