075: Theft

Noun: theft (plural thefts) – The act of stealing property.

From the English Wikipedia:

“In common usage, theft is the taking of another person’s property without that person’s permission or consent with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.”

This will be a long post that sacrifices conciseness (like I ever have that in any quantity) for freedom of prose and ease of understanding. In other news, I think I’ve become a bit fond of the adjective “imbecilic.”

Daniel Cross Sepley used to run a grocery store, and some time during those days he spouted this long spiel:

“I sell lots of apples. People like apples. They want apples, need to have apples. My apples cost money. People are miserly and don’t like parting ways with their money. But I need money to survive; if you want my apples, you should exchange a sum we agree upon for it – preferably in green paper-like stuff.

“When you buy an apple from my store, you are implicitly agreeing that the price is acceptable. When you turn your nose up and walk past my apple bins, you are implicitly haggling down with me on the price. ‘It’s too high,’ you say to me, by virtue of not buying. That’s fine – the apple is still there. My account still holds the value that lies in those apple bins.

“If I don’t sell that apple or much else in my store – ever – then I lose my means of making a living. I can live a while off my savings and eating what’s in-store, but without a profit. I have to scratch my head and think to myself, ‘Is that apple really worth so much? Maybe I can lower the price a bit, and still make enough money, and still have everyone be happy when they can afford my apples.’

“Now say that my careless assistant drops that bin of apples on a box of TNT. Let’s also say that by comedic intervention, he is left unhurt (even though we don’t really care about him) but the apples are completely decimated.

“I have now lost a whole bin of apples. They are un-sellable, except to fanatics who enjoy collecting the finely powdered mixture of consumed TNT and rotten apple bits, and they are few in number. Whatever value there was in those apples has now gone to zero for me – and I no longer have any chance to compensate myself for the money I spent on buying them from that farm down the road, much less make any profit off of them.

“The apples are PHYSICALLY gone. That’s the key point. Because they’re physically unfit to be sold, there is no money to be made. We do not care that the apples return to the earth as so much fine ash fertilizer, we do not care that the ants and rats – the ones that live OUTSIDE the store, never inside – will feast on apple bits. At least, I care nothing – I focus on myself and my own livelihood.

“Theft is the same thing. Say a boy is addicted to apples, but can’t spare any pocket money for them (though apples are not at all essential for his survival). He must choose: he can either obtain some pocket money, by earning or by cutting, or do things the less legitimate way. If he chooses the second, I’m cut to the quick – it’s as though my buffoonish assistant blew up another apple or two with some dynamite and further robbed me of profit. When that pitiful boy, enamored by apples, steals from me, he deprives me of profit, and chips away maliciously at my livelihood.

“Say some up-and-coming scientist builds a machine that can clone things (or at least make very decent copies that have the same functionality as the original – the exactness of the cloning is irrelevant). Said scientist decides this machine can be exploited into a huge money-making machine, but also happens to be very nice. He buys an apple from me (I am happy because I make a little money from the transaction; little do I know what becomes of that apple) and clones it a thousand times, into a thousand fruits of more or less equal functionality (I’m only saying that for generality – this is relevant later) and, being a nice person, gives them all away for free to anybody who wants an apple but doesn’t care to spend any money for it.

“Here we have to step back and recall some big-picture concepts. Firstly, there is no cosmic law that decides what is right or wrong. Different countries and different cultures believe in different kinds of wrongs – and even the courts within the same country will rule back and forth on what constitutes a wrong. Matters of right and wrong are purely artificial – social constructs (yay sociology students) that the people (or whoever holds the judicial power) create.

“Now, most people agree that taking something without payment where payment is due constitutes a wrong. Things get thornier on what things exactly require payment, or at the least deserve monetary restitution. Does a musical idea deserve a price tag? How about a formula? What about a general idea?

“Back to the groove. The scientist is doing everybody a service by satisfying a demand with an indefatigable supply at essentially no cost, but he does me a great disservice – now far fewer people come to my store to buy my apples. Barring rotting, the apples are still sitting there, less sold than before, and making me less money. But their value remains in my account. I still have the potential to sell them, one way or another – so long as someone buys, I can sell. That scientist has not wronged me by theft: he bought that single apple from me and found a better way to produce that I can’t keep up with. It was not as though he blew up my store (and all my apples) with some TNT, and it was not as though he stole all my apples and gave them out to people, because either way I would then REALLY be in a pickle, unable to make a profit.

“So, then, is anybody really in the wrong? Is the scientist somehow obligated to pay me licensing fees for every copy of the fruit he makes and distributes? Are the consumers who receive his bootleg vitamin C obliged to pay me in full, perhaps?

“The scientist technically has not robbed me of anything. He has diminished the demand artificially, and perhaps that is a sort of ethical wrong…”

Let us move out of allegorical mode and take aim at my point: Daisy-chain logic doesn’t always hold up when you don’t grasp the fine points. Someone suggested to me yesterday (early this morning, for the nit-picky) that theft – physical theft, as we commonly use the word – is justified because a huge portion of society has not criminalized what is generally called “piracy.” This is borderline imbecilic.

I repeat for emphasis: this is borderline imbecilic.

I repeat for more emphasis: This is borderline imbecilic.



In the first place, “that”  person forgot the critical insight that most of society still agrees upon: snowballing a small following for the lynch mob doesn’t change it into the Justice League: it’s still a lynch mob. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” isn’t as applicable, but a similar logic applies – if we decide that some X is wrong but decline to comment on Y, pointing out the similarities in X and Y and using the lack of judgement on Y (or the ancient “everyone else is doing it”) does NOT justify X. Now let X = theft and Y = “piracy as it seems to be called” and “that” person can shove it.

That huge long shtick from DxSepley should be taken in context of our substitutions for X and Y; it’s an attempt to prove that Y is actually NOT so like X, that “piracy” is not so much like theft, if that serves anything against “that” person’s logic. If that fails, then the original formula (concisely: if X ~ Y, and if X is wrong but Y is fine, X STILL != Y and X is STILL wrong) is a logical fallback.

I know that music and movies are not directly comparable to apples (because their true value lies in their expressions and their ideas, as opposed to their physical manifestations), but the logic is roughly the same. I am no advocate of piracy (and yes, I think that scientist with the cloning machine is in the wrong) but I recommend Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: from Edison to the Internet by Peter Decherney for further reading … the ideas I gained from that book are the reason why I can’t really take a solid stance on piracy.

This is the one time I’ve been pushed over the threshold of negative emotion in zher direction. “That” person had better get zher act together.



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