Or, so Proudhon wrote in “What is Property?” The distinctions, between property and common goods and theft and rights, are clear only when you don’t think about them. James Boyle discusses “intellectual property” in a recent post in his excellent blog, The Public Domain. His book is available there, both for purchase and as a free download.
In Damon Runyon’s rather convoluted short story, “Princess O’hara”, there is a discussion of the nature of theft. If I was ever to teach ethics – I would start with this story. ( As far as I can tell, most schools that require an ethics course for their students are really trying to teach a course that should be called “copying, collaborating, and stuff like that is bad – because we’d have to update our 19th century models of instruction and actually deal with your educational needs if you do stuff like that.” But I digress. Anyhow, I couldn’t find my print copy of the story, though you can listen to an odd old radio version from Damon Runyon Theater at the internet archive. At about 10:31 into the show they discuss borrowing a horse. The good version requires reading the text, a somewhat less deep version – though still accurate enough for my point can be had by listening. My inaccurate summary:
A: Let us borrow a horse.
B: I don’t think anyone will lend us a horse.
A. I mean let us borrow a horse without asking.
B. But that is like stealing.
A. What of it?
B. As I didn’t know, “What of it?” I shut up.
I couldn’t embed the audio into the post but here is the mp3:Princess O\'hara
Sadly, given the nature of intellectual property no one has a clue as to the vast amounts of wealth that are being transferred from the have-nots to the haves. Currently, the right of first sale, is under threat. And the rights of people to their common heritage and culture and constantly being threatened by the current structure and governance of libraries – though in a world where notions of property, theft, and rights, are poorly understood, it is best to learn how to use bit-torrent securely and just do what you want. At least until you find someone who can reply intelligently if you ask them, “What of it?”