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Robert Soave: I do not own these words

BY ROBERT SOAVE

Published November 6, 2007

The University recently announced a plan to warn students who are uploading files on their computers that they could unwittingly be breaking the law. Be Aware You're Uploading is an automated system that sends an e-mail to students who are uploading files using certain programs. The system was put in place to warn students of the danger of the Recording Industry Association of America targeting students who might not even be aware that their actions are illegal.

When charged with the crime, it is usually easier for students to settle out of court than to face the hassle of legal proceedings. BAYU is an excellent way to spare some students from the RIAA's cruel legal tactics by educating them. However, such programs should be unnecessary; there should be no need to educate students about illegal file sharing, because file sharing should not be illegal.

No matter how vehemently the record companies fight to protect the rights to their music, music is simply not something that can be owned. The tangible disc that you buy from the store can be owned, but the information on it cannot. How can one possibly lay claim to information? The information on a CD does not exist in any physical sense. People who download music online are often accused of stealing from the artist. But in order for a theft to occur, you must take something from someone.

If I take my friend's apple, I have stolen it, because my friend no longer has access to the apple when it is in my possession. If I download a song from the Internet, I have not prevented anyone else from having access to it, because I have only taken information that can be easily reproduced by anyone an infinite number of times.

Downloading music represents a free-rider problem: Everyone can use and enjoy music without depleting its overall availability. The artists should seek compensation in forms that they are able to control, such as concerts and albums made under their record label. The music itself is too abstract a concept to reasonably belong to anyone.

It is not unreasonable to lay claim to objects that a person controls. The definition of property is only what each person can claim as his or her own: I have no authority to claim that an idea belongs to me when every other person in the world could have the exact same idea. Such a ridiculous claim is impossible to substantiate.

Then again our society has come up with a method for substantiating ridiculous claims. We have copyright laws that punish the theft of ideas that can never be technically stolen. Copyright laws are an assault on the idea of the freedom of information. With these vague laws, the government enforces the idea that a person or a corporation can own words and sounds. The RIAA demands compensation for something that I have not stolen but merely acquired because of the abstract and intangible nature of music on the Internet.

Critics might argue that musicians should be able to own their music because they created it and you should own anything that you create by default. But again, information cannot be owned; it is not something that can be touched, held, hidden away, stolen or legitimately claimed without government interference to back it.

Creation is a poor argument for ownership at any rate; it would make it pretty tough to own land. People own land because they simply laid claim to it, and because it was something that could actually be controlled by a person's own abilities. Only with the government's random mandates could anyone actually lay claim to something as abstract as information that is sent over the Internet.

I would never download a song off the Internet without buying it, because I respect the talent that created it. I want to thank the artist by paying for his creation, and I want to own the official CD with the official album artwork. If I downloaded the music illegally, I would feel like I was not a truly devout fan of the artist. But such an action should not make me a criminal.

The idea that information can be owned is quite terrifying. Where will intellectual property rights end? Today, the government defends companies that claim to own music. Tomorrow, it may defend people who claim to have invented new feelings and emotions. Such abstract claims of ownership may seem ridiculous, but the government has already stretched copyright laws past any definable form by criminalizing file sharing over the Internet.

Robert Soave can be reached at rsoave@umich.edu