Scanlations as “Theft”

from a comment I left on Comics Worth Reading:

I easily deny that scanlations are theft from the creators.  Calling it theft is an attempt to set the terms of the debate by means of a false analogy. Or are libraries, which also purchase a small number of copies of a work and then share them indiscriminately, also hotbeds of crime? I could equally well call attempts to hoard and demand payment for information, the only thing in this world that can be shared without diminishing it, piracy of people’s natural rights, no more moral than pirates who stop ships and demand money to let them pass.  It’s not likely to convince anyone who doesn’t already share my point of view.

If you actually want to make progress in discussing “intellectual property” you have to start out by acknowledging that it’s a completely artificial category and has special properties that can’t be analogized to anything else.  The natural state, absent any coercion, is that people can freely share information without diminishing it, and if you don’t want to let them do that you need to keep it secret.  From there you can then reason that the natural state provides too little incentive to create and share new information…people would ultimately be better off if you created a legal framework where creators would have a limited monopoly on the duplication of the information they share.  But how much better off they would be depends on the exact parameters of that monopoly…and it could make them worse off if the rules are poorly written. It’s pretty easy to say, well, nobody really needs to read Naruto so there’s a very small price to pay if you don’t let them read it until the publisher puts it out… it’s a lot harder when you’re arguing that poor folks who could never afford a certain drug they need to live should die even if there was somebody willing to produce the drug cheaply if only they had the right to duplicate the information because otherwise there’s not enough incentive for creators to come up with such drugs in the first place.  The latter argument may even be harsh but right, but saying it’s simply or obviously theft from the creators strikes me as an attempt to short-circuit any rational discussion of the trade-offs.

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