None Dare Call it Theft

Is copyright infringement theft?

It’s a good question to ask on the internet if you want to spark another round of an endless discussion.

Opponents of the “infringement = theft” argument will marshal an impressive array of arguments.

There are the semantic arguments: theft has a settled meaning that doesn’t apply to infringement (ignoring centuries of usage to the contrary).

Then there are the legal arguments: you can’t sue someone for copyright infringement under theft laws. Leaving aside the fact that there is no single “theft” law — statutes different from state to state and country to country — this distinction only matters if you’re a prosecutor; doesn’t dictate how words can be used in common parlance. And I don’t believe anyone is seriously making the argument that the goal of calling infringement theft is to eventually bring infringement actions under theft laws.

In a recent New York Times article, author Stuart P. Green adds his own arguments to the debate. While generally more eloquent than what you normally find online, they are still not so convincing.

Green begins with his explanation of how we got here:

From its earliest days, the crime of theft has been understood to involve the misappropriation of things real and tangible. For Caveman Bob to “steal” from Caveman Joe meant that Bob had taken something of value from Joe — say, his favorite club — and that Joe, crucially, no longer had it. Everyone recognized, at least intuitively, that theft constituted what can loosely be defined as a zero-sum game: what Bob gained, Joe lost.

When Industrial Age Bob and Joe started inventing less tangible things, like electricity, stocks, bonds and licenses, however, things got more complicated. What Bob took, Joe, in some sense, still had. So the law adjusted in ad hoc and at times inconsistent ways. Specialized doctrines were developed to cover the misappropriation of services (like a ride on a train), semi-tangibles (like the gas for streetlights) and true intangibles (like business goodwill).

Green goes on to lay the blame on the current debate on, of all things, the 1962 Model Penal Code (?!?).

While superficially appealing, this story is an over-simplification (as any two paragraph summary of thousands of years of history can be). One could just as easily fashion a Green-esque history of property law to make the claim that taking someone’s pet is not theft.

After all, for thousands of years pets weren’t treated as property — it wasn’t until the early 20th century (much later than the appearance of copyright law) that the common law recognized taking cats and dogs as larceny. And today, you can find those who will argue that pets should not be considered property. It shouldn’t be hard to find scholars who will claim that pets should be “free as the air to common use” — and it’s not hard to imagine a site like “” pointing to stories about Michael Vick to prove that it’s harmful to allow people to claim ownership over animals.

But it’s not as simple as that. You can easily find exceptions to this narrative throughout history, and property law is always evolving.

Next, Green makes it sound like the description of copyright infringement as theft is a recent phenomenon:

With intangible assets like information, patents and copyrighted material playing an increasingly important role in the economy, lawyers and lobbyists for the movie and music industries, and their allies in Congress and at the Justice Department, sought to push the concept of theft beyond the basic principle of zero sum-ness.

This claim has a certain appeal to the conspiratorially-minded. But it’s simply wrong.

People have used theft language to describe copyright infringement long before now. In fact, referring to unauthorized copying as theft has occurred before the term “copyright” appeared in the English language. Centuries before, even.

For example, Martin Luther placed a “Warning to Printers” on the inside of his 1541 German translation of the Bible. The warning read:

SO feret der Geitz zu / vnd thut vnsern Buchdrückern diese schalckheit vnd büberey / Das andere flugs balde hernach drücken / Vnd also der unsern Erbeit vnd Vnkost berauben zu jrem Gewin / Welchs eine rechte grosse öffentliche Reuberey ist / die Gott auch wol straffen wird

Avarice now strikes / and plays this knavish trick on our printers whereby others are instantly reprinting [our translation] / and are thus depriving us of our work and expenses to their profit, / which is a downright public robbery / and will surely be punished by God

Later writers would use the term “piracy” to describe unauthorized reprinting and plagiarism, such as Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Dekker, who encouraged his readers in 1603 to “Banish these Word-pirates, (you sacred mistresses of learning) into the gulfe of Barbarisme.”

It would not be until 1710 that the first copyright law would be passed — England’s Statute of Anne (though interestingly, the term “copyright” does not appear in the law and would not enter the language until the 1730s.) Since then, it’s not hard to find a wide variety of sources describing infringement as theft.

Some examples: An 1858 article in the Journal of the Society of Arts says, “All the legislation which has taken place upon the subject of Copyright in England has proceeded upon the just theory that an author or artist has a property in his work. Where, therefore, a Copyright work is literally copied, or copied with merely colourable alterations, it seems difficult to distinguish the moral guilt of such a theft from that of picking a pocket, and consequently that such an act of piracy ought to be punishable as a criminal offence.”

This dictionary from 1861 defines “piracy” as “infringement of the law of copyright; literary theft.”

The editors of the Round Table, a weekly U.S. journal, petitioned Congress in 1866 for an international copyright law, saying “this license for literary theft (for it is nothing less than theft) is beginning to affect our own writers and publishers. American works are daily reprinted in England, and at a less cost than the original publications.”

Legal treatises routinely made use of theft language, such as this 1886 treatise from R.R. Bowker: “After the invention of printing, it became evident that new methods of procedure must be devised to enforce common law rights. Copyright became therefore the subject of statute law, by the passage of laws imposing penalties for a theft which, without such laws, could not be punished.”

A letter printed in an issue of the Literary World from 1899 made the case that “An author’s brain work is as exclusively his own stock in trade as is any other work of any other artisan of any kind. Stealing brain work is as much a theft as stealing handiwork. Any person of ordinary intelligence can understand this fact. The copyright of all such work is the author’s own. If he chooses to delegate rights to reporters, well and good. He may do this as he does to his publishers, by royalty or by sale, according to mutually approved terms. But any right assumed otherwise than by permission of the author is downright robbery, according to all high standards of morality.”

These are only a few examples. Since the early days of copyright, infringement was, “frequently equated with theft.”

Indeed, not only has infringement routinely been described as theft, some have argued that it is worse than stealing tangible property.

German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote in 1793:

[I]n consideration of the fact that anyone is a thief who usurps the use of others’ property for his own profit, then the reprinter is without doubt a thief. If, furthermore, a theft is the more heinous when it involves things which by their very nature cannot be kept under lock and key, then the reprinter’s theft is one of the most heinous, since it involves something which necessarily lies open to the public, like air and ether. And if, finally, a theft is all the more heinous the nobler the objects it is perpetrated on, then it is the most heinous of all when it involves things that are creations of the mind.

And an 1840 book, An Historical Sketch of the Law of Copyright, noted:

For the printing a work, the sole right to which belonged to another, was looked on as little better than theft, and punished accordingly. Indeed, it was said, that such conduct was worse than to enter a neighbour’s house and steal his goods: for negligence might be imputed to him for permitting the thief to enter: but in the case of piracy of Copyright, it was stealing a thing confided to the public honour.


The ancient Romans defined larceny as “Contrectatio rei alienae, invito domino cujus illa fuit” — “a diversion of the thing of another, contrary to the will of him, to whom it belongs.” Copyright gives creators an exclusive right to copy, perform or display, and make derivative works of their works, and copyright infringement is an appropriation of these things against the will of the copyright holder. For as long as copyright has been recognized by law, authors, philosophers, legal theorists and judges, and the general public have described infringement using theft language. The arguments that it is wrong to do so ignore logic and history.

What’s more, these arguments ignore the harm copyright theft causes the general public. Just last month, a Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies report demonstrated how “The existence of IP theft—even when assuming theft is costless to affect, produces consumption goods of quality fully equal to those consumers pay for, and does not suppress labor supplied—results in a reduction in social welfare” and “reduction in the rates of theft of intellectual property would benefit society (producers and consumers).”

So why do these arguments continue? At a basic level, they generally stem from this idea: it is wrong to call infringement theft because the word “theft” has moral overtones. But this begs the question that infringement is never an immoral act. Clearly that’s not the case.

Of course, saying that it’s sometimes appropriate to call copyright infringement theft does not mean we’re required to describe every act of infringement as theft. Someone who writes a fan-fic of a popular book, posted online for free, may end up with a work that a jury might find infringes the original, but I doubt few people would consider this theft — some authors even encourage such acts. There are plenty of other examples of online behavior involving non-commercial copying or transformative uses that, if put in front of a court, would be considered infringement but nevertheless would find few willing to describe as theft. So it’s worth being careful when using theft language.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s never correct to call infringement theft. When a service like Grooveshark, for example, doesn’t “pay the artists, the labels and/or the songwriters for the use of the music that’s making them tons of money”, it’s fitting to say they “knowingly and willingly use a legal loophole to steal from artists and songwriters.” For services like these, which seek to profit off creators’ labor without permission, it is very helpful to create clever semantic arguments that make their behavior seem not as bad as it is.



3 thoughts on “None Dare Call it Theft

  1. Interesting stuff. Semantic & legal arguments are pretty dry so kudos on keeping me reading to the end!

    Seems pretty clear to most people that copyright infringement for financial gain is clear theft (whether the laws of the state class it so or not)

    The problem is that so many other grey areas exist in the area of copyright infringement for non-profit making “thiefs” that it’s a massive challenge to put a legal framework in place to adequately deal with every permutation.

    Various examples:
    Someone downloads music illegally and listens to it frequently.
    Someone dowloads music illegally, listens once and then deletes because they don’t like it
    Someone downloads a vinyl rip illegally of an old album they bought years ago and still own
    Someone downloads a vinyl rip illegally of an old album they bought 2nd hand
    Someone downloads a vinyl rip of an old album they don’t own but is so obscure it doesnt appear online at any of the legal download outlets
    And then every in between…

    In legal terms the only clear-cut case for calling it “theft” would be when someone makes an illegal download that, had the illegal means not been available, they would have 100% purchased
    legally. Proving such a paradoxical situation beyond reasonable doubt would be interesting.

    The trick would be how to prosecute the sort of copyright infringement that tangibly impacts the artist’s income stream, without cutting off the “benign” opportunities for infringement that would never have led to another dollar in the pocket of the copyright owner but may have potential to generate future income.

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