Copying content is not the same as theft
March 15, 2016
This post shouldn’t need to be written, but apparently it does. In recent discussions of Sci-Hub, I still keep seeing people trot out idiot analogies where copying scientific papers is portrayed as the equivalent of stealing physical goods. A couple of examples:
Mickey: You want a pair of shoes go to the shoe store and buy them. Notice you have to buy them. You want to read an article either pay or go to the library and read it for free. Notice unlike shoes you can read it for free! What is so difficult about this concept?
— Our old friend Harvey Kane.
“It’s as if somehow stealing content is justifiable if it’s seen as expensive, and I find that surprising. It’s not as if you’d walk into a grocery store and feel vindicated about stealing an organic chocolate bar as long as you left the Kit Kat bar on the shelf.”
— Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s ironically titled “Director of Universal Access”.
It pains me to read the words of experienced and presumably knowledgeable people when they trot out such absolute nonsense. Digital goods (which are copied) are nothing like physical goods (which are given and taken).
This is not complicated.
Here are some of the differences:
- If you steal my shoes, I don’t have my shoes any more. If you copy my Brachiosaurus paper, I still have it.
- Only one person can steal my shoes. Any number can copy my Brachiosaurus paper.
- Everyone agrees that stealing is bad, but plenty of people think that copying is good.
(Regarding that last point, note that I am not at the moment taking a position either way on whether copying is good or bad; just recognising that its morality is much more open to debate than that of stealing.)
The “analogy” between copying of digital goods and theft of physical goods is so utterly broken, so absolutely devoid of a factual basis, and so very misleading, that when someone uses it there are only two possible reasons:
- They are so completely ignorant about these issues that their opinion is of literally no value.
- They are deliberately confusing the issue.
So: ignorance or malice. There are no other alternatives.
Here, then, is my request. Those of you who are opposed to Sci-Hub may well have valid points, and I am happy to hear them — after all, it took me seven posts before I finally figured out what my own position is. But stop making invalid points. All it does is weaken your argument, cheapen the whole debate, and make you look dumb.
When you pretend that copying is the same as stealing, you undermine your own position.