Monday, November 07, 2011
Brad Harper emails me one of the most incredible examples of evasion I have seen in some time, both in terms of what is being said and in terms of how many people apparently take it seriously. An academic has apparently become popular with a young and foolish segment of the population by dressing up in egg-headed jargon the idea that piracy of electronic media isn't really stealing. His whole argument boils down to, "Theft removes the original. Piracy makes a copy. [So piracy isn't really theft.]" This brilliant Ph.D. passes off this mush as erudition in part as follows:
Larsson addresses the issue in his thesis Metaphors and Norms -- Understanding Copyright Law in a Digital Society, for which he just received his doctorate. Talking to TorrentFreak, he explains why copyright infringement isn't theft, and how this problematic metaphor keeps the gap between public norms and the law intact.It is Larsson who is worse than using a wrong metaphor here, in equating the transcript of mental effort with the mental effort itself. To see what's wrong with this, let's perform a thought experiment, here.
"The theft-metaphor is problematic in the sense that a key element of stealing is that the one stolen from loses the object, which is not the case in file sharing since it is copied. There is no loss when something is copied, or the loss is radically different from losing something like your bike," Larsson explains. [format edits]
Suppose you are an all-but-degree Ph.D. student with (you and your committee imagine) a great insight on the nature of piracy. You are finishing up your research and have it all nicely organized on electronic media somewhere. You know generally what you want to say already, but you estimate that it will take about a year to write up your results. You've always found writing to be difficult and you do have other commitments.
In the meantime, someone else, wanting a degree in your field and knowing about your situation, copies your notes and data without your knowledge. He pays an unscrupulous expert to analyze your results, and a hack to write them up fast enough that he is able to present the work as his thesis. This he successfully defends, before going on to churn out a series of journal articles based on the same work. Might this pose a problem with your committee, since doctoral defenses have to be based on original research? Might this also present some difficulty in the matter of publishing your work in journals later on? No biggie, according to Larsson, since you still have your copy.
Indeed, by Larsson's lights, this other guy got the word out about your (He might use scare quotes here.) findings faster than you would have, so good for him! Suppose further that the hired gun made connections you hadn't thought of, so that your improved theory becomes all the rage, and turns your field on its head. All the better, according to Larsson, since this might not have happened in your hands.
But, in fact, there has been a theft here: Your effort and thinking, which were recorded on those media, have been stolen in such a situation. In the process, your career would have been made much harder, if not impossible. The fact that someone else might have done more with the same data makes your research no less your own, and in no way alters the fact that making and using a copy of it is theft -- of that effort and thinking. So, while you still have a copy of the transcript of that effort and thinking, it is, in terms of what you had hoped to achieve through that effort and thinking, as if you hadn't done it (or, at least, all of it) at all.
I suspect that Larsson would have been very angry if something like this had (deservedly) happened to him on the way to presenting this thesis. Nevertheless, he is plainly counting, for his prestige, on the eagerness, among so many in our culture, to get something for nothing, and the inability of many to see how "little" thefts, such as of music recordings, represent the same injustice and the same crime of which he would have been victim. But others have already addressed such issues far better than I.