Theft is a concept and piracy is one of its forms
I have tried and tried--truthfully, I have--but I can't for the life of me understand how rational adults can say "Piracy is not theft" and genuinely believe it. I have seen a number of very smart people make that claim, people who I genuinely respect. Admittedly, they are in the minority. But they do exist. Theft seems like a fairly basic and universal concept, so why the confusion?
As near as I can tell, people exclude piracy by pointing to the "oh, and it has to be a physical object or it doesn't count" phrasing that now is posted online as part of the dictionary definition of theft (defined thusly in the newer editions of Miriam-Webster dictionaries, among others). I have to say... wouldn't it be nice if it dictionaries told us how life works? Wouldn't it be nice if you could just copy something and no one lost anything as a result? I would love to live in that world, because then the pirate's definition of theft would make perfect sense. Alas, we do not live in that world. If you obtain something that you do not own and you do not pay the asking price or receive permission to take it freely, you have stolen it. You have committed the act of theft, in accordance with the spirit of the word (if not the precise letter). It's really that simple.
While some people might not be prepared to agree with me on that point, at least not yet and perhaps not ever, I hope most of us can agree that there degrees of severity. If I steal $1,000,000 from my neighbor, I have hurt him significantly. If I visit his house and there is a pencil on the table and I take it without permission, he may not even miss it. Yet I have still stolen, by the very letter of the Miriam-Webster dictionary definition. The paper money and the pencil are both physical objects. They rank quite highly as obvious theft. A pile of $100 bills takes up a lot of space. A pencil takes up... less space. But still, it takes up space. After either theft, I can point to my ill-gotten gains, and you can point to them, and we can all agree that a theft occurred (especially if there's camera footage and no one is able to make a compelling argue that tricky video editing techniques were employed; we do live in a world where people make a living out of casting doubt on or falsifying everything).
Thanks to computers and technology, the practical act of theft has naturally expanded and, in the usual manner, outpaced the very nice people at Miriam-Webster. When you put money in the bank, the actual bills that you deposited will come and go. Some of that money may even be recalled by the people who print your country's money, then subsequently destroyed. But unless you make a withdrawal or agree to terms that allow the bank to charge regular fees that decrease your balance, the money that you put in the bank is still there (for all intents and purposes). It now takes the form of some digits on a computer screen. If those numbers look lower on Tuesday than they did on Monday because someone has managed a security breach, you take comfort in the knowledge that authorities will take that seriously. They will consider it a type of theft, even though no one broke into the bank and hauled out a stack of bills in a wheelbarrow.
I'm not trying to argue that in the digital age, a copy of your favorite CD is the same thing as hacking into a bank's website and moving some numbers around. If nothing else, the number movement does the more obvious damage and its impact can't reasonably be disputed. The person who lost money from his account has lost money that otherwise was already his. Some who oppose piracy try to say that if someone downloads an illegal copy of a game, the artist has just lost a sale. I'm not saying that. I recognize that maybe the pirate would have bought the game--if left with no other choice--but there's every chance that he would have simply chosen not to play it. However, I'm not prepared to go so far as to say that there was no theft just because that pirate says "I wouldn't have bought it, so the artist isn't losing anything."
My suggestion here is that the victim gets to say whether or not there was a victim, not the perpetrator.
Suppose for a minute that I am an independent game developer. I spend $50,000 of my own money and far too many of my own hours and I throw together a very basic game. I then start selling it on my site with a price tag of $50. Or rather, I try to sell it for that amount. Unfortunately, only a few people buy it. They quickly spread the word. My game sucks. I didn't have the resources to polish it like I should have--because games and a number of other forms of art take a lot of money to produce--and my $50 price tag is wishful thinking. So over time, I start lowering the price. It drops to $30. People still aren't buying, but one day I do a Google search and I find all sorts of torrent streams. My game has been downloaded 573,347 times, the helpful torrent site advises. I look at my 500 units sold and I look at the 573,347 times my game has been downloaded and I wonder. As I sell my car on Craig's List to pay for another week of groceries, I can't help but think about how things might have been differently if as few as 5 of those 573,347 people had bought my game instead of downloading it. Maybe as an incompetent designer I should spend more time seeing a financial advisor and less time asking "What if?," but I do at least have the right to ask.
My rights go as that developer, or as anyone who creates content that is then stolen, goes back to the overall concept of theft (not just the precise dictionary definition) and its general reason for even existing. Theft arose out of the human need to describe a situation where someone took something from someone else without permission. It came from general agreement that such an arrangement counted as a bad thing. The idea that whatever was taken had to be physical was the symptom of a now-ancient world where men only dealt with things on very physical terms (the word's roots are easily traced back to the 12th century AD, while the idea of theft in general goes back to the dawn of mankind). The last 30 years have seen such radical advancements that the old-fashioned idea that theft must involve a physical item is rendered obsolete by current reality.
If you take action for your own personal gain--entertainment or personal enrichment, in the case of piracy--and that in turn contributes to a process that deprives someone else of the compensation to which he or she is entitled, then you have just played the role of thief. It's different if an artist says "Here, please download my music for free." He has made a judgment call. He wants you to enjoy what he created, and you should be delighted to take him up on his generous offer. The offer is his to make, however, and it doesn't make him a bad person if he decides not to make that offer. The price he charges might be excessive, but that doesn't mean that you suddenly have the right to steal what he produced until he sees how many people are stealing it and decides to offer it for a lower rate that you find more acceptable. Piracy chips away at the genuine article's value.
So yes, I believe piracy is an obvious form of theft. I'm not saying that we should lock software pirates up and throw away the key, but piracy is a problem and one I'd like to see resolved. The sooner people admit that piracy is theft--and that theft is bad--the sooner we can look at the very real problems that led a number of people to consider piracy in the first place. We can debate semantics all day, but the truth is that piracy is hurting people in the same manner as most other types of theft and it's not going to go away until we address the core issues and find solutions that work for the artists, the publishers and, yes, even the pirates who might someday return to being paying consumers.