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Envy is to desire as theft is to piracy

January 17, 2012

Some copyright lawyers like to conflate digital piracy with theft. Now, we can debate until our faces are blue whether digital piracy is immoral or not, whether it should be illegal or not. This is not that discussion. It can be had in many other corners of the internet. Shoo. This is me pointing out that there is a very fundamental difference between theft and digital piracy.

Say that Alice is an artist, creating sculptures. Say that I want one of her sculptures to adorn my living room, but I don’t want to pay the price that she asks for it. So I simply slip one of her sculptures into my pocket and take it home, without paying, without her permission. This is theft. The end result is that I have the sculpture and Alice doesn’t. My theft deprived Alice of her sculpture.

Now say that Bob is an artist, recording music. Say that I want to listen to Bob’s music while sitting in my living room, admiring the sculpture I stole from Alice. What can I say? I have no morals. Young people never do. And since I have no morals, I don’t want to pay Bob the price he asks for his art, either. So I get on the internet and download Bob’s album from an illegal site, without paying, without permission. This is digital piracy. The end result is that I have Bob’s music – but so does Bob! My copying did not deprive him of his original record. It is still in his possession (or, more likely, in the possession of his recording company, but let’s not open that particular can of worms either).

You may think that what I did to Bob was perfectly ok, or you may think that what I did to Bob is rightfully criminalized. But I didn’t steal from him. Yes, what I did was similar to theft. I took something that belonged to Bob, without his permission and without paying for it. But I didn’t take it away from him, and that makes it very dissimilar to theft.

By reading Slacktivist, I’ve learnt that some U.S. politicians like to conflate desire with envy. I must confess, I had some trouble disentangling these two concepts at first. They are similar. Both involve wanting something that other people have. But there is actually a fundamental difference, and it is the same as the difference between digital piracy and theft. Envy means that not only do I want that nice stuff you have, I also want to deprive you of it.

If you are of limited financial means, there are some things that you would dearly like to have, but can’t afford. In my case, it’s children. For other people, it could be a vacation, a house of your own, a car, a new gaming console, a widescreen TV… For people who are truly poor, we’re talking about clothes (that fit, look good and keep you warm), food (something else than those eternal cheap noodles), and shelter (a room of your own, with a door you can lock, where you know you can stay for at least a year). If you have all these thing, it’s easy to dismiss the people who don’t have them as envious. I have it, they don’t, they want it, ergo they are being envious of me. Ergo they are bad people! QED.

I would dearly like to have children. I am angry that I can’t. I am frustrated with the circumstances in my life that make it so. I think it isn’t fair that I can’t afford children when most of my friends can. But that doesn’t mean that I dream about stealing a child from somebody else, friend or stranger. My desire to extend my family is not coupled to an evil wish to deprive some other family.  My desire is not envy.

Most poor people wishing for food don’t wish it upon the rest of us that we should be hungry. They simply desire not to be hungry themselves. Most poor people wishing to eat something else than Ramen for a change don’t want to steal the sausage from my fridge. They simply want a chance to buy some sausage of their own at the supermarket. And wanting an equally nice vacation as the Andersons next door doesn’t have to mean you’re envious of the Andersons, either. It could simply be that you wish you too could have a nice vacation.

Envy is “you shouldn’t have that thing, it should belong to me instead”. Envy is evil.

“I want that thing too” is just plain desire and – in itself – not evil at all.

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