Is piracy theft?

A interesting website that has popped up in the peer-to-peer file sharing debate is theThe Piracy Calculator.
It allows you to calculate how much money the RI/MPAA would accuse you of stealing. Not terribly accurate, but interesting, nonetheless. Particularly the two paragraphs at the bottom of the page.

The moral of this story
Many of you who actually used this thing will have come up with totals in four digits or higher. But do you actually HAVE that much money? Have you ever? And if you did have the money, would you have bought all that stuff legitimately? Even if it was a simple download? I doubt it.

The point I’m making is that only a small percentage of illegal downloads are in fact lost sales. Piracy isn’t theft. It’s piracy. There’s a big difference.

The logical approach
Ok, let’s slow down and think about this. Theft is stealing other people’s property. A thief’s current amount of money is completely irrelevant. He doesn’t leave a receipt for what he has stolen. He doesn’t need it to abscond with more stuff. Heck, in theory, a hobo on a street corner could steal an armored truck full of money, providing he has a really good plan.
Piracy is attacking random people and killing them unless they comply and hand over their goods.
But wait, that doesn’t match what this guy is saying.

The definition approach
So, what it looks like this guy is really trying to say is:

  • Theft is stealing a physical object.
  • Piracy is stealing something in infinite supply that you can’t afford to buy.
  • I would not buy the stuff I steal anyway.
  • My actions are therefore somehow justified.


What’s the real definition of theft?
Google and Wikipedia have answers:

Theft (also known as stealing) is, in general, the wrongful taking of someone else’s property without that person’s willful consent. In law, it is usually the broadest term for a crime against property. It is a general term that encompasses offences such as burglary, embezzlement, larceny, looting, robbery, trespassing, shoplifting, intrusion, fraud (theft by deception), and sometimes criminal conversion. Legally, theft is generally considered to be synonymous with larceny.

(Source: Wikipedia – Theft)

This is more copyright infringement then larceny, but whatever.

The problem is, digital media can be copied without actually stealing physical cds. Therefore, we are left with a rather abstract question: How much money did the copyright holder loose by the distribution of his music? Quite plainly, the author of the site wants us to believe that no money was lost, since he would not have bought the cd anyway.
Well, of course he has a point there. People are much more likely to grab something that’s free, even if they would not normally buy it, but the fact remains that he has music that he did not pay for and has no right to possess.

Just something to think about.


12 Responses to “Is piracy theft?”

  1. 1 Sam September 9, 2006 at 8:41 am

    I’m not disputing that piracy is a crime. I just have strong issues with the enormous Gestapo-like campaigns going “You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a CD. Music piracy is stealing. Stealing is a crime.” And the fact that the **AA want to try pirates as thieves, send them to jail for months or years. It’s NOT theft, it’s NOT stealing – nobody directly loses anything because of it. Piracy *is* a crime, but that crime is *copyright infringement* – clearly, a significantly LESSER crime.

    Darn right, I wouldn’t steal a car. But if I went up to your Lamborghini as it was parked in the street, made an exact copy of it, and drove away in my own newly-made Lamborghini, leaving yours untouched, would you mind? Should I be accused of stealing your car?

    Of course, buying illegal DVDs off the black market is a totally different matter. If you *are* prepared to pay money for a movie, I really think your money should go to the people who made it, not organised criminals.

  2. 2 James September 9, 2006 at 12:56 pm

    I do agree that these huge fines and jail times are ridiculous. Music is a commodity, like gum or toilet paper. The Lamborghini example doesn’t exactly work. It’s too expensive.
    It’s much more like someone copying comic books. The average person doesn’t care, it costs almost nothing, and if someone gets nailed, it should be the guy with a photocopier distributing pirated copies.

  3. 3 furtive December 6, 2006 at 1:19 pm

    The Lamborghini example doesn’t work because by making a copy of it he would be infringing on Lamborghinis design copyright

  4. 4 KhAoZ October 17, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Eh, the Lamborghini example could work if we modify it a bit.

    If someone wanted a Lamborghini, but did not want to buy one from the company, they could build one themselves copying every single design element of the Lamborghini. I’m not sure if this is illegal or not, but the fact remains that there was no physical loss to anyone, therefore it should not be that big of a deal.

  5. 5 Moral Pirate November 3, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    The above argument concludes by stating ” The fact remains that he has music that he did not pay for and has no right to possess. ”

    This assumes that all profits/earnings are deserved! In most cases, the artists whose works have been pirated or shared are already multi millionaires.

    Though some sanctimonious naysayers would have one believe otherwise, Piracy’s existence serves to offset individual and corporate greed and the associated undeserved earnings.

  6. 6 elZina December 13, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    If I produce a cd with my own songs and piracy would be the standard leet’s see what happens. Theoretically I would sell one cd and after that it will be copied and downloaded. For how much should I sell my cd to only earn me the expenses?
    Try to see it from the artist’s point of view.

  7. 7 OGRastamon July 16, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    ‘Piracy’ is neither a crime nor piracy. ‘Piracy’ is a label bought by the rich to protect their riches.

    The same thing would occur should we discover a method to grow new diamonds from existing stones. De Beers would lobby (i.e. pay off) lawmakers to make diamond growing illegal.

    It doesn’t take any amount of moral justification to share files. No more than it does to share anything. Share a car with your spouse and GM loses thousands of dollars. Does that bother you? Pass all your college textbooks on to a younger sibling and someone will lose sales. Is that a crime?

    File sharing IS illegal but that doesn’t make it wrong.

  8. 8 James July 16, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    OGRastamon: You don’t like the term ‘Piracy’? How about ‘Bootlegging’? That’s an extremely accurate definition of what is going on here.

    “Sharing a car with your spouse” and “Passing on textbooks” are horrible analogies and not illegal by any means. “Downloading a copy of a textboook someone ripped the cover off and dumped into a mass PDF scanner” is rather more akin to what is actually taking place.

    Additionally, bootlegging does hurt a lot of companies. Google Titans Quest for a rant about how a buggy bootlegged version hurt the game’s reputation, with people complaining about crashes and issues that didn’t actually exist when using a ligit copy. There are also multiple small indie bands which had to break up because there were seeing very few sales even though they were wildly popular on p2p networks.

  9. 9 OGRastamon July 16, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Re: elZina’s comment

    True artist’s die poor. If you’re worried about the bottom line then you should consider another career. Besides, can you name an ‘artist’ that has been hurt by file sharing? I bet you can’t. In fact, it has opened up a whole new way of discovering music and artists like Jonathan Coulton have greatly benefited from this community.

    The real problem is the conceit that anything one produces has value and that anyone who partakes of that product is indebted to the producer. However if the product is easily reproduced, thereby decreasing its perceived value, it is just ridiculous to cry foul on the consumer.

  10. 10 OGRastamon July 16, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    To James:

    I didn’t use those analogies because they were illegal but because they weren’t. Just as file sharing should NOT be.

    ‘Bootlegging’ is a fine word. It makes me think of all the lives that were saved from wood grain alcohol once Prohibition was lifted.

  11. 11 James July 16, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    To OGRastamon:
    ‘Piracy’ is not true piracy just as ‘hacking’ is not true hacking of the days or yore. It’s a covenant term society likes to use. We all know what it means as relates to technology, even if we believe there are more suitable expressions.

    There’s noting implicitly illegal with file sharing. What you think copyright law should be is irrelevant. You do a great job backing up your selfish moral views on the subject, by the way.

    In your second paragraph, you also do a great job using a subjective definition, appealing to pathos, AND calling to the reader’s attention to an irrelevant event. No lives are being saved by piracy, troll.

    Call me a suppressor of free speech and a tool of the man, but as moderator and overseer of my domain, I think that this discussion has degraded sufficiently and should be retired for the moment. Thank you for your participation.

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