A thought on why we steal music and why we don’t steal cds.

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Since our class I had a thought about one of the deeper implications that “stealing music online” gives rise to for intellectual property law and theory. This is the move to perfect intellectual property. By this I mean intellectual property that is for all intents and purposes completely intangible. Digital storage and transmission of copyright material is so disruptive not only because it allows perfect copies and non rivalrous use but because it finally cuts the cord between tangible property an intellectual property. Traditionally copyright material had to be expressed in some way in the physical world if one was to own it (I’ll come to tv and radio below). This could take the form of books, vinyl records, cassettes and cds. Thus the intangible is made tangible and by a process of sublimation an intellectual property right becomes linked to and valued as a tangible property right. Breaking this link makes intellectual property stand on its own and defend itself on its own merits, without the help of our seemingly hard wired propensity to favour protection of property rights at all costs. And rightly so.

I mentioned tv and radio above because I think this illustrates my point to some extent. These are two mediums by which intellectual property is transmitted without the use of a tangible carrier. Do we have a different attitude to copyright in these two mediums? I think we do. Recording from the television and removing the ads to watch at a later date or even recording songs from the radio onto a cassestte (happy days!) just doesn’t seem as wrong as stealing from a shop. To be sure the original broadcast is usually paid for indirectly by advertisements but perhaps its not the fact that it was originally free that assuages our moral conscience. Perhaps its because intellectual property without its tangible property carrier is simply not the same kind of property at all.

This post is really a round about way of stating the obvious: intellectual property is not the same as tangible property. I just think the distinction may go to expose something deeper that is wrong with intellectual property law as it currently stands, or at least might tell us that the argument for intellectual property as a concept needs to be made more clearly and prominently.

1 Comment

  1. AJ Cann

    February 11, 2008 @ 12:12 am

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    More to the point as far as I’m concerned is that when we recorded songs from the radio onto cassettes (I’m guessing this was mostly a male rite of passage ritual?), the artists still got paid, via the needle time from the radio station. It seems to me that cash flow is as germane as intellectual property to solving the morality issues here.