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On theft, intellectual property and semantics

This article was been published more than 6months ago. The information contained herein may be outdated.

I believe strongly in the power of words. They can hurt and heal, and they are our primary mode of communication. When discussing any topic, accuracy is very important, and using accurate and appropriate words for what you mean to describe improves your arguments. By the same token, using words that do not accurately describe what you mean to describe, while possibly an effective rhetorical device, weakens your argument.

You may remember an ad that was slapped on most, if not all, DVDs for a long time, called Piracy, It’s a crime. In case you don’t, the text went like this:

You wouldn’t steal a car,
You wouldn’t steal a handbag,
You wouldn’t steal a television,
You wouldn’t steal a movie.
Downloading pirated films is stealing,
Stealing is against the law,

This ad, builds on a single, core, assumption; that piracy is theft. This is at best a disingenuous assumption, and at worst an outright lie. Why do I say so? Semantics – the study of meaning. It is my contention that the use of the word “theft” in conjunction with intellectual property, as used above, lacks semantic foundation.

In order to discuss this further, we must first define what, exactly, “theft” means. For that, we go to Merriam-Webster:

1 a: the act of stealing; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it
b: an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property
2 (obsolete): something stolen
3: a stolen base in baseball

Implicitly, this means that you have a piece of property, which is taken from you, causing you no longer to have said piece of property. The only way in which this can happen with Intellectual Property (IP), is if the rightful owner of said IP has written it down, and what he or she has written down becomes stolen, without him or her being able to reproduce it.

Given that context, it seems that what the RIAA, MPAA, NCPC and FBI, to mention a few, define as intellectual propert theft, for the most part isn’t theft at all. What it is, is infringement, about which Merriam-Webster says:

1: the act of infringing : violation
2: an encroachment or trespass on a right or privilege

The fact that the above-mentioned groups choose to attribute qualities to the word “theft” which it does not have, does not mean they are right, and it can only serve to weaken their arguments. Furthermore, and to the very best of my knowledge, no-one has ever, in the history of criminal justice, been charged with theft for infringement of IP. There are no provisions for it in the penal code. There are, however, statutes against infringements of IP, and rightly so. In addition, there is an entire body of civil law dedicated to the protection of IP rights.

Is this a minor point? Possibly. Am I being a pedant? Sure, I’ll concede to that. I still believe that my point is important, valid, and correct. By being clear and concise in how we define things, and how we talk about things, it is my firm belief that we become better people, better able to civilly disagree.

Just as an aside, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines theft as the act of stealing, further defining stealing as follows:

verb (past stole; past part. stolen)
1 take (something) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it.
¦ dishonestly pass off (another person’s ideas) as one’s own.
2 give or take surreptitiously or without permission: I stole a look at my watch.
¦ move somewhere quietly or surreptitiously.
3 (in various sports) gain (an advantage, a run, or possession of the ball) unexpectedly or by exploiting the temporary distraction of an opponent.
¦ Baseball run to (a base) while the pitcher is in the act of delivery.
1 informal a bargain.
2 chiefly N. Amer. an act of stealing.
¦ an idea taken from another work.
¦ Baseball an act of stealing a base.

Interestingly, in the OED, the implication of something tangible being taken is more explicit. Oh, and by the way, neither MW or OED define IP Theft at all.
Merriam-Webster on theft
Merriam-Webster on infringement
Oxford English Dictionary on theft
RIAA on Intellectual Property Theft
MPAA on Intellectual Property Theft
National Crime Prevention Council on Intellectual Property Theft
FBI on Intellectual Property Theft
All pages visited on October 1st, 2012. This .zip-file contains the full pages as they appeared on that day.

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