Piracy is not Theft

For many years now groups like the MPAA and RIAA have tried to convince the public that piracy (that is, copyright infringement) is theft – and many people have come to believe this, but it’s not true. In reality, copyright infringement is far more analogous to trespassing than it is to theft in its core concepts – and even moreso in the digital world.

To make it clear, I am looking at this from a largely historical perspective, looking at the origins of copyright and how it was intended to be used. This gives us a better view than the current laws that have been greatly influenced and complicated by politics and money from those that have a vested interest in maximizing copyright protections and broadening its definitions.

First, let’s look at the legal definition of theft – this specific definition is from British law, from which many early American laws derived.

A person is guilty of theft, if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it…

Next, let’s take a look at this excerpt from the Copyright Act of 1790, the first copyright act at the federal level in the United States – which was heavily influenced by the 1710 Statute of Anne:

…the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books already printed within these United States, …, who halt or have not transferred to any other person the copyright of such map, chart, book or books, share or shares thereof; and any other person or persons, …, shall have the sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending such map, chart, book or books, for the term of fourteen years from the recording the title thereof in the clerk’s office…

Copyright, in its origin and intended forms provides something very simple: the right to control how a work (primarily a book) is copied. That’s it, that simple.

So from a historical perspective, a copyright violation was to create a copy of book without the author’s permission – theft would have been to take a book that the author printed, permanently depriving him of that asset. These are clearly not the same thing – despite the assertions of certain powerful groups.

I’m not defending or down playing piracy, but let’s talk about it in the proper context – it’s a property rights issue, not theft.