Hill Times letter: Copyright infringement is not theft, says McOrmond

"Reprinted with permission from The Hill Times, Jan. 30, 2012."

Re: “Digital piracy is theft, Canadian jobs stolen,” (The Hill Times, Jan. 23, p. 11).

People who wish their rights to be respected should not advocate infringing other peoples rights as a solution.

Copyright infringement is not theft. Copyright is a temporary government granted monopoly. While it is true this monopoly can be bought and sold, making it a type of property, infringement doesn’t change possession of what was owned. The closest analogy between copyright infringement and laws relating to tangible property is trespass.

If a child ran through my back yard, I would not be going after their parents for “theft.” While it is true that trespass is illegal, and some trespass may cause harm, it would be wrong to claim all trespass caused the owner economic or other harm. The same is true for copyright infringement, and it is wrong to presume that all infringement causes harm. Nearly all the studies quoted by the “infringement is theft” camp start from this false assumption.

The monopoly rent-collecting that copyright enables has an impact on the economy similar to taxation.

While it is true that some taxation (some copyright) is necessary in order to provide government programs (incentives for creativity), it is false to suggest that having more taxation (or copyright) will automatically improve the economy. Similar to taxation, you can have both too little and too much copyright.

Most offensive in the letter is Mr. Lewis’ solution to the problem: technical protection measures (TPMs). In the Nov. 21, 2011, issue of The Hill Times I wrote about some real-world TPM examples, and the harm caused to the owners of information technology. I gave common examples of non-owner locks on devices which disallow owners from making their own software choices, and locks on content which tie the ability to access that content to specific brands of non-owner locked devices.

There is little proof that TPMs reduce copyright infringement, or increase revenue to creators. In fact, there is growing evidence that misapplied and misunderstood TPMs decrease revenues.

While I don’t believe that copyright infringement is analogous to theft, I believe that non-owner locks on devices is far closer. Part of protecting the property rights of technology owners must be protecting their right to obtain the keys to any locks on their devices, and to make their own software choices. As to the lock on content, copyright holders should have no more say on what brands of technology I buy than book authors had on what brand eyeglasses I owned.

Even if I believed that copyright infringement was analogous to theft, or that TPMs increased revenues to creators, I would still strongly disagree with the “rob Peter to pay Paul” policy that Mr. Lewis is advocating.

Russell McOrmond
Ottawa, Ont.

(The author is a technology consultant, system administrator and software author flora.ca).