How much can one person steal?


in Economics, Geek stuff, Law, Politics, Security

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.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. August 26, 2010 at 11:00 am

In most periods of history, it has probably been possible to kidnap somebody worth more than 263.5 kg of gold.

There are also more valuable materials: platinum, iridium, and (at one time) even aluminum.

Byron Smith August 26, 2010 at 11:19 am

Of course, there are still all kinds of physical goods worth well over their weight in gold: platinum, US$50 & $100 bills (and presumably the higher denominations of various other currencies – £100 notes for instance), rhodium, high quality diamonds. However, there is one thing that blows the rest of the competition out of the water.

Milan August 26, 2010 at 11:22 am


I agree that there are more valuable things than gold – and the hostage example is an interesting one. Still, I think there is some truth to the notion that a person can ‘steal’ more now than ever before, at least if you consider intellectual property ‘theft’ to be equivalent to the common garden variety.

Byron Smith August 26, 2010 at 11:25 am

OK, reading some of the comments there, even that gets beaten.

Byron Smith August 26, 2010 at 11:26 am

Yes, it’s a good point. It just made me wonder “what is the most valuable physical substance by mass?”

Milan August 26, 2010 at 11:33 am

I was surprised to see that human blood is worth as much per unit mass as silver. If Canadian Blood Services paid a good fraction of that, they would get more donations.

Of course, ‘value’ doesn’t have an unambiguous meaning. The value of any particular thing depends on whose perspective we are considering, and what kinds of expressions of value we are willing to take into consideration. We consider it more meaningful when a billionaire offers 100 million dollars for someone to find a cure for their disease, but it is arguably just as significant that a poor person with the disease would pay that much if they had it.

Also, something like a thin slice of the nerves in my spinal column (without which I would be paralyzed) is enormously personally valuable to me, but less so to other people I know, and even less so for society at large.

Byron Smith August 26, 2010 at 11:37 am

Yes, some good examples.

This article was also interesting. How much does the internet weigh? (though that is a very different question to your post: how much can one person steal?)

Personally, I don’t think that buying blood is a good idea, even though I realise there are significant shortages. I think the reasons that the sale of human tissue is generally illegal are good ones.

Milan August 26, 2010 at 11:40 am

Only Carmen Sandiego could possibly steal the internet, and she has never been hampered by the mass of her loot.

I agree that there are important practical and ethical issues to consider, when it comes to selling things like tissues, organs, and surrogate womb space. That being said, there would certainly be a lot more blood donations if they would give you even half the weight of your donation as silver, in compensation. Indeed, it would probably cause so many donations that the price of blood would plummet. A ‘blood glut’ is probably not something anybody wants.

alena August 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm

How about eternal youth?

R.K. August 26, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Mythical objects are in a whole other category.

The One Ring, the Fountain of Youth, magical objects, etc.

Tristan August 26, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I’m not sure if “stealing” is the right concept to use in cases where IP is made public to the detriment of the “rightful owner” of the IP. This making public does not result in a gain for the “thief”. It’s probably better conceived as something like vandalism.

Milan August 26, 2010 at 2:06 pm

In many cases, it does result in a gain.

When someone produces a pirated video game or DVD, they can keep it themselves (saving the retail cost) or sell it.

Corporate espionage can certainly be lucrative for the people who steal secrets, as well as for the people who buy them.

Milan August 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

From someone who I met who works in military security, I heard that on Air France planes, there are microphones and video cameras hidden in business class, able to monitor what is happening in each seat. These are used for industrial espionage by the French government, when businesspeople from other countries are traveling.

Tristan August 26, 2010 at 3:13 pm

“When someone produces a pirated video game or DVD, they can keep it themselves (saving the retail cost) or sell it.”

Ok, but then you are talking about a pretty trivial amount of money. Perhaps at most someone could steal a few thousand, or in a really extreme case, ten thousand dollars worth of software or artistic content that one could actually use. Comparing this to the amount of gold someone can lift seems uninteresting.

Of course, if one were able to pirate the content profitably, then that is another matter entirely.

As for industrial espionage, this also seems poorly grasped by the concept of IP theft, because it is not defined by the fact that the stolen thought was intellectual property, but that it was a “secret”.

Matt August 26, 2010 at 3:18 pm

The Air France thing seems like an extremely dubious claim. It would require a private company (Air France/KLM) to be complicit in spying on its customers in international locations which would be extremely illegal. It would also involve carrying equipment to facilitate the spying which would need to be kept secret from the general public. It would thus require the entire maintenance staff (and probably more) of Air France/KLM to keep quiet about it.

. August 26, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Air France Denies Spying on Travelers
Published: September 14, 1991

PARIS— Air France, denying an allegation reported by NBC News that it helped France’s spy agency garner corporate secrets, said Friday that it had never bugged its passengers or knowingly hired French intelligence officers as crew members.

“It is quite absurd to think we would put microphones in our seats,” a spokesman for the state-owned airline said. “We categorically deny the charge that we have ever spied on our passengers.”

“We have no knowledge that any of our staff belonged to the secret service,” he added.

The allegation was part of a documentary news program broadcast on Friday in the United States in which Pierre Marion, the former French secret service chief, confirmed earlier news reports that France’s General Directorate of External Security carried out a spying operation against U.S. high-technology corporations and their executives.

But Mr. Marion, interviewed Friday on French radio, denied the specific NBC News allegation against Air France, which was attributed to unnamed American intelligence experts and a private specialist in industrial espionage.

The French Foreign Ministry refused to comment on the report.

A representative of the NBC News program, “Exposé,” said the network stood by its story in its entirety. It said the spying was part of “an elaborate industrial espionage campaign run by the French secret service.”

Mr. Marion, who was appointed to head the French secret service in 1981 by President François Mitterrand, acknowledged that France spied on American companies, including IBM, Texas Instruments and Corning, that were involved in competition with French state-owned enterprises.

BuddyRich August 27, 2010 at 7:20 am

Not that I am defending IP or Copyright infringement, but stealing a physical object is different than IP infringement based on the fact that if you steal a physical object you deprive its rightful owner of its use, while IP and/or copyright doesn’t.

I mean take an extreme case like Pharmaceutical IP theft. Sure the valuation of the IP could/will take a hit, but at the end of the day, the original company could still try to compete with the generic company and be profitable doing so (just less so without its artificial monopoly). No one has deprived from them the means to do so, while if someone steals my bike I can no longer ride it.

Copyright is even more murky because the types of works protected are less likely to be passed off as one’s own and sold, at least the IP that is on the internet. Is the fact that I downloaded a Lady Gaga track a lost sale for the copy? Would I buy it if I had to pay, even a nominal .99 fee like from itunes. People are hard hard-wired to do irrational things when the cost of something is zero, even if that zero involves infringing on IP.

Tristan August 27, 2010 at 1:24 pm

The idea of “intellectual property” is dumb because property comes from contracts between individuals, but intellectual property comes from specific rights granted by the state. The notion of intellectual property is incoherent without a central state. It would make more sense to call what we now call IP, something like “intellectual rights” or “intellectual privileges”.

Matt August 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Regarding the news article about Air France spying:

The alleged spying would now have occurred over twenty years ago. I think it would be impractical for Air France to spy with their current setup. Air France airplanes aren’t universally maintained inside of France; what if a mechanic spotted the surveillance equipment?

Milan August 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm

It is certainly possible that they have stopped – or that they never did it in the first place.

It would be interesting to know why Pierre Marion and others made the allegation in the first place.

Neal August 27, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I mostly agree with Tristan here. While copyright and patent infringement is often referred to as stealing, I find this inappropriate. Theft is distinct from IP infringement, and the law recognizes this. We should also recognize this distinction when speaking about this subject. I also object to the blanket term “intellectual property rights” because, as Tristan notes, copyright and patent law is a creation of the state that primarily serves to restrain the behavior of private actors. Not only this, but the impetus for these laws is the promotion of a desirable public good: innovation. The state grants producers of creative works temporary (or “temporary” in the case of modern copyright) injunctions that allow them to enforce a monopoly over the duplication of their works, not because they have a right to it, but because it is believed that this is the most effective way to foster a desirable public good. “Rights” and “property” strike me as inappropriate ways to characterize state-enforced temporary monopolies granted in order to promote innovation.

I do, however, think the rubric of rights is appropriate in non-commercial contexts regarding creative works. In European civil law, there is a distinction in copyright between moral rights and economic rights. Canadian law also contains this distinction. §14.1 of the Canadian Copyright Act states: “The author of a work has, subject to section 28.2, the right to the integrity of the work and, in connection with an act mentioned in section 3, the right, where reasonable in the circumstances, to be associated with the work as its author by name or under a pseudonym and the right to remain anonymous.” I believe these are appropriately characterized as the rights of producers of creative works. Other provisions of copyright law I believe should be more fairly characterized as temporary economic privileges granted to authors and inventors to further socially desirable ends.

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