Skip to main content

Illegal file sharing isn’t ‘stealing’: Here’s why

piracy-stealing-file-sharing
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Since the invention of Napster in 1999, and the online file-sharing boom that followed, the entertainment industry has spent countless millions attempting to convince the public that illegally downloading music or videos from the Internet is tantamount to sticking a gun in a person’s face and demanding his wallet. “Content theft,” they say, is just as bad as any other type of “stealing.” But according to Stuart P. Green, a Rutgers Law School professor and expert on theft law, copyright infringement isn’t really “stealing” at all.

The crux of Green’s argument — which mimics that of many who have discussed this issue with any amount of critical thinking in the past — is that, in order to actually “steal” something, you must deprive the owner of whatever that thing is. If you take my bicycle, then you have it, and I don’t. But if you download a song off The Pirate Bay, you’ve simply made a copy — now there are two bicycles. (Or thousands or millions.)

“If Cyber Bob illegally downloads Digital Joe’s song from the Internet, it’s crucial to recognize that, in most cases, Joe hasn’t lost anything,” writes Green in an op-ed for The New York Times. “Yes, one might try to argue that people who use intellectual property without paying for it steal the money they would have owed had they bought it lawfully. But there are two basic problems with this contention. First, we ordinarily can’t know whether the downloader would have paid the purchase price had he not misappropriated the property. Second, the argument assumes the conclusion that is being argued for — that it is theft.”

Indeed. According to the Center for Copyright Information (CCI) — a propagandist entity set up by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to oversee the upcoming “six strikes” anti-piracy system — file sharing costs the U.S. economy $58 billion annually, and has led to the elimination of 373,000 American jobs. It is industry-spouted figures like this that led Congress to consider the dangerously vague Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). And it seems unfathomable that the entertainment industry will change their tune anytime soon, despite the fact that equating file sharing with “stealing” or “theft” just doesn’t resonate with the public at large. 

That’s not to say that copyright infringement is morally justifiable. (Though some argue that it is.) As Green notes, it would be more appropriate to use “concepts like unauthorized use, trespass, conversion, and misappropriation” to condemn file sharing than “stealing” and “theft.” I’m not entirely convinced of that, either, since I doubt these terms mean anything at all to most people, even if they are more accurate, ethically speaking.

Regardless, I highly recommend checking out Green’s op-ed; it’s well worth the read. Besides, if you simply read this article, and not that one, then I will have effectively stolen a page view from The New York Times — or something like that…

[Image via Kinetic Imagery/Shutterstock]

Editors' Recommendations

Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
US Olympic trials live stream: Can you watch for free?
2024 Paris Olympics logo.

Before we get to the 2024 Summer Olympics in July, the athletes must qualify in their respective events. Qualifying is done differently across different sports, and many have already booked their spots in Paris, but for others, the most important competition of their lives is about to begin.

In the United States, Olympic qualifying for four major sports are all on the horizon:

Read more
3 underrated Netflix movies you should watch this weekend (June 14-16)
Three people stand and laugh in Wanderlust.

The Bad Boys have saved summer. Last weekend, Bad Boys: Ride or Die topped the box office by earning a healthy $56 million, which exceeded the disappointing openings of The Fall Guy and Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. Reports of cinema's demise have been greatly exaggerated it seems, and this weekend's Inside Out 2 is poised to make even more summer cash.

For Netflix, it's business as usual. The Richard Linklater action-comedy Hit Man is deservedly finding its audience, while the schlocky sci-fi movie Atlas continues to attract both the curious and masochists. The streamer also has an extensive library of hidden gems that are still worth watching. This weekend, check out these three underrated movies that should keep you away from the beach or the sun for awhile.

Read more
3 underrated Amazon Prime Video movies you should watch this weekend (June 14-16)
Fighting With My Family

Navigating the new releases coming to streaming services alongside the archival titles the streamer has had for years can be an overwhelming challenge. Prime Video, for example, has plenty of great movies that are often buried on the service unless the algorithm by some miracle decides that they might be right for you.

The best thing to do is probably to avoid the algorithm altogether. Instead, we've pulled together three underrated movies available on the streaming service that you should check out this weekend. You may not have heard of any of these movies, but trust us, you won't regret checking them out.
You Were Never Really Here (2018)
You Were Never Really Here Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Trailers

Read more