I keep seeing an argument on the Internet, including in the comments here, that goes like this:
“Copyright violation is not stealing. If I steal something physical, the original owner no longer has it. But if I violate a copyright, the original owner has lost nothing tangible. So while copyright violation is illegal, it’s very different from stealing. In fact, it’s good publicity and might even benefit the person from whom you stole.”
I understand the point that copyright violations are different from theft of physical property, but is it a victimless crime?
When you violate a copyright, you take something valuable from the copyright owner that he can’t get back. You take his right to control where his creation is viewed and how. It might be your opinion that the “free publicity” you provide outweighs the loss – and you might be right – but you’ve taken from the creator the right to make the publicity-versus-overexposure decision himself. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but it feels that way to the person who lost control of his art.
Let me give you an analogy. Let’s say your neighbor sneaks into your house while you are gone and borrows your underpants. After wearing your underpants all day, the neighbor launders them, folds them neatly, and returns them to your house in perfect condition, all while you are gone. He tells himself that he will say good things to people about your business – whatever business that is – so this arrangement is good publicity for you. The next time he sees you, he tells you about the underpants because he figures you’ll thank him for saying nice things about his business. He informs you that it’s a win-win scenario.
Given that you have full use of your property (the underpants), is it a victimless crime? I would say the owner of the underpants lost something even though his property is physically the same.
Some people argue that copyright laws create an artificial property right that is inherently different, and less worthy than the more natural right to own physical property, such as your clothes. But it seems to me that you only own your clothes because the law says so. Absent any artificial laws, I could go into your closet and wear your clothes whenever I want. All property rights are artificial. Copyrights are no different.
For the record, I never mind when people make copies of Dilbert for their personal use. If you want to e-mail your favorite comic to a friend, that’s great. We even make that easy by providing a button for that purpose on Dilbert.com.
But obviously there has to be a limit. After I published my first best-selling book, The Dilbert Principle, within days it had been illegally scanned and was widely available on the Internet for free. Technically speaking, it wasn’t theft. But I still lost something. I (and my publisher) lost the ability to decide if, when, and how to publish as an e-book. You can’t compete with “free and immediate.”
From a legal standpoint, taking a creator’s right to control distribution of his art is not “theft.” It’s just “taking something that used to legally belong to someone else and making it your own.”
You may now activate your cognitive dissonance and explain in the comments that every time you violate a copyright, the free publicity it generates for the artist is proof of your goodness. To make your argument extra powerful, note that you once knew a guy who bought an extra CD because of the 12,000 songs he took for free.