Stealing is wrong. We all know that. And yet when the victim of theft appears to be powerful, rich or just too big for its britches, an odd sort of public sympathy is engendered. There’s that scene in “Fun with Dick and Jane” when the couple (watch the 1977 version with Jane Fonda and George Segal, not the 2005 remake with Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni), up to their ears in debt, rob the phone company to get some quick cash. Sure, it’s theft, but everyone hates the phone company (and there wasn’t the competition among phone companies the way there is now), so the people waiting in line for service applauded at the crime.
And there are those who celebrate Julian Assange, who admits to have stolen secrets – some damaging, some just embarrassing – from the U.S. government and posted them online for all to see. Take that, big, bad U.S. government! We got you, Big Brother and self-important diplomats!
But stealing is still stealing. And that’s why it’s hard to condone the behavior of Aaron Swartz or Aereo – two actors slapped down in different cases.
Swartz’s case (chronicled in the movie “The Internet’s Own Boy”) is perhaps more sympathetic because it ended with his suicide. But that doesn’t change the facts of what he was accused of doing. Swartz, an Internet genius, was charged with breaking into an MIT library and illegally downloading hordes of academic journals. They were in MIT’s library, and they were the intellectual property of the school. Swartz thought they should be widely available to everyone on the Internet.
That’s a debatable position, but it doesn’t matter. Doing so would be breaking the law. The charges against him carried a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines – clearly way too harsh. But Swartz refused a plea bargain of six months in prison. He hanged himself. That’s tragic, and certainly, 35 years in prison is far more than needed for federal prosecutors to make a point about intellectual property. And maybe there are people who think MIT is a bit full of itself, controlling access to journals. But it’s still theft. The fact that the stolen items are “information” (actually, they were information resulting from a great deal of hard work by researchers and writers) doesn’t make it a non-theft.
In the case of Aereo, the Supreme Court ruled that the company was violating copyright law by collecting broadcast shows on the airwaves and streaming them onto people’s computers for a relatively low fee (lower, certainly, than that charged by cable companies). The high court was correct, because Aereo was stealing. The fact that so many of us hate the cable companies and feel wildly overcharged for service does not make it OK to steal, anymore than it was OK for Dick and Jane to hold up the phone company.
The real lesson here is not in Aaron Swartz or Aereo or even Dick and Jane. It’s in Dennis Moore, the Monty Python character who fashions himself as a sort of Robin Hood. True, he screws up at first, stealing lupines (a kind of flower) from the rich and giving them to the poor. Once he got the contraband right – money, gold, medicines – he was so efficient that eventually he had taken everything the rich had and given it to the poor, unwittingly creating the exact same inequality with opposite players. “This redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought,” Moore says to himself once he realizes his mistake. Indeed. And stealing is still stealing – whether it’s gold, lupines or the intellectual property of writers and broadcasters.