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Surprising Science

Why Copying Files Is Not Stealing

Infringement is different than ‘stealing’ in some very important ways. And yet, industry folks, politicians and law enforcement continue to claim that one is ‘no different’ from the other.

What’s the Latest Development?

U.S. prosecutors recently charged Aaron Swartz with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, saying he had stolen electronic files by downloading massive amounts of academic papers from JSTOR, a non-profit organization that hosts scholarly journal articles. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz says: “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.” The truth, however, may be a little more nuanced than “stealing is stealing”, which is certainly true, tautologically speaking.

What’s the Big Idea?

Copying electronic files is not the same as stealing someone else’s physical property, which is typically how the law defines the crime of theft. What’s the difference? When you steal someone’s property, they no longer have it. Laws covering the digital domain require more nuance and generally they are more nuanced. “The regulations against copying are supposed 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.'”


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