I’ve been reading a lot of Pinker, Dennett and Dawkins (P.Diddy?) lately, so I’m in an evolutionary state of mind. Here’s a question that’s been troubling me for some time now: Why do people find it so easy to steal intellectual property? (This is a loaded question, I know.)
Photocopiers enabled us to make copies of copyrighted documents and books. Tape recorders and cassette recorders enabled us to make copies of copyrighted audio recordings. Then came CD’s and DVD’s and suddenly it was possible to make very cheap copies of audio recordings, and, because these media are digital, without any loss of quality. Today we don’t even have to make the copies, we just have to know where to find them on the Internet. (Yes, someone has to make the copies, but if you wait long enough someone else will.) Even the less tech-savvy among us usually have a friend, or a friend of a friend, who can get them what they like. In general, it has become cheaper and easier to make high-fidelity copies of copyrighted material, while a lot more material has become accessible to a lot more people. I suppose everyone knows this story.
I think that most of us will agree that we have an aversion to theft - I feel a wave of guilt washing over me even at the thought of stealing something. (Here we go again…) Is this nature, nurture or a bit of both? Maybe it’s just bullshit, in the philosophical sense, of course, but I believe research has been done that suggests the latter. (Dear reader, I’m too faineant to look it up for you.) On the other hand, when I duplicate a file on my hard disk, I do not feel guilty at all. Does that make me an intellectual property sociopath, an infopath? (Sadly, the term InfoPath has been trademarked by Microsoft, so I don’t think it will catch on.) Actually, I believe most of us, if not all of us, do not feel any guilt when we make copies of intellectual property.
So why do people find it so easy to steal intellectual property? Let me propose two evolutionary conjectures to answer this question.
Maybe evolution has failed to catch up with us. Physical property has been around much longer than intellectual property. (The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.) Maybe we do not feel remorse when we make illegal copies of intellectual property because we are not built that way.
But there is another evolutionary way to look at this. Perhaps this inability of ours to acknowledge or even register intellectual theft has nothing to do with us. Perhaps “information wants to be free” is true in an evolutionary sense. Perhaps, memes suppress our remorse for intellectual theft so that they can spread more easily. Perhaps we have co-evolved, and there is nothing to suppress. It may even be to our benefit that memes procreate easily and uninterrupted - or not hazardous enough to cause any evolutionary reaction.