How old is the use of “steal” for non-rival goods?

In the debate on copyright, there is a long-time discussion on the appropriateness of the word steal to refer to “make a copy of a non-rival good”; see for instance this article, or this essay.

How old is the usage of the word “steal” in English with this meaning? Is it something that was widespread at the time of Shakespeare or Dickens, or is it mostly modern usage? If so, which is the earliest use of the term?


When I wrote this preface I thought it was an interesting aside

“My own family were involved in a 6th century battle where many were killed over copyright of just one copy, since we spoke Erse and wrote Latin I will just link a mention to the battle of Cul Dremhne A.D. 561 but in context the economic cost was rival just the same as the mortalities were.”

However It seems that events on this thread have made it more pertinent, without going into parallels, I was trying to show that civil battles can ensue when another persons arrangements are regenerated as a variant without authorisation. In some but not all cases this is labled plagiarism. The crux in some cases is that there may be no intent to deprive the author of attribution but an impact ensues. This was often the case throughout history until we agreed an across the board common ruling that to impact the value of authorship is to cause distress whatever the form (monetary or not). Modern technology has allowed opportunists to hide behind a question of value. “It is not stealing if it does no harm, is it?”
I have seen “but in our country we do not need to comply”, I think they have not read their laws, or read into them what they wish to see. In all countries ignorance is no defence.

I will leave the rest of my answer as it stood, just simply pointing out that the act in the conclusion attempted to address all the battles across the millennia before. However it still leaves loopholes that may distress many an author or their descendants whether familial or financial.

Book cover: steal this book, by Abbie Hoffman
Licensed under Fair Use
“Never call it stealing though, always refer to it as “research and development.”

From the quoted article most intellectual property is non-rival.“Non-rival” as a term seems to have originated in late 1980’s so I don’t think the relational use of steal can be applied before then no mater how much it was common practice to record radio on tape or photocopy pages for a handout.

Equally Steal is a modern word coming from middle dutch though could have been “stehlen” when used by the Father of the printing press. Certainly Gutenberg was sued for many a broken promise. He could be attributed the cause of this discussion since the lowered cost of duplicating others works potentially rests on his shoulders although his work in turn was based on a Korean concept from 1234 AD (wood) through to 1377 AD (metal). It is ironic that Gutenberg was paranoid about others stealing his ideas but seems not to have considered his works as depriving others of their living. Note it was reportedly Fust that bankrolled and owned the press.

Theft and to steal in English law only apply to tangible goods (rival), so again we have to shift the above terms to another concept to discuss copying or purloining others ideas in a non-rival sense.

The best historic concept of intellectual property (IP) theft can be attributed to plagiarisms which were debatably “rivalrous” perhaps since a concept of “non-rival” was not prior art. In roman times writing was “rival” since the salarium of calligraphi was very high per duplicate, but it could be argued Poetry was “non-rivalous” as it was negligable cost for rivals to note and orate others words.

Certainly in his day Shakespeare was accused of IP theft of stealing food from others mouths on countless occasions, both by his non-rivals and
his rival Nashe. Plagiarism is well documented going back thousands of years 1

Vitruvius (257–180 B.C.E.) is said to have revealed intellectual property theft during a literary contest in Alexandria. While serving as judge in the contest, Vitruvius exposed the false poets who were then tried, convicted, and disgraced for stealing the words and phrases of others.

Certainly at the time of the commandments we have Thou shalt not steal and from the corresponding Seven Laws of Noah was interpreted as “Thou shalt not kidnap”, aligning with Martial’s view when he coined the literary form thou shalt not “plagiarus”

1 Martial used the latin word “plagiarus” to describe a seemingly unnamed literary thief. The term previously had meant “kidnap” and it specifically related to either the kidnapping of one’s slaves or to take a free person and make them into a slave. Others have depicted the plagiarist as somebody who “shines in stolen plumes.” and Green a contemporary playwriter of Shakespeare implied that the bard was “beautified with our feathers” using the everyday verb steal is irregular for a wordsmith who used a feather quill for his craft.

“Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine.”
See my source copy, oops 🙂. “in which Martial accuses Fidentius of stealing other poems” however that is a modern writers interpretation of latin.

Conclusion @HotLicks implies we need to stop later since steal can only be inferred as illegal after The British Statute of Anne 1710, full title “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”, was the first copyright statute, in terms of the OP question I would have to concur although there were prior enforeable contracts about stolen copyright.

Source : Link , Question Author : Federico Poloni , Answer Author : K J

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