Copy Digital Files Still Isn’t The Same As Stealing Physical Objects

This is fun. Gavin Muller at Jacobin Magazine has decided to defend the thesis that “pirating” of MP3 is the same as looting of physical goods except this time from a pro-stealing, anti-property rights point of view.

From where I sit, the left-wing version of this argument runs no better than the right-wing version. The two acts have almost nothing in common besides being illegal. If I email you a copy of the new Fountains of Wayne album, then nobody has less stuff than they had pre-emailing. By contrast, if I break into Adam Schlesinger’s house, take his shoes, and then give the shoes to you, the upshot is that Schlesinger has less shoes than he had before. The mere fact that “in the context of the actual world (from which all analysis should proceed), we know that vast quantities of shoes are produced” and “few, if any, readers reading this right now face an actual scarcity of shoes available for purchase” doesn’t alter the fact that redistributing a fixed stock of shoes is very different from increasing the stock of digital files by copying. The wronged party in a case of copyright infringement isn’t even the person who owns the file that’s been copied. Rather, the government has granted someone the right to extract a fee every time a copy is made and, naturally, people who’ve been granted that right don’t like to see it violated. That’s fine for them, and at some margins it’s good public policy, but it’s a completely different animal. As a professional content creator, I’m not thrilled when I see around the web that people have copied my posts without permission, but the vast majority of the time I haven’t actually been harmed in any clear way. If you steal my laptop, I’m going to have a real problem.

In some ways I think the decision of the pro-copying community to try to appropriate the language of “sharing” as an alternative to the language of “piracy” simply served to obscure how genuinely different digital copying is. Even if you and I “share” a physical object, there are still limits. If I borrow my girlfriend’s car to drive somewhere, I haven’t stolen it from her, but it’s genuinely the case that she can’t use it until I bring it back. If she copies a file I own, then we both have it.