File-sharing is not a crime

Content-industry lobbyists know that language is important. That’s why they use words like ‘theft’ and ‘piracy’ to refer to copyright infringement. Despite the current trendiness of the P-word, lamented recently by one industry insider, conflating these terms with illicit downloading has allowed organisations like the BPI and the Federation Against Copyright Theft (which abbreviates to the wonderfully ironic FACT) to conjure up images of robbery, violence and yes, even terrorism, and then use them in their quixotic campaigns against their customers. You know the adverts I’m talking about, right?

It takes some effort to unpick headlines such as “File Sharing Is Not a Victimless Crime“. In fact, file sharing isn’t a crime at all, victimless or otherwise. It’s perfectly legal to exchange files if you own the copyright in them or have a license that allows such sharing. Creative Commons and the GNU General Public License are two examples of using copyright to enable massive, worldwide, legal file-sharing to the benefit of millions. One might think, then, that the headline should read “Copyright Infringement Is Not a Victimless Crime” however this would also be wrong. Turns out that, unlike theft, copyright infringement isn’t a crime at all – it’s a civil matter. As for piracy – war-like acts committed by non-state actors (typically robbery or criminal violence committed at sea) – I fail to see how this compares with downloading a few Lily Allen tracks. (Terrorism, on the other hand…)

This kind of language abuse is an insidious form of spin. If we want a clear debate on the future of copyright and the Internet we should challenge people who try to confuse the issue by claiming infringement is something it’s not.

As the saying goes, “You wouldn’t download a car…