February 23, 2008

The semantics of sharing and stealing

An interesting essay on semantics in the Los Angeles Times: it's about whether or not "file sharing" meets the definition of the term "stealing". Have I stolen anything if you let me make a copy of a music file you have on your laptop? I have something new, but you have exactly what you had before. And one could say that whoever created the song or performed it, and however you got it, they have exactly what they had before as well. It's just about the same as if you give me a kiss: you have lost nothing at all, and nor has anyone else (and consider giving someone a kiss because someone else had said "When you see him, give him a kiss from me"). On the other hand, I suppose you could say you still have what you had before if you give me a massage and then I run away without paying you for it, and that seems plainly wrong in moral and legal terms: there is such a thing as stealing a service. So is a song in the music downloads folder on your laptop more like a DVD on a rack in a store, or like a massage, or like a kiss? Language Log has an answer. It will disappoint you. If you want to know what it is, read on.

The answer: Language Log doesn't know, but suspects that despite the reference to semantics in the title of the article ("File sharing or stealing? The semantic debate over whether copyright infringement is theft") the lexical semantics of verbs like steal or massage will not be the place to look. Language Log thinks you should consult an intellectual property lawyer before engaging in... well, the act that is either an innocent sharing of aural pleasure between consenting parties or a flagrant ripoff of a hard-working entertainer and entertainment company, depending on how you look at it.

For a readable essay on sharing versus stealing by a lawyer, University of Michigan Law School professor Jessica Litman (one of the leading copyright-law experts in the U.S.), see this PDF file.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 23, 2008 06:50 AM