Thursday, 31 July 2008

Intellectual property and theft

It rather irritates me to see frequent aggressive allegations by interested parties that copying files of 'intellectual property' is theft.

Theft means taking an item belonging to someone else. After the theft, the thief has the property and can use it; the original owner no longer has it and can't use it.

When a file is copied, no-one is deprived of the copied item. The author and any other rightful owners still retain their original copies.

The author may be deprived of a payment to which he feels entitled, but this is not a matter of theft. You can't be robbed of money you've never had.

Whether copying files is immoral is something for people to argue about. Whether it's illegal is something for politicians to argue about. I won't try to argue those larger issues here. I merely point out that 'theft' is the wrong name for it.

In practice, a large proportion of people make unauthorized copies of files, and therefore seem to believe that it's a moral thing to do, or at least not very immoral. If the propaganda floating around convinces them that 'theft' is an appropriate description of what they're doing, there is a danger that they'll come to regard other kinds of theft too as moral — or at least not very immoral. I think it would be better not to use words so inaccurately.

I also think that people who think they can stop unauthorized copying, or reduce it to a minor problem, are trying to hold back the tide. Like it or not, this is something that is not going to go away.

Personally, I still make a habit of paying for books, music, etc. Maybe that's just because I'm not young enough to be accustomed to the new way of doing things. I feel that the moral position of intellectual property owners is arguable either way, and not as clearcut as they mostly think it is. Certainly, the continuation of copyright restrictions for decades after the author's death seems to me absurd, and I don't understand how it can be justified.


There seems a lot of heated argument these days for and against the idea of self-determination in Tibet; I can agree in part with both sides.

  • Some people say that China is denying self-determination to Tibet, oppressing Tibetans, and trying to settle Tibet with Chinese people in order to outnumber the Tibetans.
  • Other people (mostly Chinese) say that Tibet has been part of China for a long time, that Chinese rule in Tibet is improving the living standards of Tibetans, and that foreigners have no right to criticize because their own countries have denied self-determination to other peoples in the past.

All of these claims by both sides may be true simultaneously. But both sides seem to have blind spots:

  • The Free Tibet crowd seem to be forgetting that the issue of self-determination is world-wide. I support the right to self-determination myself, but I support it for all peoples everywhere, not just for Tibetans. The Chechens and the Palestinians and various peoples of ex-Yugoslavia, for instance, have surely suffered worse than the Tibetans. The Basques are not suffering (except from the excesses of their own extremists), but their position is in principle similar to that of the Tibetans. Spain doesn't accept self-determination for Gibraltar either. Argentina doesn't accept self-determination for the Falkland Islands.
  • The Chinese nationalist crowd seem to rely on the argument that self-determination is a modern right that was never observed in the past. If what we're doing in Tibet is bad, they say, then what your countries have done in the past was even worse. This is true, but irrelevant. By the same argument, China could practise slavery and point out that other countries have done it too. If you're a good person, you act in a good way. If you act in a bad way and try to justify yourself by saying that other people have done it too, the fact remains that you're still a bad person.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The nine billion faces of God

A kindergarden teacher was going round her class, looking at the paintings they were doing.

Little Carol was very intent on her work, although it didn't make much sense to the teacher.

"What's that going to be, dear?" she asked.

"It's a picture of God," explained Carol.

"But nobody knows what God looks like."

"Well, they will in a minute," said the artist.

My mother heard this on television and passed it on. I rather like it: I don't read any particular moral into it, but I think it makes a good short-short story.