Stealing is stealing

dhr17In an earlier post, I wrote about how difficult it was to get students to think about issues of privacy. There is very little space between the “I see no immediate damage, so there are more salient concerns” and “there is nothing I can do about this, no matter how bad it is.” Actually, this is a bit tractable when some of the more invasive issues come up. Still, though, most students (especially born-and-bred Americans) seem unconcerned with government intrusions into their privacy. Indeed, while there has been a little controversy over Katie Couric’s framing of the warrantless domestic surveillance issue (“legal analysts and constitutional scholars versus Americans, who say civil liberties are important, but we don’t want another September 11”), I suspect she has captured the average American’s implicit trust of government police forces.

The other issue that has always been difficult to talk about is the nature of intellectual property. It’s not just difficult for students, it’s difficult for everyone. But the problem with trying to talk about this in a classroom is again one of framing. Students are most ready to see the “problem” as one of enforcement. Inevitably, one or more students will suggest that “stealing is stealing,” which, to me at least, is an indicator that they have completely missed a large chunk of the problem. Indeed, this is the rhetorical tactic of those who wish to define online sharing of copyrighted works to be stealing, no matter the circumstances. But a particular view of property is so much a part of the ideology of America (and I suspect most other places, though my most direct experience is with America), that it is naturalized: property is real and it is a (god-given) right. Stealing is stealing.

For this reason, I’m interested to see what the outcome is of Eliot Spitzer’s inquiry into music pricing (Spitzer Subpoenas Music Cos. on Pricing). The view that the creators and distributors should have blanket control over their product seems to me to be unshakable, but not necessarily in accord with the law. In some ways, the music industry is a bellwether for other industries. Music has always been about taste-making, but it is hard to think of a commercial product these days that isn’t about creating and maintaining a widespread desire where one did not before exist.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 12/28/2005 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I like this post so much. Nice design!

  2. alex
    Posted 12/28/2005 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    I stole it! Seriously. I’d credit it, but I couldn’t find the name of the artist. It’s a series of each of the declarations that hangs in the UN Building here in New York.

  3. Posted 12/29/2005 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    One thing you might do is find specific examples of cases involving intellectual property that are not so easy to dismiss as stealing.

    What about parody? (e.g. Two Live Crew and Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” — kind of an old example)

    What about fair use?

    What about when copyright runs out? Your right to claim your family heirloom watch never goes away, but copyright is not eternal.

    Just some suggestions.

  4. alex
    Posted 12/30/2005 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Thanks buzz. We generally do talk about these things. We actually get into some depth in the Media Law course. Surprisingly, a lot of students don’t like the parody exception. And the problem with fair use really gets to the heart of the problem at hand. It’s not the most settled chunk of law. If anything, I would like them to understand the interplay between the DMCA (and enforced licensing) and the history of fair use, but this is difficult.

    The issue is that sometimes copyright doesn’t run out, and it’s difficult to teach this as a bad thing. Many students (and I don’t want to cast this as everyone, but I get the feeling it ends up at about half of an undergrad class) just don’t see the value of a commons or a public good.

    So I try to talk about other public goods, but, as you may have noticed, they are also getting increasingly encumbered.

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