Wednesday, June 19, 2013

(Can You?) Steal This Book

An evergreen debate concerns the piracy of artistic expression and What Should Be Done about it. You might think that copying is theft. I don't.

It is my opinion that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a bane on society, and when I let my imagination roam, it can destroy civilization. DRM only seems reasonable, that if a work of art is valuable, then that value should be preserved by restricting access to it to paying customers. But art is not a commodity like bread.

The hungry man who cannot feed his children may steal a loaf of bread to feed them, but when he does so he takes it from the baker who needs the money to buy shoes for his children. And so on. Theft of tangible goods victimizes the person from whom the item is stolen. When Moses brought down from the mount the tablets of the Law everyone understood "Thou Shalt Not Steal" in these terms.

Economics is the dismal science of scarcity and how people cope with scarcity. Scarce goods command higher prices and common goods do not. Laws against copying protect and maintain scarcity.

If you copy my work, you don't take bread from my mouth. You will just reduce the scarcity of my work in this world. I had my work before you made a copy, and I have just as much of it afterwards. That's different from a loaf of bread.

Now, don't get the wrong idea. I believe in private property and I believe Intellectual Property law is--in principle--legitimate. Though Moses did not carry copyright law down from the mount, those fellas in powdered wigs who wrote "We the people" included Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution that we know as the Copyright Clause wherein Congress is empowered to:
To promote 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.
This is no emanation of any penumbra, but black-letter law. The principle is as legit as the US Constitution, which I regard as more legitimate than any President, Congress, or Court that it establishes.

You may be confused. I said that copying is not stealing, but I asserted the legitimacy of copyright law. There is no contradiction if you remember that the moral law can differ from the civil law. I remember driving home from college and agonizing over the 55mph speed limit. (I was altogether too earnest as a youth.) When someone asked my philosophy teacher why he had a radar detector in his car, he mentioned this distinction.

If you drive 56mph, you should manfully pay the ticket like Socrates drank the hemlock. That is the way of civil disobedience: do what's right and don't cry if John Law catches you and takes you to court.

Is file sharing a victimless crime? Almost. You are disrupting artificially created scarcity. Is it wrong to artificially create scarcity? Yes. Is file sharing both illegal and unconstitutional? Probably.

Today the purchaser of an ebook or song spent his money to become an owner, not a licensee. Owners of books or records lend them to friends and sell them at flea markets. But publishing companies call that theft, they have devised DRM schemes, and have lobbied Congress to pass laws to help them make cultural artifacts like these one-use-disposable. Is this wrong? Yes.

One sign that the GOP is just as corrupt as the Democrats is its continued support of legislative schemes to take rights from consumers, despite Hollywood's monolithic support of the Democrat party.

I think this is a situation where the morality that inheres within nature (right and wrong) is inconsistent with the civil law of the United States (legal and illegal). If you make illegal copies of my work, I'm not going to squawk about it, provided it's the right thing to do.


  1. Hi Steve,
    Though I wholeheartedly agree with you that moral law sometimes (or, more likely, often) conflicts with moral law, I must respectfully beg to differ with your main point, which is that since stealing an artist/author's work does not in effect rob them of their goods, it is not wrong.
    Of course, you are most certainly right that if someone steals my writing, I am not physically robbed of it. Heck, I've got more copies than I know what to do with of my work, both physical and electronic. But I don't think that's the point.
    Take your example of the baker: yes, stealing from him is different from stealing intellectual property, because the robbery of the bakery results in less actual physical bread, while stealing intellectual property doesn't result in anything being physically less. But the thing is, the baker doesn't actually care about the bread itself. He didn't bake it to eat; he baked it to sell. And what a thief is robbing him of is not ultimately the bread; what's actually being stolen is the profit the bread would have brought the baker.
    And that's where stealing intellectual property is exactly the same. It's not that I worry that someone would actually steal my intellectual property out of my hands so that I don't have it anymore; it's that as an author who worked dang hard on my publication and who operates in a capitalistic society, I don't want someone else pirating my work and making profit off it themselves. (Because that's another issue, also—that pirated artistic work often ends up in the pirate's collecting good money off someone else's work. It's often not just a stealing for the "thief's" personal benefit.)
    I'm not worried about losing my hold on my ideas; I just want to protect my profit from them. And I think the baker feels the same.
    I think authors—yourself included—are a brutally hardworking lot, and I want them to be able to profit from their effort. (In related news, I very much enjoyed your The Aristotelian.)
    However, do I think there's a time and place for "illegal" copying? Yes, actually. I agree with your point that it may be the right thing to do. One particularly compelling example, for instance, is when Brother Andrew, a bringer of hope behind the former Iron Curtain, illegally copied his own biography and smuggled it into the Soviet Union, bringing hope and comfort to multitudes in doing so. The American writers of said biography applauded him. So, yes. I agree with you on that point.
    That's all. Thank you for your thoroughly thought-provoking blog.

    1. Excuse me, I agree that moral law can conflict with *civil law. Sorry about that.

    2. I think we have to be careful about terminology if we are to profitably engage each other's arguments. I made the distinction between stealing and copying, which you ignored. Tsk, tsk. According to my definition of stealing, stealing an artist's work would consist of sneaking into the studio and removing the canvas. Or grabbing Hemingway's Suitcase off a railway platform. (For fun, look up the true story of Hemingway's lost suitcase.)

      My central point was that illegal copying is something, but that something isn't stealing. After you copy my stuff, I still have my stuff. This is an important distinction such as I illustrated with a loaf of bread that when stolen leaves the baker bread-less. If s/he was counting on it for lunch, s/he'll go hungry.

      My main point is that although the moral law inheres within Nature and is always right or wrong no matter the circumstance, legal constructs like copyrights inhabit a fuzzier moral place. This fuzzy moral space is where "it depends" can change the appropriate course of action.

      And when big-money lobbyists influences legislation to the public's hurt, it deligitimizes civil law.

      I don't think we're as far apart as it seems. I don't call for copying of everything every time to be morally right. Some times it is right to illegally copy work (such as Brother Andrew's bio) and sometimes not.

      I think challenge of overcoming obscurity, and getting our work known to everyone who might buy it is greater than the challenge of people pirating our work. I heard someone say that if he learned that the Russians made a million illegal copies of his book, the first thing he'd do is arrange a book tour.

      If you could get a million people to illegally copy "The Aristotelian," then some proportion of that number would say, "I liked that." and become more inclined to buy something else of mine or (what I've done) buy a legal copy by way of saying "Thank you." And those people would be more inclined to buy "Finding Time" or something else of mine.

      Frankly, most times when someone makes an illegal copy of something s/he's not all that interested in it and it ends up sitting in a personal archive un-looked-at. That is not a lost potential sale, b/c the pirate would have never bought it in the first place.

      If you are ever in Grand Rapids, MI, please let me know and we'll expand on this discussion over refreshing drinks in a comfortable space.

    3. Thanks Steve! You're right that I completely failed to acknowledge your stealing vs. copying observation in my reply. Although I do agree with your point about the delegitimization of civil law in certain cases, I just think in most circumstances the pirate still ought to owe the author for the intellectual property he copied, even though said pirate technically never would have bought it. So in that vein, I still think copying and stealing are the same. Although there we're crossing over into morality again.
      And of course, I do agree with your main point that moral law remains the constant, while legal constructs are sometimes murkier morally. And I like your point about overcoming obscurity vs. squelching piracy. And poor Hemingway! I did read about his suitcase.
      But since online discussions can stretch for centuries, I highly favor your suggestion to put this aside. Perhaps one day we may talk further.
      Thanks again.

  2. My take on the morality of this is slightly different. if a person gain from the fruit of another's labor without compensation, they are freeloading. This is economically harmful to society, though in most civilized societies we make an exception for those that cannot do things for themselves. This is not, however, in place for artists or writers or whomever. If it were, this would be a different conversation.
    If a person gains from the fruit of another's labor *against their will*, not only are they harming society but they are harming the creator/creators of the labor, and I don't mean just economically: by placing your will above theirs you diminish them. You are behaving as a scofflaw. This sort of behavior is very common among teenage boys who refuse to see that they harm the world around them or refuse to be part of an adult society. To do this as an adult is sociopathic. This unfortunately seems to describe the elements of the Pirate Party.
    In this light I see this as harmful to both the creators of what is gleaned "for free" (all other things around them that are used to glean these things have been paid for, i.e. computers, internet, etc) and also to society. Like a teenager, it is defended because it is able to be done, refusing to admit the negative impact. Note, for example, the extreme drop in middle class or even sustenance level arts/journalism/etc since the advent of the internet. (see Jaron Lanier's books on this, for more information.)
    A note about value: if you use an item, you gain from its value. In most instances, that item has some price that converts its intrinsic value (aesthetic + labor) to a currency. People who believe that copying "creates more" are ignoring the fact that there is an intrinsic value that is used when the item is listened to/read/watched/etc. I see that as a willful ignorance, that there is intrinsic value is something proven by its use, but somehow the item's relative monetary value is detached at this point. This strikes me as "having one's cake and eating it too".
    That's my take on the ethics involved. Sorry, no solutions!

    1. I concur about freeloading. However, I think we diverge at the point of harm. Were I to pirate Disney's latest Lone Ranger flop, the harm would not go to any creator (who did the work for hire), but to the shareholders of Disney's corporation. But it is always more sympathetic to speak of the creative talent instead of the soulless corporation exploiting them.

      The harm of theft is for the rightful owner to be denied use of stolen goods. The harm of copying is for the rights-holder to be denied a measure of scarcity.

      Now, I've already said that copying is illegal, and it stands on solid constitutional ground as illegal. To knowingly perpetrate illegal acts is indeed the definition of the scofflaw. But this also makes, by definition, Socrates, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and every other perpetrator of civil disobedience a scofflaw.

      I happen to be in the unique position of being both a creator and a publisher. Any harm that might come to me because of a lack of scarcity of my published work is offset by the benefit to me brought about by the incremental decline in its obscurity. Thus my work has no DRM on it. Feel free to get copies by any means you like, and send it around to every pirate you know.


Those more worthy than I: