I haven't always had as much concern about copyright infringement as I do now, but I've always considered it to be a given that copyright infringement involves taking something that doesn't belong to you without paying the owner. Taking something that doesn't belong to you without paying the owner is, at least under any system of ethics that I'm familiar with, theft. Not "something like theft". It is theft.
I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that a handful of people over at Pharyngula don't seem to understand that view. There's a discussion going on over there right now in a thread discussing Bill Dembski's recent Intellectual Property oopsie. Nobody's defending Dembski right now, but there are at least a few folks who seem to be advocating the position that copyright is somehow obsolete in the internet age. I was going to respond to them over there, but the response got a bit too long to work well as a comment.
The "copyright sucks" portion of the thread starts fairly early, in comment #4, when "Voting Present" wrote:
Can we skip the inaccurate "steal" substitution for "infringe"? When intellectual property rights go the way of the dodo, it will just make everything easier if we have kept the associated language clean and clear. What is meant in this case is "infringe". You can't "steal" information. Not even under current law.
That's not the first time I've heard that "you can't steal information" line. It's a fairly common. It's also a pure strawman, as The Ridger pointed out a couple of comments later:
He didn't steal "information", he stole a presentation of information: someone else's camera work if nothing else.
She's absolutely right, and I certainly couldn't present a more concise and accurate explanation of the key distinction involved. In copyright infringement, you not only take "information," you take information that someone has worked to present in a certain way. The fact that someone has chosen to present their work in an electronic format that lends itself to quick and easy copying and distribution does not make the work less "real" than something that was done with pen and paper, or paint and canvas, or chisel and marble, and it does not mean that it necessarily took less work to create. That's something that I'd really like you to keep in mind as (or if) you continue reading this.
Jumping down to comment 40, we find Azkyroth making another argument commonly used to justify some forms of copyright infringement:
Mind supporting your implicit premise that downloading an MP3 is analogous to stealing a physical object?
(Craig makes essentially the same argument in comment 43.)
I wouldn't argue that electronic copyright infringement is analogous to stealing a physical object. I'd argue that there's absolutely no difference worth mentioning between the two - except possibly who the victim is.
In general, people who make things are paid for each copy. This is true not only for authors, for magazine publishers, for recording artists, for live performers. It's also true for doctors, lawyers, plumbers, car manufacturers, building contractors, and dog breeders. It's even true (at least in a sense) for bloggers like myself, Paul Myers, the rest of the Sciencebloggers, and quite a few other people who create things online today. When you create a copy of something for yourself without paying the maker, you are depriving them of their right to be paid for that copy just as surely as you'd deprive a store owner of their income by walking out with a CD in your jacket pocket.
There are some common counter-arguments to that, and some of them pop up in other comments. One of the most common is the "Two Wrongs" justification - the big bad (insert medium here) companies are twisted, evil, and charge way, way too much money so it's OK to ignore their unreasonable demands for money (or demands for unreasonable amounts of money). That's third grade ethics, at best, and the whole "Robin Hood" thing lacks a certain elegance when you include yourself among the poor that you are giving to.
Another is the "Free Advertising" argument. That's the one that goes "downloading creates a buzz that generates more sales so I'm making money for the record company so I'm doing nothing wrong by not paying them". A close cousin of that argument is the one that involves rectifying bad marketing decisions being made by the record companies. Neither is particularly good. Generally speaking, people off the street don't get to make marketing decisions for companies. It may be true that free downloading is a good marketing tool, and that not allowing free downloads is a bad business decision. Saying that "bad business decisions" mean that it's OK to download and share their products is like saying that it's OK to walk into a grocery store, open a bag of chips and eat a chunk while offering the rest to other customers, then walk out without paying. The grocery store gets to decide what gets sampled, not you.
I'm not the biggest fan of a lot of the way copyrights are used (not to mention misused and abused) these days, but despite its flaws copyright is very important and needs to be taken seriously - particularly when it comes to online products. The internet is fantastic because it provides for so many different ways for authors to choose to distribute their work, and to choose if and how they want to be compensated for it. It's possible to go with the iTunes model, and sell through a company. It's possible to give away your work for free if you want, or to let people access your work for free while getting paid by advertisers. It's possible to follow the Radiohead model, to follow a shareware model, or to create something entirely new. All of that is wonderful, in large part because it's encouraging so many people to get out there and put their stuff out there.
But in the long term, that's only going to work as long as the authors get the say in how they choose to distribute their work. An author has the right to tell you that you can read or watch or listen to his or her work for free. You don't have the right to tell them that you are going to do so, regardless of their wishes.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I've never downloaded a song illegally. I will say that I haven't done so since iTunes became available. But I've never pretended (at least as far as I can remember) that it was right.
P.S.: Having spent quite a bit of time pounding on Pharyngula commenters, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there are quite a few other people posting in that thread who have a more reasonable understanding of intellectual property. In addition to The Ridger, GDwarf, Kevin Vicklund, DLC, and several others make some very good points.