Treat Digital Property the Same As Any Other Property

Published November 1, 2004

Many believe that because you can download music, movies, and software from the Internet so quickly and easily, those things are somehow different from other property–simply there for the taking. Such digital property, however, is no different from any other human creation that requires ingenuity and labor.

The framers of our Constitution made clear that all property, whether tangible or intangible, is deserving of protection. They accorded intellectual property special protection.

Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress “[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Our country’s strong commitment to property rights protection and our free-market economy fuels the innovation that brought about the “digital age” in the first place. Knowing they have the right to profit from the fruits of their own creations, inventors and investors alike can take the risk of creating and investing in new things.

The current threat of rampant piracy does not require that digital property be treated differently from physical property. Because we claim ownership to both kinds of property, stealing, damaging, or destroying either kind of property is a crime. The best way to protect digital property, then, is to begin treating it as any other form of property. Just as store owners must actively prevent items from being shoplifted off their shelves, owners of digital property must actively protect what is theirs.

Many companies already have stepped up to the plate with creative solutions to the problem of digital piracy. A number of companies have introduced services where music and movies can be downloaded legitimately from the Internet, including Apple’s iTunes Music Store, MusicNet for AOL, CinemaNow, and Netflix. Other companies are developing encryption and other kinds of software to protect against illegal copying. These innovations are occurring because there is a competitive market for them.

The best way to ensure the protection of our digital property is to take responsibility in our own hands and to encourage the market to keep producing better and better forms of protection. As our country’s founders made clear, the concept of protecting our property rights is not new–even if the kind of property we are protecting is.

Nancie G. Marzulla ([email protected]) is president of the Washington, DC-based Defenders of Property Rights, a national public interest legal foundation dedicated exclusively to protecting property rights.