“They make me madder than a yak in heat.” – Marge Simpson
A little over a month ago, I wrote a post titled Is Copyright Infringement Theft? The post sparked several other thoughtful articles and many comments – most notably a response by Mike Masnick at the popular TechDirt blog, Why It’s Important Not to Call Copyright Infringement Theft.
This is one of those ongoing debates, along the lines of “Mac vs. PC” and “Kirk vs. Picard.”1 Not surprisingly, many comments responded as if I had actually said “copyright infringement is theft.” But the title of the post was merely a question, and in the body I explicitly said “I’m not going to answer that question today.”
I want to continue the discussion today. I think the debate serves as a launching point for many different discussions involving copyright law and the law in general. I obviously can’t cover all of those different discussions in one post, but hopefully I can highlight a few that I find interesting.
At the end of the day, I still think arguing over “theft” or “not theft” is a semantic sticking-point, but unlike Masnick, I think the foreclosure happens on both ends. He thinks “if you are seeking to understand what is happening and how to respond to it, calling it ‘theft’ immediately shuts the door on a variety of important points.” I think the same is true from the perspective of the creators and businesses in the creative industries: if you’re seeking to understand what is happening to them as we continue to move to a digital environment and how to respond to it, decrying anything but complete acceptance to widespread piracy – down to the very language they choose to use to describe it – shuts the door on a variety of important points.
Copyright infringement as theft is a metaphor. According to Masnick, calling copyright infringement “theft is wrong.” Why? “Because it’s wrong at an absolute level.”
When is a metaphor wrong? It’s a curious question. Over at the Legal Profession Blog, Jeff Lipshaw succinctly describes the role of metaphor in meaning using the example of subatomic particles. He says, “What thinking about electrons as billiard balls does is to give them a meaning by analogy to other things, and we base our view of the coherence of the explanation (not its rightness or wrongness) on how it compares to other explanations we already view as coherent.”
I included the Simpsons quote above to illustrate the difficulties in answering the question of the correctness of a metaphor. A yak in heat may very well exhibit aggressive behavior, making the comparison apt. But the comparison is at the very least a clumsy one; many of us are presumably unfamiliar with yak behavior, so the metaphor is more a non sequitur than a useful explanation.
“Love is like an onion, and you peel away layer after layer until you’re just … weeping over the sink.” – Pete Hornberger
The use of metaphor in language is very flexible. Its success in contributing to understanding is context-dependent. Saying you are “madder than X” aids the listener only if they have some knowledge of X. The metaphor itself does not depend on a literal comparison – computing the relative anger-level of you and X. Indeed, we tend to laugh at anyone who rebuffs a metaphor on literal grounds – imagine correcting Hamlet because troubles clearly don’t exist in liquid form.2
And yet that is one of the arguments used by those against the idea of copyright infringement as theft: the comparison is wrong in a descriptive sense. I addressed the fallacy in this argument in my first post. Based on the response to that post, I wanted to explore it further today. The idea that the comparison is wrong in any sort of descriptive sense has no basis in logic, language, or history.
The other argument against equating infringement with theft has to do with metaphor in framing – comparing the two in a prescriptive, or normative sense. The idea is that the language one uses reflects the result one wants to achieve. This argument, by far, is the more salient of the two. I touched on this argument briefly in my first post. Some of the responses to that post have explored this argument, so I’d like to flesh it out a little bit more today.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
Masnick concludes his article by calling to mind the idea that comparing copyright infringement to theft is like comparing “apples to oranges”. Even here you can see the challenges with talking about the rightness and wrongness of metaphors – even our metaphor for describing incomparable concepts is flawed!3 One is a round, tasty fruit that grows on trees, while the other is – wait…
The argument against a descriptive comparison between infringement and theft fails logically, historically, and legally.
Perhaps the best illustration of the logical argument against equating copyright infringement to theft can be found in the following YouTube video:
Cute. But it misses the point on several levels. If you steal a bike and your friend has to ride the bus, you’re certainly a thief. But if your friend sneaks on the bus without anyone noticing and gets a free ride, what do we call that?4
Our concept of “property” is not based on inherent characteristics of physical objects – you can’t look at a bicycle under a microscope and deduce who owns it. It’s better to think of “property” as a set of relationships between people and tangible or intangible things. Property in this sense requires a recognition by law and/or society of the rights, duties, privileges, etc. that connect any given individual with any given thing.5
The reasoning displayed in the video above is that (1) theft requires deprivation of possession, (2) reproducing a copyrighted work does not result in deprivation of possession, (3) thus, infringement is not theft. This argument begs the question, however, that the definition of theft is limited to deprivation of possession. The argument only works if you insist on restricting the definition of “theft” to that of common law larceny. This is an overly prescriptive restriction on the term. The idea is that the comparison is wrong not just on a literal level, but an arbitrarily narrow application of the literal meaning of “theft.”
It’s easy to reconcile infringement with theft using the broader view of property rights as a set of legal relationships between individuals and things. “Possession” is only one of the relationships recognized by law and society. “Theft” in its colloquial sense – the definition commonly used over time – involves some deprivation of a recognized right. “Theft” of a physical object typically means the deprivation of the exclusive right of possession. Copyright, by statute, secures the exclusive right to copy, among other rights. Copying without permission thus deprives the author of that exclusive right.
The above video is an example of “linguistic peeving.” In one sense, it is a latching onto a specific usage one believes is right, while proclaiming all other usages to be wrong. But when it comes to the use of language, we can compare claims of “peevery” against actual usage throughout history. “Lingustics is descriptive, not prescriptive.”
The debate over the words used in discussing copyright is nothing new. William St. Clair notes that “the language of stealing” became the main metaphor for copyright infringement at the end of the seventeenth century.6 Infringement was, at that time, “frequently equated with theft,” “shoplifting, letter-picking, purse-cutting, highway robbery, burgling a house, plundering a hospital. And piracy.”7
New terms continue to be termed to describe the relationship between infringement and theft. Among hip-hop artists, the term “beat-jacking” – a derivation of carjacking – is used to describe the deliberate use without permission, or a false claim of authorship, of another writer’s instrumental.8
This language usage is not hard to find among people within the creative fields. One of the responses to my initial post comes from friend and PlagiarismToday blogger Jonathan Bailey, who notes that while he limits the use of the term “theft” in connection with copyright infringement, he has no issue with its casual use in this context for three reasons: (1) It’s a common term, (2) It’s not meant to be literal, and (3) It’s not the only misnomer. Bailey’s site is aimed at content creators of all stripes, both large and small, and the terminology reflects to some extent the feelings these creators express when they see others copy their work.
In my first post, I specifically pointed out the fallacy in relying on the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dowling for “not theft” proponents, and included a quote from the Court in MGM v. Grokster equating unlawful copying to “garden-variety theft.” The first example illustrated the problems with misapplying judicial language to prove a point; the second, to show the comfort that the highest court in the land has in using the language at issue in a colloquial sense. This colloquial use of “theft” in the copyright context was not, however, an isolated incidence.
- In the 1974 Supreme Court case Teleprompter Corp. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Justice Douglas and Chief Justice Burger wrote in their dissent, “A CATV that builds an antenna to pick up telecasts in Area B and then transmits it by cable to Area A is reproducing the copyrighted work, not pursuant to a license from the owner of the copyright, but by theft.”9
- Judge Patel began his opinion in the District Court ruling in A & M Recordings v. Napster, “The matter before the court concerns the boundary between sharing and theft, personal use and the unauthorized world-wide distribution of copyrighted music and sound recordings.”10
- In 1980, the Second Circuit wrote in Iowa State University v. American Broadcasting, “The fair use doctrine is not a license for corporate theft, empowering a court to ignore a copyright whenever it determines the underlying work contains material of possible public importance.”11
One could find examples of this language from branches of government outside the judiciary. Among other usages of describing copyright infringement as theft, I can point to:
- Provisions for criminal copyright infringement fall under Title 18, Chapter 113, of the US Code, titled “Stolen Property”
- Legislation aimed at copyright infringement, like the No Electronic Theft Act of 1997
- The 2004 report on “Intellectual Property Theft” by the Bureau of Justice Statistics
Perhaps most strikingly, the case can be made that copyright preemption shows a similarity between infringement and theft. In the comments of his response, Masnick says the point of refraining from using “theft” language in the copyright context is that the two are not “analogous.”
The Copyright Act explicitly preempts “all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright” (emphasis added). In other words, you can’t bring a cause of action in a state or local court if the rights at issue fall within the scope of copyright law. Among the causes of action which have been found by courts to be preempted by copyright law: conversion – the “wrongful exercise of dominion and control over tangible, physical objects”;12 theft of services;13 and theft of satellite signals.14
According to Wiktionary, “analogous” means “Having analogy; corresponding to something else; bearing some resemblance or proportion.” “Equivalent” means “similar or identical in value, meaning or effect; virtually equal.” If causes of action like conversion and theft of services – species of theft – are “equivalent” under the doctrine of preemption, than the argument that they are not analogous – that they don’t bear some resemblance or proportion – fails.
It’s simply disingenuous to say that a metaphor which has been commonly used for centuries by individuals of all stripes, courts, legislators, and governments is “wrong.” Legally and logically, the metaphor holds up. To say that copyright infringement is not theft on a descriptive level only demonstrates ignorance.
Ought Copyright Infringement be Considered Theft
I mentioned earlier that the more salient argument in the “theft” debate has to do with “framing.” The self-ascribed camps of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ in the abortion debates illustrate precisely the power of framing in shaping the character of the debate. Within highly contentious debates, the question matters as much as the answer.
The heart of the issue about equating copyright infringement to theft is not whether it is theft, but whether it ought to be considered theft. That is, it is not important whether we can look to the past and see the metaphor as an accepted linguistic usage, but it is important to consider the effects that using the metaphor has on lawmakers, judges, and policy makers as they craft responses to future problems.15
One quick note about plagiarism. Nandita Saikia springboarded off my post to consider whether plagiarism should be equated to theft. The issue of plagiarism is distinct from, but overlaps with, copyright infringement. Nevertheless, it warrants mentioning here. Jonathan Bailey points to recent research involving children and plagiarism. And generally, there has been an increase in the prevalence of plagiarism in the past several years.16 I think the issue of plagiarism is unequivocally a moral issue, but one that can be addressed outside the confines of copyright law. At the same time, discussions of plagiarism do inform some discussions of copyright law.
Back to copyright infringement in general, and also from India, Amlan Mohanty briefly discusses my piece in the larger context of Indian copyright law. Mohanty gets at the heart of the issue about framing, saying “The term ‘theft’ carries with it significant ethical connotations, is regarded as moral turpitude, and involves considerable value-judgement.”
In this sense, the question over whether infringement should be equated to theft comes down to whether infringement should carry the same moral considerations as theft is said to carry. The debate is over whether this metaphor – this use of language – accurately describes society’s and the law’s response to copyright infringement.
Fortuitously, John Locke, the philosophical godfather of American legal theory, actually used the term “stealing” as an example of how language aids in our understanding of the ideas behind laws:17
16. The denominations of actions often mislead us. But because very frequently the positive idea of the action, and its moral relation, are comprehended together under one name, and the game word made use of to express both the mode or action, and its moral rectitude or obliquity: therefore the relation itself is less taken notice of; and there is often no distinction made between the positive idea of the action, and the reference it has to a rule. By which confusion of these two distinct considerations under one term, those who yield too easily to the impressions of sounds, and are forward to take names for things, are often misled in their judgment of actions. Thus, the taking from another what is his, without his knowledge or allowance, is properly called stealing: but that name, being commonly understood to signify also the moral pravity of the action, and to denote its contrariety to the law, men are apt to condemn whatever they hear called stealing, as an ill action, disagreeing with the rule of right. And yet the private taking away his sword from a madman, to prevent his doing mischief, though it be properly denominated stealing, as the name of such a mixed mode; yet when compared to the law of God, and considered in its relation to that supreme rule, it is no sin or transgression, though the name stealing ordinarily carries such an intimation with it.
One may note that both theft and copyright infringement are against the law. If the problem with equating the two is that theft is immoral because it is contrary to the law, than the discussion is moot. Either one will subject you to civil liability; either one may subject you to criminal penalties. We “know” at an early age that garden-variety theft is illegal, and anyone who has seen an FBI warning on a movie or paid attention to the recent record label’s litigation campaign “knows” that copyright infringement is illegal.
In fairness, the pushback against equating the two is based on relative morality – copyright infringement is not as bad as theft – sussing out dichotomous forms of copyright infringement,18 and the importance of countervailing goals in copyright law beyond securing exclusive rights to authors.
These are not tiny bases. One could devote entire books to them – something William Patry has done as I noted in my first post.
William St. Clair describes the use of “theft” language in the copyright context as “literary knockabout.”19 The historical effects have largely remained within the rhetorical arena. This metaphor is neither recent, nor solely attributed to the largest stakeholders – individual, amateur, and small-time creators typically make use of it. We can talk about whether or not the language has influenced the copyright debates in the wrong direction, but foreclosing the term “theft” in the copyright arena hinders the debate as much as using it puts up “a wall to understanding.”
- The truly geek would answer “Linux” and “Jack O’Neill.” [↩]
- From Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And, by opposing, end them.” [↩]
- Check out “apples and oranges” on Wikipedia for an introduction into this curious cliche. [↩]
- A millennia old problem is what we call it. [↩]
- The genesis of this line of thought is often attributed to Wesley Hohfeld in Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning, 23 Yale Law Journal 16 (1913). [↩]
- William St. Clair, Metaphors of Intellectual Property, Privilege and Property: Essays on the History of Copyright (Open Book Publishers). [↩]
- Privilege and Property, pg 388. [↩]
- See, e.g., M.O.P. Denies Beat Jacking, Beatjacking or Fair Game? [↩]
- 415 US 394, 417. [↩]
- 114 F. Supp. 2d 896, 900. [↩]
- 621 F. 2d 57, 61. [↩]
- Patry on Copyright 18:34 [↩]
- See, eg, Orth-O-Vision v. HBO, 474 F. Supp. 672. [↩]
- Patry on Copyright 18:52 [↩]
- I want to point out Interpretation and Coherence in Legal Reasoning at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for further insights into this area. [↩]
- See, eg, Danielle Kanclerz, Internet to Blame for Increase in Plagiarism Cases. [↩]
- John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chap. XXVIII (1690). Google Books link [↩]
- See my post on Creative vs Consumptive Infringement for an introduction on this subject. [↩]
- Privilege and Property, pg 391. [↩]