Copying isn’t Theft

22:49 Tue 07 Aug 2007. Updated: 23:35 17 Apr 2009
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People who loudly condemn software (or music, or film) “piracy” often confuse the concepts of a) taking something from someone else and b) getting something for nothing. Their reasoning seems to be based on the idea that since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, if you get something for nothing, you must be stealing it.

Of course, “stealing” is a concept that was deals explicitly with the idea of taking something concrete away from someone. There are all kinds of issues surrounding the notion of property that tend to be forgotten in these arguments, because most inhabitants of Western capitalist democracies (or what passes for democracies) share a common property framework and universalize it. In truth, the idea of property is a conceptual notion that cultures create, not an innate thing that simply exists as part of some “natural law”.

Nevertheless, the antecedents of modern concepts of ‘theft’ (property transference regarded as unjust) clearly derive from dealing with physical objects. It makes sense to most people that if something is mine and you take it without recompense, it’s theft. Problems are more likely to arise with the earlier idea—that something can be ‘mine’—than with the latter.

This view of theft is caught up with the idea of “easy money”, of “unearned rewards”. Which makes sense. If it’s as hard to steal something as to get it some other way, what would be the point? The motivation for stealing is that it’s easier (at least in the short run) than acquiring something via methods accepted as legitimate. Over time, easy rewards came to be associated with theft. If done on a large enough scale, or by the right people, theft has often been given more flattering names, and those endeavors have muddied the waters somewhat.

All this makes it easier to see why quite a few people think that getting something for nothing, especially if someone doesn’t think you should have it, is the same as theft.

Information, when it can be copied at minimal cost, is different. Copying is different. Take away the indignation that you’re getting something for nothing when someone else doesn’t want you to have it, and what remains? Claims of hypothetical losses, essentially. You downloaded Microsoft Office illegally? You’ve just cost Microsoft several hundred dollars—or so goes the claim. This is, of course, nonsense. But one of the reasons that it’s nonsense might not be entirely clear. Let’s say you need an office software suite. Let’s say you have five options:
* Illegally download Microsoft Office.
* Legally download OpenOffice.
* Use someone else’s machine that already has an office suite on it.
* Buy Microsoft Office.
* Give up and do something else.

Choosing number four is obviously the most beneficial for Microsoft. You give them some large amount of money. On top of that, you give them a good chance at selling you another version in a year or so. Further, you aid them in market share, which matters with office suites to some degree because of interoperability concerns.

How do the other options rate, in terms of whether they’re good or bad for Microsoft? The claim that software piracy is theft would suggest that by illegally downloading Office, you’re stealing from Microsoft, actually depriving them of the retail price of the software. By that model, doing this would cost Microsoft money. In reality, this is probably the second-best option, from Microsoft’s point of view. Let’s examine the others and return to this one.

If you give up, Microsoft gets no money from you. Furthermore, you’re less likely to buy software from them (or anyone else) in future. You have no impact on market share or interoperability wars.

If you use someone else’s machine, odds are that you’re using Microsoft Office, although there are chances that it’s something else. Here you’re weakly connected to whatever suite you use, less than with any other option except giving up. Your impact on market share and interoperability issues are slight, but present.

If you download and use OpenOffice, you give Microsoft no money, and you don’t use their software against their will, but you hurt their market share and become a thorn in their attempt to control interoperability. This is clearly worse for them than if you use their software illegally. And Microsoft’s actions themselves make this quite clear, as this article about their China strategy shows. Once they faced a real competitor (Linux), they stopped the draconian anti-copying measures—because they know that it’s better for them for people to use illegal version of Windows than it is for people to use Linux. As with the OpenOffice example, it’s worse for them if you use a competitor’s product than if you use theirs without paying. In any software economy with both underground (illicit copies) and legitimate (legal copies) sectors, proprietary software benefits from expanded market share even if that market share is first in the underground portion. Because as the users “go legit”, for example when they work in offices where legality is more prevalent, they expand the market share in the legitimate market also.

Does that mean that if there were no penalties at all, and everyone worldwide could use Windows without paying for it, the result would be the same? No, clearly not. And there may indeed be moral problems with using their software without paying for it—but that doesn’t make it “theft”. It’s an entirely different animal, and blithering about how it’s the same as “stealing” advances the discussion not at all.

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