Most, if not all IP maximalists and a great many misinformed journalists equate the sharing of digital information with the theft of physical objects. This misuse of language has been debunked may times over, but in a recent article, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones remixed the argument in favor. I think he’s still making a poor case.
Kevin’s key example is that if somebody took unpublished material, say a draft article or in-progress song, and shared it with others, they have deprived the original author of an opportunity to do something else with it. First of all, this isn’t what is happening with the majority of shared works, which have already been published and are being shared and distributed amongst fans using the most efficient means possible. Even so, this specific situation is also not theft; rather, it is a violation of trust.
Violating somebody’s trust is a separate issue to be dealt with in its own right. The language of stealing is very specific and does not apply here; it is inappropriate to conflate the two. Whether or not the unrestricted sharing of information is the best option in a given situation can be discussed, but never is that sharing, however “damaging,” identical to depriving someone of a physical object.
In Kevin’s example, it’s hard to put a monetary amount on something prematurely shared—somebody could just as easily have paid a significant sum of money for it as they could have considered it trash. What has been truly lost or damaged is the trust in the person who had access to that item and chose to share it. In an emerging post-scarcity world, this is far more important, and a challenge to accurately measure.
Violations of trust or privacy aside, it really is as simple as this: copying is not theft. It’s straightforward and to the point—everything else is an additional layer of debate on top of the core concept.