Perhaps one of the reasons why intellectual property law is in such a strange state now is because of how much the sheer value a single person can steal has increased.
The most a human being has ever lifted (briefly) during Olympic weightlifting was 263.5 kg, lifted by Hossein Rezazadeh at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Right now, the price of gold is about US$1,300 an ounce for Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coins. That means the world weight lifting record (or just under 8500 Troy ounces) comprised about C$12 million worth of gold.
Compare that with the losses potentially associated with a book or DVD getting pirated early, or a pharmaceutical manufacturing process getting released to a generic drug manufacturer, and it seems clear that the value in goods that a person can now steal is substantially higher. I remember one memorable illustration of this in fiction, from Jurassic Park. In it, corporate spy Dennis Nedry tries to steal 15 dinosaur embryos, developed as the result of painstaking genetic reconstruction undertaken by his employers. He is offered something like $1.5 million for these (I don’t remember exactly how much), but they were surely worth more to both his employer and to whoever was trying to acquire them.
Lots of other pieces of fiction focus on the fate of valuable intangible commodities. For instance, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the principal thing being stolen (at considerable difficulty and loss of life) was three musical notes, which in turn served as a control on a computer system.
When people are stealing gold, or diamonds, or cattle, or DVD players there is a fairly set limit to how much they can actually make off with. Furthermore, after such thieves are caught, there is a good chance that much or all of their loot can be restored to its rightful owners. Compare that to some savvy teenager who comes across a valuable bit of information and publishes it online: the value is potentially enormous, and the scope for ‘setting things right’ pretty much non-existent. Of course, locking up grandmothers whose computers have been used to download a Lady Gaga song or two isn’t a sensible thing to do, regardless.