Yesterday I wrote a letter to the Guardian. Originally I put quote marks around the word “Theft” in the phrase “Federation Against Software Theft”. In the context of the letter this was unexplained and was as as immature as replacing the “s” in “Microsoft” with a dollar sign (a sure sign of an impending knee-jerk response). It did me no favours and I removed the quote marks (and, for what it’s worth, shamefacedly re-sent the email) but I thought I would explain my aversion to the word theft in this context.
When industry bodies like FAST, RIAA, MPAA et al describe the illegal downloading of software, music, movies, etc. as “theft” they hugely simplify a complex problem. Theft involves taking something from a party and depriving them of the item. But obtaining software (or whatever) without paying is not so simple.
Here’s an example, in which you could replace software and FAST with a different industry and body. Let’s say Company A sells a piece of software, the industry standard in its field, for £1,372 (no, really). I would like this software but there’s no way I can afford the cost. So I’m considering a similar, but simpler, product from Company B which sells for £38. In the end, instead of spending any money, I download Company A’s software for free, illegaly. I now still have the £38 I was going to spend and I end up buying an unrelated item from Company C (I might spend it on something other than software, but the point is that I still have the money to spend).
In FAST’s simplistic model of theft I have “stolen” £1,372 from Company A and deprived the country’s economy of the same amount. The story ends there, shocking press releases are issued, and newspapers blindly print the industry statistics.
In reality the only company to lose out in any way is Company B, to the tune of £38. This is a shame for Company B. Company A, the victim in FAST’s scenario, has in fact lost nothing — I was never intending to buy their software, but if I’m going to download something it might as well be the most expensive and “best”. You could even say Company A has benefited: they haven’t lost a sale but they have gained another user. A user who will become familiar with their product and, one day, might buy a legal copy. Company C, entirely ignored by FAST, has gained a sale of £38 they would otherwise not have had. The country’s economy has not gained or lost a thing — I have still spent the £38 I was planning to spend in the first place.
This is not to say that obtaining software (or music, movies, etc.) without paying is a good thing and legally or morally right. While there will always be some software that is produced to be given away for free, in practice there is always going to be software that requires money to produce and so should be paid for. But calling the sharing of these products “theft”, and mechanically adding up the imagined “cost” to companies and economies, only distracts us from ever finding a better solution.
(I’ve just noticed the Guardian has printed someone else’s response to the letter that got me worked up in the first place. Good.)