Most people know what stealing is. If you went into a clothes shop and came out the door later with a shirt or a blouse that you hadn’t paid for, that might seem like stealing. Trouble is, in a recent survey, about half the British residents interviewed admitted to taking something at some time from their place of work. It might have been the odd ballpoint pen, or a handful of paper-clips, but it went up to and included a laptop computer. What about the worker in a car factory who took home a small part every day. At the end of the year he had been able to build his own vehicle at home. Is that theft? Or do we secretly admire his initiative?
What about taxes? In another survey half the respondents admitted to playing down their income and beefing up their expenses when they made their annual Tax Return. That’s lying, but hey, you’re only stealing from the taxman, right? Well no, you’re actually taking from all of us, all those daft enough – or honest enough – to pay the taxes we owe and thus cover all the healthcare costs and social work that we happen to think is a useful part of our society. It’s not like finding a banknote on the street, is it? If we saw some money sliding down the gutter, well, that’s just good luck, isn’t it? It isn’t like we filled in any forms falsely or lied to anyone, if we just pick it up and run off with it, right? No? What about if you happened to be walking past my office and saw my wallet lying open on my desk? Would you feel justified in helping yourself to whatever you could find in there? I mean, it would involve strolling into the room casually and hoping that no one was there. Or that anyone else passing by noticed you being in there and thought you were acting suspiciously. And you would have to open the wallet and riffle through the private contents. That’s stealing, right? Or would you say it was all my fault for being so stupid as to leave my assets unattended in plain sight?
After all, people like ‘finding’ free things. A few nights ago, someone climbed up onto the roof of the Youth Centre near where I live and ‘found’ some strips of lead. They helped themselves and later that night, when it rained, water poured in through the open rafters and wrecked the computer room and boxing gym. It’s all bad news for the local children, losing facilities that they sorely need, but it’s not stealing is it? I’m sure the local thugs who did the deed will be excusing themselves right now and saying that ‘It’s insured’ or some such nonsense, and not worrying about the fact that it’s their younger brothers and sisters who are losing the facilities, however temporarily.
This ‘insurance’ issue raises the question: ‘Who pays?’ If it’s the taxman we don’t worry, it seems. Or maybe if it’s big corporations (especially if they are our employers), department stores, local government, the banks, insurance companies, that’s OK. But the clear fact is that someone does pay, somewhere, at some point. I’ve got a friend who was telling me proudly that he’s discovered a wonderful new hair salon where they serve free drinks while you get your hair cut. Tea, coffee, fruit juice, or mineral water, it’s your choice. I said: who pays? He laughed. ‘It’s free’, he said. Then I found out how much he paid for his coiffure, and it was double the bill I usually pay. Who paid? He did.
Now we get to the internet. For some reason, an incredible number of people expect it to be free. Why? Every email you send, every web site you visit, has been set up, programmed and built by people. Their time costs money. You expect them to work for nothing? The unusual thing about the web is that it mostly isn’t ‘big business’. Apart from the obvious software giants, it’s mainly people in garages and bedrooms, home dens and studies. Some of them are geeks, some hobbyists. Some happy to invent new stuff, work on new ideas, and give them out to the world (which is what Open Source software is all about). But if someone has spent time making something work, and you then take it for free, aren’t you stealing? If it’s their effort, then you’ve taken their energy, their resources, their inventiveness, their time. For nothing.
Ahh yes, someone pays, you agree, but it’s advertising. Web sites are flooded with small ads and links to commercial programs, so that’s what’s funding the work, you say. But who pays for ads? When I buy my tin of baked beans in my local supermarket, I know that that company has spent millions on TV ads. It means that for the price I pay, some small fraction of it is going towards the company’s advertising budget. If I buy books or toys or software on the internet, isn’t some small part of the price helping to pay for advertising it? After all, who paid for my friend’s ‘free’ cup of coffee? He did.
If you think anything is free from the internet, you’re deluding yourself, firstly. But secondly, and far worse, is the attitude that says, ‘Yeah, someone pays, but it isn’t going to be me’. Because that’s stealing, (just like taking from the taxman, or your employer, or my local Youth Centre). You want a program that will make you money, but you aren’t willing to pay for it? You want someone to teach you internet marketing, as long as nothing has to come out of your wallet? That’s a hell of a bad basis for starting to set up any kind of successful enterprise. That’s like going into the shop and seeing ‘Aunty Betty’s Cake Mix’ and thinking, ‘Okay, she invented the recipe and prepared the ingredients, but what do you mean – she isn’t going to cook it for me, for free?’ Or, just to rub the point in, she isn’t going to bake it in her oven and leave her front door open, so you can sneak in and steal the cake out of her oven, in her own house. She isn’t? She isn’t going to let you steal it from her and pay nothing? What kind of internet author is she?