Angry Nerds: Copyright Theft Is Bad, When It Happens To People We Like

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on January 28, 2012

From The News Desk

Well, it's all kicking off between Curebit and 37 Signals. As originally reported by VentureBeat, Curebit -- a self-described "Social Referral Platform" -- was caught using chunks of code (and some images) sourced from 37 Signals' HighRise product.

37 Signals' David Heinemeier Hansson didn't hold back in calling out Curebit for the misappropriation, tweeting that they were “fucking scumbags”. In response, Curebit's Allan Grant insisted that the stolen code was only used for some "quick and dirty" A/B testing. Which, of course, would make everything fine.

What's interesting, though, isn't that some developers plagiarized some stuff from some other developers. What's interesting is the overwhelmingly hostile response to the theft from the wider tech community.

Do a quick search on Twitter for Curebit and behold at the self-righteous rage at the original crime and the extremely grudging acceptance of the inevitable apology. The last time we saw this kind of outpouring of rage amongst tech people was when -- uh -- the government tried to clamp down on copyright theft.

SOPA was a bad law, and good riddance to it. But consider the tenor of the conversation around Hollywood, cable TV and intellectual property in general right now. The prevailing view, outside of Hollywood, seems to be that IP creators need to accept that copying is here to stay and that criminalising a "victimless" activity is stupid. Make it easy for us to pay for stuff and we won't have to steal it.

And yet when the victim isn't a big evil Hollywood mogul (or one of the tens of thousands of people who work for him) but one of our own... well, then IP thieves should be dragged through the streets until they tearfully apologise. What's the difference?

Is it, as some argued on Twitter when I asked the question earlier, that plagiarism is different from copyright theft? No. And not least because plagiarism is copyright theft. Like most copyright theft, plagiarism doesn't deprive the creator of their original work and is usually committed by someone who is too lazy or cheap to acquire or create something legally. The only real difference is that in plagiarism the infringer is usually pretending to be the creator of someone else's work. But the right to be identified as the creator of the work is a so-called "moral right" which, in most jurisdictions (and under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works), is part and parcel of copyright.

So, good for David Heinemeier Hansson for taking a stand in defending his company's work against intellectual property thieves. Just because something is easy to copy, and doesn't directly deprive the creator of their property, doesn't mean it's yours to take. But shame on anyone who called for Curebit's head on a spike while simultaneously arguing that Hollywood should be "killed" for wanting to vigorously defend its rights.

Wrong is wrong, not just when it's done to us and our friends.