“Piracy Is Not Theft” graphic by Patri Friedman

Piracy Is Not Theft

Thanks to Jessica Ferris for sending in this great image by Patri Friedman. How much more simply can one say it? Copying leaves the original untouched, therefore copying is not theft.

It’s interesting to read some of the commentary on Friedman’s post. For example: “This seems like semantic hair-splitting. If I go to some sort of practitioner of whatever and walk out without paying, I haven’t stolen anything tangible, just their time. Is it meaningfully different than if I’d reached into their wallet and removed $60 or whatever? I doubt they’d be any less cheesed off if I told them “actually what just happened wasn’t technically theft, it was something else.” [1]

Friedman’s response is terrific:

It is not semantic hair-splitting. It is a simple, genuine, important difference. Your example indicates that you don’t understand it, which I find weird:

“If I go to some sort of practitioner of whatever and walk out without paying, I haven’t stolen anything tangible, just their time.”

But their time is not a copy. It is irreplaceable. They will never get those moments back. Therefore what you have done is theft. If you used the public record to create an AI simulacrum of the practitioner, and consult the simulacrum instead of the practitioner, that is analogous to pirating the time of the practitioner. (You may be stealing the time of the simulacrum, but that is a separate issue).

The question is not tangibility. The question is whether, after I do ____, someone else then has less of something than they did before. If I “go to someone for their services, and don’t pay them”, they have less time than before. If I ask Google what I was going to ask the professional and so don’t need their services, they haven’t lost anything.

There is a comment relating copyright with trademark law (that’s something that we see all the time; can we come up with an equally powerful graphic to show how they’re unrelated?). And there’s the inevitable comment reiterating the received theory argument, which says that without monopolies people won’t be motivated to innovate. We really need to start countering that one with the point that a monopoly in a given field tends to suppress innovation in that field. And anyway, where’s the evidence? If these monopolies are so necessary for innovation, then why is there no shortage of innovation where monopolies are not given (the fashion industry, say, or cooking).

But all these words don’t match the eloquence of Patri Friedman’s graphic. It’s simple, memorable, and irrefutable.

And no, by the way, I didn’t ask Patri Friedman before posting a copy of the image here. His whole point is that we shouldn’t have to. We credit him and link back, of course, because credit is like time or money, in that when you take it from someone, that person actually loses something. Copying the image while still giving him full credit is exactly in the spirit of his post.

21 Comments on "“Piracy Is Not Theft” graphic by Patri Friedman"

  1. In the context of intellectual property:

    Theft is the unauthorised removal of an intellectual work from someone’s private domain – irrespective of whether any copies remain or were produced in the process of removal.

    Piracy is the infringement of the reproduction monopoly over intellectual works granted to the holder of the mercantile privilege of copyright, specifically the widespread distribution of unauthorised copies.

    Because copyright both protects a natural, exclusive right as well as an unnatural monopoly, this results in two kinds of piracy: Piracy that involves IP theft, and piracy that doesn’t.

    If you feel that published works belong to the public and that publishers should not be privileged with a monopoly over their reproduction, then such unauthorised reproduction of published works could be termed ‘good piracy’.

    You may still feel that private works naturally belong to the private owner, and that stealing a copy to subsequently pirate (even if you leave a copy with the owner) is a violation of the owner’s natural intellectual property rights, and should be termed ‘bad piracy’.


    Good piracy: making unauthorised copies of works you have purchased.
    Bad piracy: making copies of works you have stolen (unauthorised removal).

    So, the diagram is an unhelpful oversimplification (and refutable).

    IP theft can typically leave a copy as easily as the original, or involve the making of copies – some of which may be removed, some left behind.

    It is vitally important to distinguish between the unnatural monopoly that copyright grants, and the natural, exclusive right that it coincidentally protects. The former is unethical, whereas the latter is not. Thus, in the process of protesting against unethical monopolies, beware of conflating them with natural intellectual property rights.

  2. To engage in “bad piracy” you need to do something already illegitimate, such as trespass, if the owner of the so-called “IP” has performed due diligence (such as not leaving the blinds open on a window that affords a view from the outside of the top of the desk upon which the Sekrit Documents(tm) presently lay).

    It also presupposes an ironclad right to privacy.

    P.S. Fix your f*cking captcha! blank ” – three = seven” and a one-digit-only input field is clearly broken. Worse, a lot of the time a solvable one appears but a CORRECT answer is rejected with “An illegal choice has been detected. Please contact the site administrator.”

    This did NOT used to be a problem. Put it back the way it was a few weeks ago.

  3. Thanks — I’ll check our captcha settings and eliminate that one. We just use the Drupal captcha module(s), no custom code. When we upgraded recently, more captchas got added, but apparently not all of them are desirable.

  4. The last time I checked, piracy is when you illegally board a ship and loot it. What does piracy have to do with copying? Is this a site on copyright or a site on pillaging water vessels? How are we to “Question Copyright” if we accept biased terminology to begin with? This image simultaneously enlightens and spreads propaganda intended to confuse the public.


  5. One aspect of so-called “piracy” is that our laws are being changed. Formerly legal rights are being abolished and being made illegal. The content producers then whine about increased “theft” and demand ever more onerous laws!

    This Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act) has a nice graphic on how copyright has been aggrandized over the years.

  6. “Good piracy: making unauthorised copies of works you have purchased.
    Bad piracy: making copies of works you have stolen (unauthorised removal).”

    I believe that making copies of works you have acquired in accordance with the wishes of the creator for you own personal use is just A.O.K. Copyright law largely agrees. Even the DMCA has its exceptions for this.

    So it is good piracy to then distribute your copies?

    Many creators of works expect compensation for their work. In our current system that compensation is largely based on supply and demand, and basic economics teaches that the artificial supply from piracy creates an artificially low demand driving the value down. This means the creator of the work will receive less compensation than natural economics would allow for.

    This artificial devaluation of the creators copies through the activity or piracy is a real big “screw you” to the creator whose work you have shown a clear demand for.

    Ethically, if you want something from someone you should agree to their terms to acquire it. If you do not agree, you do not acquire it. People who create works don’t automatically owe their work to you or anyone else.

    That is of course unless you believe in the opposite. All peoples should be required to turn over all created works, no matter how insignificant, under the threat of some great penalty to some societal body for redistribution to everyone. Every single original created work such as every: doodle, paragraph, test essay, report, to-do list, etc. All absolutely required to be turned over to society for distribution to everyone. Without a concrete compensation system, the term starving artist would become very literal. So under this system, we would need to socialize the arts. But before that the Constitution would need to be amended to get rid of that pesky, “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” part.

    I know that seems a bit absurd to the piracy apologists. But their justifications for piracy are much more absurd. All piracy boils down to: I want it, I don’t want to pay, and it’s easy enough for me to do. There is no great and noble sentiment to piracy.

  7. The Constitution does not require copyright, it merely gives Congress permission to implement copyright if Congress so desires. No amendment is necessary to change or eliminate copyright, therefore.

    The rest of your comment is answered all over this site.

  8. Well it depends upon the situations..
    There are times that we could consider piracy as a theft…
    Well that is only my opinion but I also like the explanations
    that you have here…

    (commercial link removed)

  9. I’ve never seen that definiton of theft before, it seems loosely defined specifically for the purpose of backing your argument.

    UK law is quite specific, wikipedia tells us:

    “A person is guilty of theft, if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it”

    “Section 4 “property” includes all personalty, i.e. land itself cannot be stolen but anything severed from the land (with the exception of wild flowers) can be stolen, as can intangible property such as a chose in action; however it seems that the term does not extend to all intangible property, as information (Oxford v. Moss) and trade secrets (R v. Absolom, The Times, 14 September 1983) have been held not to fall within the Section 4 definition of property.”

    Copyright infringement isn’t theft, the idea that you’re stealing or even really copying anything is nonsense. Even when you make a copy of the data that makes up a copright works, you’re not really copying anything what you have at the end of the day, the arrangement of bits on a storage medium, is not even guranteed to be the same.

    The fact that we have copyright laws to protect this type of work and don’t just use theft laws tells you that theft laws are not sufficient to cover this kind of crime.

  10. They are not meant to be primary download sites for very long — we expect BitTorrents and even blu-ray copies to show up eventually, and most importantly, we don’t expect to do any work to make all this happen, beyond putting the data on the seed sites :-). So yes, please host a Torrent. Everyone is encouraged to!

    We’ll link to some of those other sites from sohbet as appropriate: sites that share revenue with Nina or do something else nice will be given preference (this will be explained in more detail at chat).

  11. “This seems like semantic hair-splitting. If I go to some sort of practitioner of whatever and walk out without paying, I haven’t stolen anything tangible, just their time. Is it meaningfully different than if I’d reached into their wallet and removed $60 or whatever? I doubt they’d be any less cheesed off if I told them “actually what just happened wasn’t technically theft, it was something else.”

    Is this guy talking about a concert or that sort of thing?  Well then, he’s right.  It’s not theft.  Agreeing to pay $60 as a condition of entry to a performance place of ‘some sort of practitioner of whatever’ and then not paying, is trespassing, not theft (an equally serious crime).  Theft is when you take something with the intention of perminently depriving someone of it.

    This guy is using another misrepresentation of the word ‘theft’ to trick you into agreeing that copying is theft, or trick you into inventing your own strawman. (like saying that wasting someone’s time is theft.)

  12. It occurs to me he may also be talking about some service provider, like a mechanic?  In which case hiring someone for their services without the intention to pay them is fraud, and if you intend to pay them and find that you can’t then it’s just a debt or civil liability.  The word ‘theft’ still doesn’t really apply.

  13. Something that strikes me as sad is that people who support copyright think they’re admitting defeat if they acknowledge that copying and theft are distinct and separate.  There’s nothing self-contradictary about saying ‘Copying is not theft but it’s still wrong.’  (Or even ‘Copying is as bad as theft’)  At least then they would be arguing a point which is somewhat debatable, rather than claiming the utterly absurd.

    Also I prefer to avoid the term ‘piracy’ because the literal meaning of ‘pirate’ actually does mean a type of thief.


    We all know what pirates do: armed robbery and worse. This has nothing to do with that. Its a stupid name. I work with intellectual propety and completely support p2p.

    If copyright holders cannot secure/encrypt media it is hardly fair to complain about people copying it for personal use with equipment they own and maintain. It’s really no different than taping a song off the radio, -something else the recording co’s completely freaked out about in it’s day. (who’s fault is it we release it unsecured?? ours.  We have not kept up with times. 

    p2p users are copying for personal use with technology they have at hand. Whether they bought this material at sometime in the past is completely irelevant. What matters is one thing: whether the copyright holder secure his/her property. Many times in the past new technology vastly improved profts for these same companies (solid state, cd, dvd etc) not one complained.