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Paul Buchheit: What does it mean to own a "right"? (paulbuchheit.blogspot.com)
11 points by abstractbill on Aug 6, 2007 | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments



I'm behind you 100% on this one It's nice to see someone taking a stand on this, it's been a pet peeve of mine for a long time.

On a whim, I did a search for posts that I've made on this subject and came up with a bunch in just a few minutes, beginning in 2003 and the most recent being here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18823

I put the rest on a page here: http://www.goladus.com/copyright.html (Basically random greppings from various forum threads in the past 4 years, They aren't proofread very well)


Don't you feel owning the rights to a piece of music is different than owning rights to salt, though? No one has a monopoly on music, because anyone can compose their own. The same goes with software. It's not artificial like restricting goods; it really is your hard work.

When I said "Copying software is stealing", I was incorrect. What I meant to express was "Copying software is wrong if you can afford to buy it". There's something morally wrong about taking someone's hard work against their wishes and giving it away for free. I don't know what to call it, but don't you at least agree it is wrong?


Salt was an excellent metaphor to choose because it removes scarcity as an issue. Property rights developed in an environment of scarcity: when I take something from you I deprive you of its use. Obviously copyright infringement does not deprive the copyright owner of use of the material. It does diminish the value of the copyright, though.

When framed this way, debate can be about the validity of the copyright or intellectual property rather than whether "stealing" is OK. The colonial "copyright" on salt was clearly not justified; a copyright on "one-click" purchases seems silly; the copyright on the Office 2007 ribbon seems more justified. In any case the debate is focussed on what it should be.


Infringing on people's legal rights is often wrong, but not everything that's wrong (or illegal) should be called "theft".


Okay. Is your argument about semantics?

I'm fine with renaming the act, but I have no idea what to call it. Do you have a suggestion? Just "illegal copying" perhaps?

Also, do you feel the law should punish the act as if someone had shoplifted an item of equivalent value, or some other punishment? I'm worried that if the punishment is a fine, people might risk it anyway because the chance of getting caught seems so small in peer to peer networks.


Copyright infringement is never treated the same as property theft. In any jurisdiction.

In any case, copyright was not established to help companies like Warner or Scholastic---in fact, it was originally designed to protect authors from having large corporations distribute their stuff without paying authors anything, as opposed to today's model, in which companies pay authors relatively little.


Copyright infringement is often publicly referred to as theft. So there is obviously an overlap in people's minds.


It wouldn't be a popular misconception if a lot of people didn't believe it.


Working out the right laws and punishments is a difficult problem. Before we can solve the problem, we must understand it. Using misleading terms just causes confusion and leads us in the wrong direction.


Great post. I remember someone writing a short story based on that Gandhi anecdote for Kuro5hin a few years ago. Sadly I can't link to it because it never made it through the queue.


I think this argument can be generalized. There are no real laws. Only consequences. You can do whatever you want. Some actions will cause the cops to throw you in jail, some wont. Timing is everything - what is illegal today might be legal tomorrow. Any law can be changed, if you can convince enough people.


Not sure I would express it like you, but perhaps we agree. I think to argue about right and wrong as Paul did in the article is a slippery slope - people might never agree. Wars go on forever because of reasoning like that, each party believes to be in the right.

The "real" reality is that what is right is exactly what the people in power say is right. If you believe something is right, but the people in power believe differently, all you can do is gather the power to make it right. That is what Ghandhi did, even though he did it without using weapons. But being able to convince enough people to support your cause is a form of power, too.

There is no god given right to own intellectual property, or any other property for that matter, people can own it only because society as a whole allows them to. If there is no society/police to enforce your rights, all you can do is sit tight in your house with the shotgun ready. You might still be able to defend your property. But that is because you have a shotgun, not because the property belongs to you.

People chose to organize in societies and accept property rights because they think it benefits everybody. As soon as it does not benefit somebody, there is no reason for that person to go on supporting property rights (but the "benefits me" equation should factor in things like jail).


Why do you call it Imaginary instead of Intellectual?


So your point is that all the patents and IP rights should not be allowed?


The point I read was that infringement is not theft.

He didn't rule out that there might be some situation where a government-enforced exclusive right might be appropriate.


Exactly. IP can be good, but that's no reason mix up the language.

I've added an update clarifying this.


The key feature of property is the determination of its use, rather than mere possession. If you own something by law [1] then an infringement of that right is stealing. As for India, well, it just goes to show you're better off controlling the opium market than the salt market.

[1] There are two kinds of ownership: By law, and by adverse possession. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverse_possession


Making an illegal copy isn't stealing the copyright, though.

If I copy paulgraham.com and post all his essays, claim they are my own, and then try to sue him for infringement, I'm trying to steal his intellectual property.

If I copy some of his essays without his permission, I've infringed.on some of the exclusive rights granted by law. I'm not stealing.


If you define "stealing" as "transfering property from one pocket to another," then you are right, since copying essays or whatever doesn't deprive the owner of possession.

If you define "stealing" as "preventing another from determining the use of his property", then you aren't right.


The dictionary doesn't seem to include your second definition, but regardless, you would NOT be preventing him from determining the use of his property, because his property is the copyright, and he can still use it any way he likes.


The dictionary is the wrong place to look for discussion on property. It's a complicated subject, and I'm trying to squeeze it into as few words as possible. If you want a citation:

In a private property system, property rules are organized around the idea that various contested resources are assigned to the decisional authority of particular individuals (or families or firms) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/property/

...In short, it is a matter of "use" (decision) rather than possession. A copyright indisputably is owned by all creators unless surrendered. But the copyright itself codifies control over a work, and thus is not that which is lost but that which proves loss in matters of IP violations.


Intellectual property is arbitrary relative to, say, a hammer. Everyone agrees on what a hammer is, and that it is a "contested resource." The term "Intellectual Property" is very recent and we are still trying to reach an agreement on what it means.

"Stealing a portion of an owner's exclusive copyrights," isn't generally the message being sent when someone talks about "stealing music" or "stealing software."

I agree the dictionary is not the right place to look, however I disagree that legal lexicons are much more helpful. I think the issue here is the general metaphor used by regular people to communicate these ideas with each other.


I think I agree. My point is NOT that there is no loss when rights are infringed, clearly there is (The British, for example, lost control of India). However, 'theft' is the wrong word to describe this loss, and it leads to fundamental misunderstandings.




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