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Yglesias: Copying Is Not Stealing

Very good, solid piece by Yglesias in Slate:

Copying Is Not Stealing

And other ideas about copyright that Caleb Crain and I agree on.

By |Posted Monday, Jan. 30, 2012, at 2:08 PM ET

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

The Miracle of the Loaves and FishesPainting by Lambert Lombard.

I’m having a little bit of trouble discerning what exactly Caleb Crain and I are disagreeing about. He seems to think I’m mistaken about copyright policy, but he doesn’t quite specify what the nature of the disagreement is. He clearly finds me distasteful, and thus finds it pleasurable to muse on the possibility that he might steal my lunch (or reduce my salary to $0). But after considering these possibilities at length, he concedes—as I wrote earlier this month—that copying is in fact not stealing.

He seems to pass over this point lightly, but it’s worth dwelling on. Someone might break into my house and steal some homemade tomato sauce from my freezer. It would be another thing entirely for Crain to miraculously duplicate the sauce, causing the world’s total stock of tomato sauce to increase. In an intermediate case, Crain might simply copy down the ingredients (I follow Mario Batali’s recipe but add some crushed red pepper) and cook his own sauce. Copyright law does not deem it illegal to imitate someone else’s recipe, and nobody seems to regard doing so as morally problematic. Crain cites Immanuel Kant on the moral rights of the author, but this seems to me to relate to plagiarism rather than copying. For me to imitate Batali’s recipes and pass them off as my own would be unsporting in the extreme (though not, I think, illegal), and self-respecting people don’t do such things.

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N.b.: Jeff Tucker and I also used the picture and analogy of the loaves and fishes in our “Goods, Scarce and Nonscarce.” See also Nina Paley’s Copying is not Theft Minute Meme.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Karl Fogel February 14, 2012, 10:46 am

    Nice catch! And so encouraging to see this simple idea catching on finally… It used to be that if you said copying isn’t stealing, you got pelted with rhetorical rotten tomatos. Now Matt Yglesias can say it in Slate and expect no hurled fruit.

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