This is a difficult subject. It seems clear to me that if I create something, it is mine. If I wish to give it away, I am free to do so, but if I want to profit from it, I should be able to do that too. This is a basic premise of capitalism, that someone produces a product and other people consume the product, and that the consumers pay the producers. It makes a lot of the world go round.
But there are areas where people who are perfectly in tune with this line of thinking nevertheless totally disagree in practice. Because it is readily possible to transfer files digitally at virtually no cost, and because there are people who allow their files to be transferred digitally at no cost, there are people who have come to believe that transferring all files digitally and not paying any cost is the correct thing to do. As a matter of fact, it has probably reached the point where it doesn’t even matter anymore if some people like to give away their files. The fact that files are readily transferable digitally has made them attractive objects some other believe believe that they are entitled to at no cost. The very ability to access these files is given as justification for accessing them. However, just because something is readily accessible doesn’t mean that it is okay to take it. If I leave my lawn mower in my front yard, where anyone can see it and take it, does that mean that anyone who sees it and takes it is right to do so? Most people would say no, including those who feel differently about digital items. The difference lies in that one word: digital.
A digital world calls for different rules and regulations than an analog world. The problem is, most of our legal thinking is based on that analog world. On the other hand, few of us believe that creators are not entitled to the fruits of their labors, or that intellectual property is any different from physical property. Because it is easier to steal a song than it is to steal a lawn mower, should we believe that stealing songs is ok and stealing lawn mowers isn’t? They’re both still the fruits of someone’s labors. Those laborers are entitled to their rewards.
Although it remains wrong to steal, those in the business of creating digital properties that are readily accessible need to deal with that accessibility. We’re just beginning to learn these ways in the music business, I think. But we do need to change our basic thinking to really address the issues. The site TorrentFreak describes itself as the place where breaking news, BitTorrent (a way to access digital files) and copyright collide. And they have recently posted about the idea that equating piracy with theft is the basic mistake of understanding the needs of copyright in the digital age. They quote Stefan Larsson, a Swedish lawyer: “The theft-metaphor is problematic in the sense that a key element of stealing is that the one stolen from loses the object, which is not the case in file sharing since it is copied. There is no loss when something is copied, or the loss is radically different from losing something like your bike.”
That is absolutely true. Solutions to this are unclear, but the issues raised are important for all of us. Read the thought-provoking Piracy is NOT Theft: Problems of a Nonsense Metaphor.