Monday, February 25, 2008

Moral Reasoning: Why do people perceive stealing intellectual property as different from the theft of physical property?

An interesting new collaboration may happen out of my visit to the Berkman Center. Oliver Goodenough, who was mentioned in the last post, is embarking on a project to better understand why some people who would never steal something as mundane as office supplies are somehow able to self justify their theft of intellectual property. The IP itself could take many forms from song or movie downloads to knowing infringement of a business process patent and can be quite valuable. Yet for some reason, who knows maybe even good reasons, people view some IP theft as more minor than shoplifting a t-shirt. Professor Goodenough and I are hoping to work together to address some of the interesting questions this paradox creates.

Below are a few initial concepts for exploration, several of which came out of a conversation I had with a good friend Ryan Ismert.

Perception of Amoral Act

  • Expectation -- We have been trained since childhood that content can be "free" because of advertising supported TV and radio. Not many would say that someone is "stealing" because they step away during the commercial break, even though these ads are paying for our content. This "used to getting it for free" sentiment may compel people to avoid IP payments when they can obtain content by other means.
  • Metaphor-- When we are taught the nature of theft; we are most typically provided with material property examples. If the crime doesn't fit neatly into these core examples we may more easily rationalize our theft.
  • Victim Impact -- Crimes have victims. Stealing physical property is a zero sum game. In most cases only one owner can benefit from it at a time. As such, stealing physical property deprives one party for the benefit of another and creates a clear victim. With content and ideas, copying someone else's bits or ideas does not directly take from their owner. Their owner is still free to use the content/idea. Instead the theft circumvents their monopoly right to that IP.
  • Prevent v. Produce -- Patents provide the right to prevent someone else from producing. To the owner they do not create the right or the obligation to produce. Overcoming someone else's right to prevent me from doing something (practicing an idea or down-loading free content if I am able to) does not feel like stealing in the same way that home invasion does.
  • Problem with Disregarding -- Once you learn something it is very difficult to neglect that information. If someone is exposed beneficial IP, such as a superior business process, it will be very difficult for them to disregard it. That person may feel compelled to follow a more efficient/superior process if one is known.

Willingness to Commit Act

  • Tangible Risk -- Physical property must be absconded. The act of stealing in the material world is observable, as is the evidence embodied in the object itself. Intangible property theft and retention is perceived (probably falsely) to be less observable.
  • Victim Empathy -- In many cases, the victim of IP theft is less directly observable. Physical property theft victims can usually be specifically identified and therefore have a greater likelihood of creating empathy. IP theft victims are more often unsympathetic corporations who are even sometimes cast in the villain role. It may even create a Robin Hood effect if the IP thief is seen as stealing from the rich for the benefit of the "poor."

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