Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Copying Is Not Theft" by Nina Paley

Song and animation by Nina Paley, arranged and recorded  by Nik Phelps, this piece presents, in 60 seconds, the sum and substance of the anti-IP "argument". A careful consideration of both songs and bicycles, along with an acceptance of the importance of property rights in general, will reveal the logical fallacies.

Copying is not theft, it is argued, because copying something does not deprive the other person of the thing's use. In other words,  IP is allegedly not scarce and not rivalrous. As Paley's lyric goes:

Copying is not theft
Stealing a thing leaves one less left 
Copying it makes one thing more; that's what copying's for 
Copying is not theft
If I copy yours you have it too, One for me and one for you, That's what copies can do  
If I steal your bicycle you have to take the bus, but if I just copy it there's one for each of us! 

The obvious question left out of the song is: How did you copy the bicycle? Sure, copying a bicycle doesn't interfere with the rights of another bicycle owner, but does that mean it doesn't harm anybody?

The praxeological problem is a failure to distinguish between consumer goods and capital goods. A bicycle is a consumer good, its value is transportation, or the enjoyment of the wind blowing through your hair. To "copy" a bicycle requires a factory. A factory is a capital good. Bike factories don't just exist. Building a factory requires a great investment of resources, time, labor, risk, etc. Once the factory exists, then bicycles can come off the assembly line fairly cheaply. The value of a bike factory is not transportation, but profit.

So if I "copy" your bicycle, the question remains: Whose productive capacity did I use to make the copy? Did I build my own factory first, or did I sneak into your factory at night when you weren't looking? The point to keep in mind is that a bicycle and a bike factory are 2 different things.

A digital media file is very interesting. Depending on how it is used, it can be either a consumer good or a capital good. When you listen to a song, it is a consumer good, like a bicycle. The value is the entertainment you get. However, when you make a digital copy, it is functioning as a capital good, like a bike factory. Digital song files do not just exist. Rather, the writer/artist of the song made a great investment of resources, time, labor and risk in creating the original song file, which has both consumer value AND capital value.

It is true that making a copy of the file does not interfere with anyone else's consumer use, but that is irrelevant. Copying a song is NOT like stealing a bike, it is like sneaking into the bike factory and running the assembly line.

Making a copy of a bike does not interfere with the other bicycle owner's use and enjoyment of riding a bike. Does this mean that physical property is not rivalrous? Of course not. Copying a bicycle interferes with the property rights of the bike factory owner, whose use and enjoyment of his property is dependent upon access to a scarce and limited market of customers.

Do you see? Do you see how the comparison between file copying and bike stealing is flawed? A correct analysis must examine, not just the consumer good, but the creation and ownership of productive capacity, i.e. capital goods. Such an analysis shows that IP is rivalrous in exactly the same way as physical property.



  1. Hey I just heard about this blog on Stefan Molyneux's podcast - it's a breath of fresh air. You are the first guest to defend IP on his channel with real cogent points and not simply appeal to emotion or scare-mongering. Good on you! You'll probably take some flak in the comments from the FreeCult that follows Stef around like that puppy on the Bugs Bunny cartoons, but who cares about YouTube comments anyway.

    I thought your bike analogy was spot on, and Stef managed to side-step it only by bringing out the argument that it's not feasible. Well, it will be fairly soon, with the advent of 3D printers which will make manufacturing your own brand-name-copy bike quite quick and affordable. In fact there's a huge debate in the US right now over whether gun control could even work because within the next short while, you will be able to "download" a gun and use the 3D printer to manufacture it, which would bypass any attempts at regulation or registration at the point of sale.

    A lot of internet denizens simply dismiss IP in their enthusiasm for free stuff, but realistically it will have to be dealt with legally at some point.

    Another argument I'd suggest using about non-physical goods being property is this: It's often argued that because it is infinitely replicable, it's not property. Well, someone should tell Ben Bernanke that. Of COURSE if he prints fiat currency it harms other people. It isn't simply a matter of him doing what he wants with his (or the Fed's) property. It affects everyone. Now Stef would probably argue that the coercive power of the state allows him to have monopoly rights that enable this kind of tyranny, but in theory one could produce counterfeit Bitcoins, which would certainly affect people who have invested in those.

    Again, to use currency as a hammer with which to break the non-physical argument, if I were to hack in to your bank account and delete all the 1's and 0's in there, would you have lost nothing? Of course you would have. But no physical item has been lost.

    So I think that breaking IP laws is actually not theft myself (though you have argued this quite effectively), but rather it is fraud. Just like wiping out someone else's bank balance is fraud and so is printing counterfeit currency.

    Again, thanks for sharing your views on this blog and Stefan's show. It helps lend credibility to a concept that has really taken a beating in the eyes of the majority in recent years. I'll be posting some responses on Youtube with my own arguments for IP in the near future, and check out my own philosophy blog if you get a chance.


    1. Thanks for the comments Mike. Stef's argument regarding the impracticality of copying bikes was confusing, and I don 't know if I was able to articulate a response. Stef was essentially arguing that "practicality = virtue". This deserves an article in response.

      Copying IP is not like theft, exactly. It is much more like trespass.

  2. I'm looking for the guest on Stefan's recent FDR podcast #2340 I think. I'd be happy to have a personal discussion about IP with you for my own podcast; contact me at or facebook @nskinsella.

    1. Hi Stephan,

      I would be happy to continue our dialog on IP, on your podcast, and I thank you for your input so far. I am the law student with whom you exchanged emails a couple of months ago.


  3. Hi Alex,

    I just heard you on the FDR podcast as well and I think you did an excellent job! One of the best listener conversations I've heard!

    You're correct that the issue is not whether copying deprives somebody else of their consumer use. I'm tired of hearing people try to excuse themselves from paying for music/movies/books etc. by claiming that because it isn't depriving somebody of their property it's therefore ok to not compensate them for their efforts. Obviously Stef wasn't making this argument either and I agree with much of what he said as well. I like his donation model, but want to hear other possibilities too.

    Mike Maxwell commented above how 3d printing is already exposing the flawed reasoning behind gun control laws. Following political reasoning I guess we'll be banning certain 3d printing methods, components, digital blueprints, and finally 3d printers themselves! It's becoming easy to see how ridiculous these political band aid solutions really are.

    I think we already know how the future of innovative ideas will look simply by looking at the past decade in the entertainment industry. The middleman (manufacturers) will be cut out just like the recording/publishing companies have. Billions of ideas will be shared over the internet and people will download and self manufacture physical goods with a couple mouse clicks very easily and affordably. There will be huge competition, which should mean lower prices if the market is allowed to function freely.

    I think we'll see a renewed respect and discussion of IP rights because nearly everyone will be affected, not just artists. I don't think the state has any place in defining arbitrary lines and the best we can hope for is that the politicians stay out of the way. I'm going to read through your posts cause I'm not entirely clear on your argument from the podcast and I'll definitely listen if you continue the discussion with Stephan Kinsella.


    1. Thanks Dallas. I appreciate you "taking my side", however, please understand that property IS this issue. Unauthorized copying of a digital media file IS a property violation - it is trespassing in intellectual space.

      People who create intellectual works are NOT necessarily entitled to any money or compensation for their effort. A lack of compensation is NOT the reason file copying is wrong.

  4. Let's go with your analogy: CD as factory.

    If I sell you a factory, is it ok for you to use it to produce widgets? (answer: yes)
    If I sell you a factory but I don't want you to produce said widgets, would that be my right? (answer: no, see above)
    Could I sell you a factory but retain the right of producing said widgets (you get most of the rights in the bundle and can enjoy the factory in other ways, but I keep some)? (answer: possibly yes, depending on contractual arrangements)

    The same is applicable to a CD. There is no right to prevent me from using it as such outside of explicit contractual agreement.

    1. The CD can function as both a consumer good and a capital good, like a "bike" AND a "bike factory". When I sell you a CD for listening, I'm selling you the "bike" but not the "bike factory".

      Yes, IP owners are well-advised to contractually obligate their customers, but remember, one can only contract with that which is property. And property implies limits and controls on all people, not just parties to any particular contact.

    2. @Alex

      Porting conversation over from YouTube ;-)

      A regular factory can also function as both a consumer good and a capital good. As I suggested, you could use the factory for other enjoyments than producing widgets. If you sell me a subset of the bundle of rights (only some usages), then it should be very clear. That does not affect or bind random third-party individuals.

      If you wanted copyright-type contracts on CDs you still don't need IP as property. I sell the CD, but with restricted usage. This does not require two separate instances of property (the medium and the IP). Only the CD is ownable.

    3. True. for example a singer can have a copyright of first hearing. You will be the firsts to hear a new song with every release. Indeed the singer may not have the property over the song (intellectual space does not exist and that is the big flaw), but it can have property over his house where the cd with the song is located. The buyer is happy to be a first user and you get a pay.