Copyright infringement is NOT theft


It's great to see mainstream economists like Ha-Joon Chang exposing the doubtful utility of big business approaches to intellectual property.

'Patent monopoly creates a lot of problems. It allows the patentee to charge the maximum to consumers. This ... can violate basic human rights if it involves things such as life-saving drugs. Patent monopoly also blocks technological progress... as other people cannot use the patented technologies in developing other technologies.'

Chang also points out that what big business likes to present as the natural state of things is in fact a very recent imposition – in some developed economies in the 1990s -  and never fully accepted in countries like India.  Far from being based firmly in natural justice, these big business approaches to intellectual property are in fact paradoxically associated with free-market ideology (paradoxically, because intellectual property rights are themselves a form of market regulation)

There is now of course broad and growing resistance to these approaches to intellectual property.

For these reasons, I was shocked to see Nick Cohen in another Guardian piece swallow whole all that big business propaganda about file sharing internet sites 'stealing' music, films, books etc. - and artists, musicians, writers and film-makers unable to earn a living 'because thieves steal their copyright'.

Let's be clear: copyright infringement is NOT theft. There is no moral equivalence between copying and theft.  If I take your loaf of bread, or your book, or your CD, you don't have it any more.  That's theft.  If I merely borrow your CD – even if I copy it before giving it back - that's nothing like theft.  Indeed it is a kind of sharing most people are very happy to engage in.  It's a very natural and welcome aspect of human social life.  People have always shared books and records in this way.  Nor is this kind of sharing anything to to do with plagiarism (which is clearly against natural justice) – nobody here is pretending they are the author of the shared work.

Nor is there any question here of artists not being able to earn a living. Much intellectual property law, as Chang pointed out, is actually very recent.  The ability of artists to make a living from mechanical reproductions of their work was a brief off-shoot of a very long history, only ever affecting a tiny minority.  Realistically, it's not a question of artists losing a living – the biggest losers are likely to be the celebrity artists who, many believe, earn far too much anyway.

This is not a question of morals at all, but of business models: artists need new ones – or to go back to those that made many good livings throughout history.  In fact, the vast majority of musicians and makers still earn in the same old ways – they make things and sell them, people come to see them – and the internet is not a threat either to their art or their living – it is one of their best friends.

It is the business models of multinational media giants that are really threatened.  Is that a bad thing?

Nick Cohen ends his piece with the pessimistic conclusion that 'since the crash, we have known that our old way of doing business is over... we have to rebalance the economy and reorder society... the trouble is we don't know how to do it.'  Social Enterprise is entirely missing from Cohen's perspective – not surprisingly, since he seems to be looking only through the distorting lens of big business morality.