I have had a problem with the idea of intellectual property for a while now and, at last, I think I know why. For starters, I have always thought that if ideas are to be regarded as intellectual property which can be protected by law, then those laws need to be enforced on the basis of ideas, and that can only ever be done by the thought police. Who else can claim the right to tell me which ideas I am permitted to have and to manifest?
Proudhon proposed that all property is itself, theft. That everything should be available to all of the people, all of the time. That no one person has any more right over anything, than any other. Isn’t this truest when said of ideas and thoughts? Yet this is exactly what laws against intellectual property theft are supposed to guard against.
Recently, a computer programmer in the West Midlands was jailed for 33 months for pirating a copy of ‘Fast and Furious 6’. He had illegally uploaded the film to the internet where it had been downloaded around 780,000 times for free, allegedly costing Universal Pictures £2.5 million. Now on the one hand, I agree that Universal Pictures had invested time and money in producing this film, and that they had a reasonable expectation that they should be able to sell their product in order to retrieve their investment. By making the pirate video available online, this man had potentially stopped many people from going to watch the film at the cinema, or from buying it through official channels and that may have cost Universal Pictures money. But the key word there is ‘potentially’. The idea that everyone who downloaded the film would have been prepared or bothered to pay for it or to go to see it is ludicrous. And even some of those who did download it would have gone to see it at the cinema anyway. There is simply no way to tell how much Universal Pictures lost in reality at all. And that is a major problem with the idea of intellectual property theft. As far as I am concerned, theft can only truly be considered theft when you deprive someone else of something by taking it from them. You cannot steal an idea because you can never take an idea away from anyone else. But you can manifest the same idea as someone else in a better or worse way. And if it is better, then good on you. You were more worthy of the idea in the first place. If it is a worse way, then you were not worthy of that idea at all, but then no one will want your manifestation in any case, so why would it matter? In this case, no one was deprived of the film itself. In fact, it was made available to more people. And yes, Universal Pictures probably lost some money, you could say that was deprivation, but not only is it impossible to quantify just how much, you cannot say that the man deprived them of it by taking it himself, because he made the film available for free. Under a philosophy where all property is theft, this man and others have taken from the rich and given to the poor, and they have attempted to make no money from the process at all. That is not intellectual property theft. That is a redistribution of intellectual wealth.