Is online piracy theft?

You wouldn’t steal a car! You wouldn’t steal a movie! Piracy is stealing! Piracy is a crime! (But is it really?)


The debate on whether online piracy is theft took an interesting turn recently after Chris Dodd, the Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association (MPAA), said that the industry is “on the wrong track if we describe this [online piracy] as thievery”.

Dodd alluded to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US during an interview, saying that Facebook and Twitter campaigned effectively against the legislation on grounds that the new laws would impede the free flow of information on the Internet.

“We’re in a transformative [sic] period with an explosion of technology that’s going to need content,” he said. “We’re going to have to be more subtle and consumer-oriented. We’re on the wrong track if we describe this as thievery,” Dodd said.

Piracy is not theft in South Africa

This debate in the US coincides with recent campaigns in South Africa which also describe piracy as theft.

Copyright expert and senior legal manager at PWC, Dr. Tobias Schonwetter, said that online piracy is not theft.

“Theft is defined in South Africa ‘as the unlawful and intentional appropriation of movable, corporeal property which belongs to or is in possession of another with the intention to permanently deprive the person entitled to the possession of the property of such property’,” explained Schonwetter.

“When copying copyright protected materials that belong to somebody else, the person owning the material is not deprived of ownership,” said Schonwetter.

Lance Michalson from Michalson’s Attorneys agrees, saying that piracy does not fall under the definition of theft. “It is the infringement of intellectual property rights,” said Michalson.

Schonwetter did however point out that an argument can be made that while the owner is not deprived of ownership, he or she is deprived of the benefits of ownership; i.e. the financial exploitation of the material. “This is why the result is very similar to theft,” said Schonwetter.

Piracy and theft

Piracy and theft

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