Sharing or Stealing?

If I have an apple and you have an apple and we steal each other’s apples, we both end up with one. If I have an idea and you have an idea and we steal each other’s ideas, we both end up with two!

I’ve never understood why people don’t distinguish between stealing things and stealing ideas. It may be easy (and common) now to download music for free from various Napster-like peer-to-peer file-sharing sites, but that doesn’t make it legal.

We have laws to protect copyright, trademarks and other intellectual property (IP). To me, making copies is a victimless crime because nobody loses anything. The original product has no intrinsic value when it can be copied so cheaply and accurately.

Producers of music and other IP products obviously feel it’s ‘wrong’ for people to deprive them of revenues and profits by doing it, but it depends where you stand. Every problem is a fact plus a judgment, and you can’t prove a ‘should’.

You might as well say it’s ‘wrong’ for artists and authors to have a monopoly on their own works for 70 years after their deaths. Monopolies are illegal in most other industries, so why should copyright be any different? Should Amazon really be the only company allowed to offer ‘one-click’ purchase?!

Another objection is that repealing copyright legislation would remove any incentive to produce any new works of art or indeed think up any new idea, but, again, it depends on your point of view.

Are we not simply removing an unfair subsidy? And are we not restoring the original incentive to keep commercial secrets secret? That may be hard work, but that doesn’t give IP owners the right to complain. It shouldn’t be a moral problem but a technical one: how can I best distribute my product to make sure I get paid every time a copy of it is consumed?

Technology plays a large part in causing and solving all these problems. Copyright wasn’t an issue when scribes in monasteries took months to make a single copy of the Bible, but photocopiers and digital computing changed the rules of the game.

Equally, the BBC and other free-to-air broadcasters were given their monopolies when it was impossible to restrict access to the airwaves, but Sky and other satellite providers showed that such a justification is long past its sell-by date.

How can the BBC justify getting billions in guaranteed income from the licence fee when viewers could simply be forced to subscribe to the channels they want?

The basic choice is between cross-subsidies and free-riders. Either people pay for something they don’t use or they use something they don’t pay for. Neither sounds very appealing – although I prefer free-riders! – but there isn’t any alternative when goods are non-rivalrous (ie can be freely copied) and non-excludable (ie freely available to all).

These are known as ‘public goods’. ‘Common goods’ like fisheries (non-excludable but not non-rival) and ‘club goods’ such as cinemas (non-rival but not non-excludable) throw up similar problems.

Arguments based on values can never be won (or lost), but what this all boils down to is individualism versus collectivism. It may be true that public goods are ‘under-supplied’ unless the regulator steps in, but relative to what, exactly?

If it is the maximum level of economic activity (or ‘consumer surplus’) across the whole country, then the individual surely has the right to complain. Any Benthamite government taking decisions for the greatest good of the greatest possible number has effectively decided that the end justifies the means.

Whether it’s the licence fee or compulsory purchase orders, a binary moralĀ decision – is it right or wrong? – has been turned into an amoral economic or political sum – what’s the effect on GDP, and how many votes are in it?

Where do we draw the line, though? Is one little murder justified if it’s a nasty man whom nobody liked? It may be true that killing is justified in certain circumstances (the ‘just war’, for example), but ethical guidelines have to be based on universally applicable rules to decide the outcome of any given conflict between individuals.

As the Gipper always said, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help…”

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