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Intellectual Property is Real

an editorial (rant) by Catherine Fournier

Once upon a time, a Catholic couple (we'll call them Susie and Bob) owned a car rental company. It was a good business, it supported their family and the families of their employees. Susie and Bob paid their taxes, attended Mass regularly and were pleasant to their children and neighbours. All in all, an ordinary couple.

One day, Bob's uncle told a friend (we'll call him Tony) about his nephew's car rental company and about an especially nice model of car available there. Tony decided to see for himself, so he went to the car rental company. He arrived just after business hours and the office was closed, but Tony wanted to try the car, so he hot wired it and drove it away.

Imagine Susie's surprise some days later to see one of her company's cars in a suburban driveway across town. She told her husband Bob where she had found the car. They decided to try and handle to situation themselves, rather than involving police and lawyers and all that fuss. Perhaps, though they couldn't imagine how, it was all a misunderstanding. So, together they visited the house. Tony was glad to see them.

"I really liked driving this car!" he said. "I told all my friends about what a great car it is, and where I got it."

When Susie and Bob pointed out to Tony that he had stolen the car, he became very angry. "I was going to return it. I took it to the car wash, and kept it filled with gas and topped up with oil too," he stormed. "You should be thankful to me for letting everyone know abut your business."

"But you took the car without permission," Bob persisted. "We've lost income by having that car off our lot, and by giving people the impression that our cars are free for the taking, you may have damaged our business!"

"Well, I'm going to damage your business even more," Tony raged. "I'm going to tell all my friends what money hungry sharks you are. You call yourselves fellow Catholics! There's nothing Catholic about this behaviour!"

"Stealing is stealing," Bob responded, trying hard to keep his temper. "Whether you intended to return the car or not, whether you told lots of people nice things about our business or not, you took a car without our knowledge and permission. That's stealing."

"As a matter of fact," he went on, "as far as I know, it is Catholic to tell you when you've done something wrong."

Unfortunately, Tony continued to insist that he'd done nothing wrong. Finally Susie and Bob had to leave, taking the car with them. Since they had retrieved the car, they decided not to press charges against Tony with the police, but they sent him a bill for the time he'd had the car, and let him know that they'd take the matter to Small Claims Court if he didn't pay. It surprised and perplexed them that Tony didn't understand that what he had done was stealing, and that that fact that he was Catholic too didn't make what he'd done any less serious.

How long would car rental businesses last if this kind of incident was common? It's not common of course, because everyone can clearly understand that taking a car that doesn't belong to you, without permission of the owner, is stealing. It's also quite easy to understand that taking a rental car (even if you intend to return it later) deprives the business owner of rental fees for that time period.

To take it a step further, it's also clear that hiring a man to drive the car for the day, and then not paying him for his time, is also stealing. You've stolen his skilled money earning time, and deprived him of income. OK, what about creative endeavors? What about writers, artists and musicians who earn money with their talent? Their time represents income to them too.

Magazines and books take many hours of creative time to produce. The talented writers and graphic artists who crafted the contents and the editor who put it all together invested money earning time in its production. Some of that investment is towards the future re-selling of the articles or graphics first published here. It's called intellectual property, and it's as real as the earning potential of a rental car.

While it is fair to make personal copies of a magazine article for your own use; to copy colouring pictures and exercise pages from an workbook for your children, or make a single copy of an article to send to your sister, it is not licit to photocopy an entire magazine in order to avoid purchasing it. While it is reasonable to create compilation tapes from your favorite CD's to play in the car, it is not licit to borrow a CD from the library and tape the entire thing.

But making multiple photocopies of a magazine or a chapter from a book to pass around, is in reality, the theft of intellectual property. In exactly the same way, so is copying an article from a website and publishing it in your own website, or multiple taping of CDs, or any one of the other socially acceptable forms of copyright infringement that exist today.

It's also a contribution to the much-lamented precarious position of Catholic publishing. Every photocopy represents lost income, every hit to your site rather than the source represents lost advertising income; business income needed to break even and expand and family income. The argument that it's good Catholic material, and by spreading it around you're helping to spread and strengthen the faith is false, just like Tony's claim that his 'free advertising' served to help Susie and Bob's business. The argument that spreading the faith should be more important to the writers, artists and publishing company than the money is also misleading. First, how much good are we actually doing if our methods are corrupt? Secondly, there's only so much writers, artists, editors and publishers can do on a volunteer basis (printer's bills still need to be paid) and the world needs more. Much more.

So the next time you're tempted to save money by copying material, think about the artist who produced it. Buy another copy of the book. In the case of web material ask permission before using it, and comply with the creator's requests. Think of it as an honest donation in time and money towards the rebuilding of Catholic publishing and a Catholic world.

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