Law and literacy

Why do people lose perspective as soon as a matter concerns the law?

Today’s Internet example comes from Gizmodo’s article about a “ballsy teen who sold his own authentic white iphones.”  Essentially, some kid figured out the Original Equipment Manufacturer for the next-gen iphone parts, batch ordered a bunch, then resold them for people who wanted next-gen iphone hardware ahead of release.  Apple sued him, but has now dropped their lawsuit following his offer to settle out of court.

Is that questionably legal?  Sure.  But is it theft?  People persist in deliberately misusing the concept of theft: downloading TV shows, previewing comics, and getting backup copies of music they actually own may or may not be copyright violations, but never are they theft.

Theft is the illegal acquisition of a good (without consideration) and also the disappearance of that good from its original owner, who loses its use.  Of course, the distinction with downloading is that no good has gone missing. In the mock iPod case, there are physical goods, but there was also consideration: money changed hands.  Furthermore, the goods did not come from Apple. Most likely the OEM was contractually obligated to not sell those goods ahead of time, but that is hardly the kid’s problem: he has no legal duty to enforce or abide by contracts that do not concern him.

This is not a merely academic distinction: copyright violation is a civil offense, which essentially means that money was not given to the right people or in the proper way.  On the other hand, theft is a criminal offense, a more serious matter.

Live N Learn commented:

They are Apples design and Apple has not ALLOWED anyone to sell them. That is the very definition of theft.

But see, the design is not the material object.  As most first-year art students learn, my vision of a pipe in my head is not a pipe.  It is only a representation of a pipe, or in the manufacturing industry, perhaps a plan for a pipe.  No matter how detailed or realistic these plans are, without physical substance, there can be no theft involved – only unauthorized copying.  Even if Apple did not permit anyone to buy or sell items with their design, at no point would violating that constitute theft.

Further, this kid bought the items in question.  Now, since there is no theft involved, there can’t possibly be a coherent legal argument that this kid is trafficking in stolen goods.

The commenter rnoyfb took another tack, resorting to a law dictionary, and going back and forth with Live N Learn:

«”1. The felonious taking and removing of another’s personal property with the intent of depriving the true owner of it. ”

What part of that are you not understanding? Those parts belong to Apple and they are in HIS HANDS without their permission.

Again, the very definition of theft.»

There is nothing to substantiate that Apple already had these parts. (In fact, Apple doesn’t assemble them; until they order parts to have on hand for repair, there is no reason for Apple to have had individual parts yet.) If your accusation is that a Foxconn worker stole them from the company, that is certainly plausible, but someone that has never had the object in question cannot have had it taken from him.

Live N learn replied:

That is not true at all. If you understood the manufacturing business you would know different. We make product for Apple. We are contracted by Apple to make those products. We are, in every essence, working for Apple. Everything we make for Apple is owned by Apple. We have no rights to the created material. We can not sell it off as we wish, we can distribute it, we have no rights to the product.

I suspect there’s a major chuck of the chain of command you’re missing.

Wow.  So if I work for a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, and they make some raw materials that go to Union Carbide, and those are made into plastics which then go to some factory in China that produces iPod parts for Apple, am I then also working for Apple?  If a butterfly in Africa flutters its wings, and that causes an animal to sneeze, setting off a stampede, which pushes dust into the air, which serves as nucleation sites for rain, causing a storm, which drives global weather patterns, resulting in more water at a hydroelectric dam in California, which supplies power to an Apple corporate office, is that butterfly working for Apple?  Where does it end?

The answer, of course, is that you are only an Apple employee if your contract is with Apple.  It might feel like you are working for Apple, especially if you are working for Acme Inc. and they sell 99%+ of their product to Apple, but that is an illusion in your mind with no legal basis unless your employment is personally with Apple.  Acme Inc. having a contract with Apple to sell them parts does not make Apple your employer.

Even in a case where Urban Outfitters rips off an artist, down to the concept, design, and product name, the artist has no legal ownership of the physically existing fake goods.  They aren’t her materials or her property.  Rather, they are goods produced in violation of her intellectual property rights.

We live in a world ruled by laws and driven, at its highest tiers, by litigation. We should really try to get our unsubtle legal distinctions straight.


The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That Urban Outfitters story has already been debunked, even though the general public is too stupid and self-righteous to realize it:

    • Interesting. Certainly the idea that UO is committing fraud in that particular case is debunked if those screenshots are accurate (and I have no reason to believe they aren’t.)

      But given the plausibility of such business practices, and the fact that large companies often do take advantage of smaller creators in a similar fashion, I’m not sure I would call it stupid of people to believe it. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that the author, while mistaken, genuinely believed as of posting that she had the idea first. In such a case, is it self-righteous or merely sympathetic to try to help her?

      Rather, where I think people fail utterly is the part where they act as though copyright violation is precisely equal to theft. Theft is a far more serious matter, and as this example shows, sometimes in copyvio cases the infringements are mistakes or not even infringements.

  2. FYI: generally buying stolen parts is illegal. Especially if you know the parts were stolen.

    That kid selling iPhone mods bought those parts from some source in which got those parts without their owner’s permission. Sounds to me in the end the kid was making a buck because precisely he was making/selling stolen goods.

    • There is no particular reason to believe they are stolen, though. He bought them directly from a Chinese factory that actually produces the things. How does he know whether they do or don’t owe 100% of their output to Apple? We only know a few sketchy details of an Apple contract now because some commenter divulged the details of his own contract with Apple, after the fact.

      The kid was making money because he avoided the markup from Apple and all its middlemen taking their cut. Buying Original Equipment Manufacturer parts will save lots of money and no theft has to happen for that to be true. There’s a lot of trade in OEM goods and it’s perfectly legal, if irritating to the American brands. For example: Harley Davidson leather jackets are made by a factory in Asia; you can buy the jackets much cheaper without the Harley Davidson brand and they are just as good at keeping you warm, if you don’t mind not having the brand logo.

      You must not be familiar with buying OEM goods. If you’re aware of the trade and the tremendous price disparity inherent in it then there’s no reason to gravitate towards thinking anything is stolen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: