Some years ago, an artist friend confided that her works were being copied and distributed on the Web without her permission.
Mind you, this was not I-bought-a-book-and-gave-it-to-you, which would simply be passing on something that I had purchased legitimately. All perfectly legal. No, this was a of a bunch of older ladies making use of scanners and email to distribute multiple copies of works that they did not pay for and that they knew were not to be had for free.
Worse, in trying to deal with the thieves (who, one must conclude, valued her art enough to want it), my friend was subjected to a good bit of antagonism, making her wonder whether trying to make a living from her art was worth the grief. And all this over an item that cost $7.99, less than the price of a good dinner.
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. One hears all kinds of justifications and mental calisthenics intended to rationalize why theft is okay. It's not, and never will be.
Now, I am not sure that these ladies really understood the ramifications of what they were doing -- for all I know, it was a "fun new thing" they could do with the technologies at hand. Perhaps it was just a short hop from emailing recipes and photos of the grandkids to "sharing" copies of my friend's art.
Unfortunately, this violates not only existing laws, but the fundamental principles of fairness that form the basis of our societal agreements.
First, no matter what the justification, it is difficult to get around the fact that taking something that does not belong to you is stealing. Justifications and rationalizations do not magically transform the act into "not-theft."
The concept of "exchange" means that I do something for you, and you give me something of value in return. This is what you do at the grocery store -- trade money for groceries. The bottom line is that there is an agreed-upon exchange.
Works of art do not magically appear out of someone's wish to to be an artist. Like anyone learning a skill, trade or profession, the artist must devote time, money and effort to learn his craft and create his artworks. And then he must go out and sell them so that he can eat -- all without guarantee that he will succeed. The amount of time, effort, and sheer courage, hope and persistence this takes is probably unknown and unappreciated by all save those who are around them. This is likely what underlies the heartfelt thanks one finds in book prefaces -- because the artist appreciates those who stood by him while he was trying to get the work done.
"Art should be free." Really? If an artist wants to sell his art or give it away, it's up to him. Simply put, his efforts are not owed to the world any more than anyone else's are. We all have a right to the fruits of our work. Anything else is a form of slavery.
The fact that it is art or that he may enjoy creating it does not make it any less the product of his toil. Some people like painting in oils; others like building skyscrapers. We need both.
Nor does the fact that the artist may be making zillions of dollars a second justify theft. The artist who is "making it" had to make it happen. One doesn't decide to become an artist, then -- poof! -- you're a pro, world famous and rich too. It takes work, dedication, talent and time -- and maybe some luck.
The fact that someone can't afford (or doesn't want to afford) a piece of art does not somehow entitle him to get it for free. Nice try.
Consider the dismay an artist feels when his work is stolen ... when it becomes vividly and painfully clear that he cannot simply strive at his life's passion and receive a fair exchange for it without having to defend himself against theft (from his admirers, no less!). And if he cannot afford a battery of lawyers or doesn't want to stop what he is doing to fight for what is rightfully his, then what?
The theft of his work makes it difficult for him to earn a living. It can also interfere with his desire to continue to pursue his art.
Okay, so what? Why should we care about this one artist?
Consider the world without art ... without television, movies, radio, books, poetry, music, paintings, beautiful furnishings and cars, stylish clothing. Without everything that was designed to put any slightest aesthetic element into our lives. Without the things of beauty (or not) that communicate our culture, our reality, our values and our hopes and dreams. That is what the artist puts there, and that is what life would be like without him.
In a sense, his art is also "ours", in the sense that we are the other half of the equation: the audience. The artist communicates; we respond. We appreciate, or don't; we absorb and consider his thoughts and take them that one step further -- out into the world with us -- or we reject them. It is a dialogue, a dialogue that, as a people, forms part of our shared culture.
So art has value.
It's true that people sometimes get caught up in doing things they haven't thought out too well, and may be unaware of the full impact of what they're doing. But anyone can learn and, in so learning, can change his or her mind. So, to those of you to whom this applies, I would ask only one thing:
That you conduct yourself in the spirit of fundamental fairness that you yourself would like to be treated.
That is, that you be fair.