Hey, CEOs can steal too! Neener, neener!

After reading about the stunt that Macmillan Publishers CEO Richard Charkin pulled at a recent conference, where he briefly took two laptops from a Google booth before returning them — followed by a grade-school-style taunt about the search engine getting “a little of its own medicine” — I posted a comment on his blog. For some reason it wasn’t accepted, so I feel compelled to make the same statement here. Because that’s how I roll 🙂

snipshot_e4pt84dd8w1.jpgEven though he claims to understand the difference between the theft of physical property (a criminal matter) and the infringement of copyright (a civil offence), Mr. Charkin no doubt feels that he accomplished something with his stunt, since he got a lot of attention for his “cause” — which is to protest the scanning of books as a part of Google’s Print project, which requires that publishers opt out if they don’t want their books scanned and indexed. And yet, as Larry Lessig points out in a typically insightful breakdown of the flaws in this argument, intellectual property is in no sense the same as physical property, which is why we treat them differently under the law.

All Mr. Charkin has really done is to conflate the two — physical theft and copyright infringement — which makes it even harder for people to understand the difference, just as people talking about “coming into my house and stealing my property because I left the door unlocked” does (as former ZDNet blogger Donna Bogatin does here).

That kind of comment is based on a logical fallacy, and it doesn’t help the debate any. Mr. Charkin might as well burn a couple of houses to the ground in order to protest what he sees as errors in the federal fire code. Ars Technica has some thoughts on the subject here.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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