P2P and Intellectual Property Debate

Yesterday, I provided a short analogy where I hoped to provide some similarities between telling secrets and downloading copyright protected music. The crux of my argument was if I tell you a secret on the terms that you are not to disclose it to anyone else, you are bound to those terms. However, if someone else overhears me telling you the secret, that person is not bound by any non-disclosure agreement.

Over at The Mind Trap, they disagree:

I don’t think that follows — considering Gordon is refering to the practice of downloading music from p2p systems the third party is more like someone who actively seeks the rumour, for example by eavesdropping. True, the person relaying the rumour (putting the content on the p2p network) is eagerly breaking the agreement not to pass it on, but the third party has to actively go to their metaphorical house specifically to get the rumour. They’re not really that innocent.

We both can agree that the person putting the content on the p2p network has likely violated their agreement with the recording company who sold them a CD, video, or similar licensed material. We differ on the eavesdropping portion, though.

Society does not consider something wrong with actively seeking rumors, so long as no rights are violated in the process. To be sure, journalists and bloggers do this all the time. As long as one does not trespass on someone’s real property in order to eavesdrop, no moral violation occurs. In my example, I actually yelled the secret across a bar, so no eavesdropping was even involved in that case.

Likewise, the major p2p companies do their yelling in the form of advertising, inviting people into their “metaphorical house” in order to download music. Again, there is no trespass. The person who downloads the music may be guilty in a court of law, but totally innocent in moral reality.

Stephen Gordon

I like tasteful cigars, private property, American whiskey, fast cars, hot women, pre-bailout Jeeps, fine dining, worthwhile literature, low taxes, original music, personal privacy and self-defense rights -- but not necessarily in this order.

  1. So according to this rationale and moral standards, the following hypothetical situation would be “totally innocent in moral reality.”

    I work at an office and I eavesdrop on a fellow office worker, Bob. Bob is on the phone with a bank. The bank has a privacy policy keeping Bob’s identity and account information “secret.”

    Since I am not a participant in the privacy agreement, I can take the information Bob speaks to his bank within earshot of me, and offer it freely to anyone who wants it. Not surprisingly, someone quickly uses this information to commit identity theft. This causes Bob significant financial difficulties.

    I’m a moral person according to the “secret/eavesdropping” guidelines set forth in this blog. I have taken information I knew was sensitive without permission, and given it away knowing that it is certain to be used to Bob’s detriment. Since I wasn’t specifically included in the privacy agreement and didn’t use the information myself, I bear no responsibility.

  2. Matt,

    Bob made the mistake of epxressing the information within earshot. I would argue that you (hypothetically – I’m sure you wouldn’t do it in real life) acted irresponsibly, but not criminally.

    The person who committed identity theft is clearly wrong, and is the one who needs to be punished.

  3. When Joe gives Greg a copy of the song he bought. Joe is breaking his contract with the record company. He was not licensed to distribute the music, and that copy he made for his friend is then considered stolen. It is stolen profit from the record company which Joe should be liable, for as long as it continues.

    Since the song is stolen, but not by Greg, Greg is not guilty of the original theft, or the damages caused by that theft down the line, according to Bob’s agreement.

    I can agree with that. However, Greg is knowingly dealing in stolen property and distributing it. He isn’t bound by Bob’s agreement, but it is still not Greg’s property to distribute. He is knowingly distributing goods that are stolen, which is wrong.

    His knowledge of the fact that the property is stolen is what makes him guilty. One would have to prove that Greg knew the property was stolen for him to be guilty.

  4. Albert,

    One thing at issue was whether the song was stolen (criminal), or a licensing agreement (civil) was violated.

    If it isn’t technically stolen, then then your argument would not hold up.

    It also raises the much deeper question: Is what we call intellectual property actually property? Do the same properties which physically owned things have apply to intangible things, such as the expression of ideas.

    IMO, there are some common properties, but also some differences. Therefore, I’d argue that the term intellectual property is a misnomer.

  5. On the bank tangent…

    I’d like to know if a company acts “acted irresponsibly, but not criminally” if they leave your credit card info lying around in a publicly readable text file. A public tut tut and I have to get a new credit card?

    How now, brown cow?

  6. If there was no intent to expose your private information, the act should not be considered criminal. They should be liable for ALL damages which resulted from their carelessness, though.

  7. The MPAA, RIAA has been taking file-sharers to civil court for some time now (with claims that border on the extortive). Needless to say it didn’t help their PR to be dragging grandma and 13-yo kids into court in order to sue them for $10,000 or so.