Digital Theft Isn’t Theft At All

By Joseph Monti

— Dec 2005

Theft, as defined by the Marriam-Webster Dictionary, is “the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.” The outcome of theft is thus that the thief has the property and owner does not. In the physical world theft makes sense. Property is finite, its existence is singular, and its behavior is bound to the physical world with which we are intimately familiar. It can’t instantaneously disappear or be instantaneously and infinitely replicated. In the digital world, things are a lot different.

If someone hacked into your personal computer and copied your music collection to their own computer without your consent, and you later found out about this, would you care at all? I know I wouldn’t. Nothing was taken from me; I still had my music. Now this would be quite different if they had not only copied my music, but deleted it from my computer. I would be outraged. Somebody now had my music while I do not, satisfying both outcomes of theft.

Now take for instance the big corporation. When somebody “hacks” into their computers and copies data from them, they get upset. They, and everyone they get involved in it (law enforcement, judicial system, etc), considers this theft. And the thief is punished to the full extent of theft law. Now what if that “hacker” not only copies their data, but erases it from the corporation, satisfying both outcomes of my initial definition of theft. Can you imagine how much more upset they would be? I think they would try to push the punishment beyond simple theft. But in reality they did nothing more than simple theft; the rightful owner is deprived of their personal property and the thief is now the sole possessor of the property.

This not only shows that “theft” in the digital world is not quite the same as “theft” in the physical world, but it demonstrates that the environment of the digital world allows us to do things not possible in the physical world. It has different constraints and it requires different consequences. When you steal in the digital world, according to what has been accepted by law as of late, you are not depriving the original owner of their property, you are performing two acts separate from theft for which the original owner is not happy. These acts are distorted by the owner to be construed as theft and thus punished according to theft law. And the sole motivation is to get revenge on the thief, and not get their property back so they are now the sole possessor.

The two motivations for pursuing a digital thief are dependent upon the interests of the parties from which the property was stolen. The first is to punish the thief for not properly purchasing the property. This is the case with digital music, movies, and other items for which the original owner wants you to have a copy, but for that copy to be appropriately financially compensated. The second is to punish the thief for having something the original owner does not want you to have. This is the case with confidential or secret information, which is the more common way of classifying this act as theft.

An often misappropriatley used term to refer to a digital thief as a “pirate.” A pirate is a person who rapes, pillages, and steals property at sea. They are dirty, poorly dressed, are often missing a leg or a hand, and are among the most feared and unpleasant human beings. A pirate is not a mother of three who downloaded a song off Napster that she hadn’t heard in ages and couldn’t find in any music store or a 12 year old who downloads the new Brittany Spears song and doesn’t have the slightest idea of what she is doing beyond just wanting to listen to the song.

This is just one of the many instances where the digital world is being treated unfairly and erroneously associated with real-life parallels. The core problem is that ideas and information in the digital world is considered property, often incorrectly referred to as “Intellectual Property.” This phase is destructive and misleading. Yes, ideas and information can be protected under various laws like copyright, patent and trademark, but lumping these into a single phrase that implies it can be owned is ludicrous.

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  1. Man are you stuck in the past. Or maybe you’re just trying to further a personal agenda?

    The English language changes and evolves whether we like it or not, like how people use the phrase “traditional animation” to refer to tablet-drawn art when literally the only part that can even remotely be considered traditional is the hand-drawn part and in that case it should just be called hand-drawn.

    People also tend to say “CG” or “CGI” or “computer graphics” to refer solely to rendered 3D as though anything else that was made on a computer like say tablet hand drawn art isn’t CGI even though you’re literally drawing pixels on a screen.

    Let’s not forget the constant misuse of the word “sentient” even outside of sci-fi.

    I’ve spoken out against this kind of bullshit on multiple occasions but no one ever listens. I certainty hope you don’t expect anyone to listen to what you have to say here too.

  2. Thank you for your comment. But I assure you I have No Agenda of my own. I think you missed the point of my post. The use of Digital Theft is not an evolution, it is a convolution (twisting the meaning, making more complicated).

    By calling it Digital Theft, it is purposely evoking a connotation with the physical act of theft both socially and legally. It is done specifically to increase the fear and maximize punishment, which is all too often not appropriate. I’m not trying to debate what is appropriate, just that the relation to physical theft is inappropriate.

    Also, the idea of theft has been around for millennia. Your examples are evolutions of relatively new concepts in art and technology, therefore lack the historical baggage.

    You could just as easily call it a Digital Hug. We still use the word “hug” in the physical world, we would just be additionally applying it to technology (Yes, I being somewhat facetious).

  3. So is the debate an issue of whether digital theft is the same as physical theft? Maybe it’s a debate to be had among the creators of the content being taken. I’m sure it wouldn’t take much research to find out if album sales begin dropping after it becomes available on share sites

  4. Thank you Mark. I think the evidence showed that album sales (including digital sales) actually went up with the rise of music (so-called) piracy, but that’s not really the point. I am not trying to imply that digital theft has no impact on the content owners. Just that it is very different than with physical theft with different implications to who has what, who doesn’t, and who should and who shouldn’t.

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