No, illegal file-sharing is not theft

Matt Yglesias seems to have gotten himself into a debate about whether illegal file-sharing is stealing. And he’s absolutely right: it’s not theft.

As in the debate about whether corporations are persons, I think it’s important to understand that words have meaning.

One of the cool things about France’s civil law system is that it places a premium on defining things precisely, and thus I’ve never seen a better definition of “theft” than that of the French Penal Code: the fraudulent subtraction of another person’s property.

The word “subtraction” here, of course, is key. To steal something is to fraudulently subtract from their property. With file sharing, of course, no subtraction occurs, since the file is copied.

And under French law, illegal file sharing falls under the rubric of counterfeiting, which I think is accurate. If you create a false document, you are not stealing anything from anyone, but you are fraudulently impinging on legal rights.