In the Battle of the Ecosystems, No One Wins

While I was excited today at some of the announcements Google made at I/O, I was also troubled: there was an awful lot of Google Play, which is fine, but the Nexus Q announcement just left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a product that has cool use, but the only demonstrated use of that product is in Google’s closed Play ecosystem, a tactic that smells entirely too much like Apple.

The traditionally held dynamic is that in a competitive market, the consumer wins. Competitors force each other to innovate and also force prices low. The problem is when the competition is between large, closed ecosystems involving multimedia content, the consumer will always lose. Google may make more of an effort to make their content available cross-platform than Apple does, but at the end of the day Play is just another iTunes store. I want to see better from Google.

Closed ecosystems gain enormous inertia as consumers begin to “buy in” to them. The more purchased media I have on (iTunes/Google Play) the less appealing and more cumbersome a switch to another ecosystem becomes. This inertia counterbalances normal competitive forces allowing for effective lock-in of customers without the need to continually court and re-convince customers to stick around. This is basically Apple’s whole business model, but it isn’t sustainable forever.

Apple’s domination of the digital content space is going to come to an end, and it isn’t going to be ended by a competitor that, for all intents and purposes, is identical. It’s going to be ended by Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, and other subscription services that challenge the very nature of traditional content distribution. Simply put, I don’t ever want to buy another movie, song, or book. I want access to everything, all the time, legally and with enough flexibility to do so when and how I wish. We have the technology, we just lack the right set of licensing agreements.

If Google wants to eat Apple’s lunch it shouldn’t be announcing the fact that you can now buy DRM’ed movies in Google’s store just like you can in Apple’s. It should announce a partnership with Netflix and Spotify that lets you subscribe to both services with a single bill. It should make its Nexus Q so seamlessly compatible with popular subscription services that Apple TV seems like a joke.

I’m sick of walled-off ecosystems. I will never, ever “purchase” content that I can’t freely reformat and redistribute in whatever way I see fit. Subscriptions at least offer me a middle ground: in exchange for giving up complete freedom over my viewing experience, I pay a small amount for access to huge libraries of content. That’s the future, and that’s where I will be from now until everyone else agrees with me. In the battle of the ecosystems, the first one that draws a line in the sand and says “no” to traditional distributions will be the real winner.


The Why of Zero Tolerance

In the past couple of days the developer sphere has been ablaze with fury over sexism. Two days ago, startup Sqoot made a carelessly sexist statement in an event description. As a result, a number of high-profile sponsors including Heroku immediately pulled out of the event and a minitornado of fury was directed at the fledgling company.

Today, ire is building over the actions of the founders of Geeklist after someone pointed out the sexist nature of a video that was posted with their branding. I’ve yet to see how this one is going to turn out, but I’ll tell you what I did personally: I tweeted at them to disable my private beta account and let them know that it was because of the emerging story.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized just how much of an opportunity the development community has. We have long suffered from a terrible lack of gender diversity. This lack of diversity is an incredibly complex subject and I can’t begin to understand all of the contributing factors; however, the casually sexist and man-culture attitude assumed by developers certainly isn’t helping things. This issue has been slowly heating up in the past months (even years) and I think it’s finally at a boiling-over point. The furor in the past few days paints a picture of a developer community with an emerging zero tolerance policy for sexism.

But, you might say, aren’t we getting a bit extreme here? Sure Sqoot did something careless, but wasn’t the response a bit disproportional? Yes, and that’s exactly the point. A zero tolerance policy is not about the specific cases, it’s about changing the behavior of a group as a whole. If we as a community make the punishment for even casual sexism swift and incredibly harsh, we will change behavior. A simple complaint is likely to make a specific person or company think twice about behavior (although it seems less clear that this is the case with Geeklist), but an internet firestorm that results in a measurable impact (lost sponsors, lost users)? That has the power to affect the whole community. People who see these acts even from the sidelines will think about how little they want to be in the shoes of Geeklist and Sqoot and, as they interact with the community, they will be a little more mindful not to make the same mistakes.

I’m not advocating political correctness, and I think that women are (chauvinistically) painted as being oversensitive and needing to be treated with kid gloves. I love that we can say fuck in our talks when we feel like it and I don’t want to see that change. Far more harmful is language that, without ever swearing, simply assumes that women aren’t a part of this community. Until we can purge that completely from our behavior we can’t honestly say that we are doing all that we can to encourage women to join us. I’m committed to that outcome, and I think that more and more we all are.


LocalStorage? IndexedDB? What we need is Redis for the browser.

After Mozilla’s hacks blog posted an article about how localStorage is too slow and someone else said localStorage is just fine it reminded me of how frustrated I’ve been at the various proposed “solutions” for an in-browser persistence engine. It is completely ridiculous to think it reasonable to have a schema-driven store in the browser. Schema-driven stores work on the server side because engineers can run data migrations and control the flow of data. Browsers are distributed and stateless, there’s no “migration” pattern except one that is roughly lashed on using ugly Javascript conditionals.

At the same time, localStorage simply isn’t enough (though it’s better than schema stores). A pure key value store works for lots of cases but is going to slow down and cause problems with any kind of complex structuring. So what is the solution? I think a document store could make sense: it’s schemaless, simple, and you could write simple querying semantics for it. Maybe a subset of MongoDB’s functionality. But you know what would be perfect? Having Redis in the browser.

Redis gives you a simple key value store with some simple but powerful data structures on top. The interface is dead simple, the values stored are just strings (like localStorage) but with sets, ordered sets, and lists you can implement powerful (and fast) complex logic for an application.

I’m not saying that Redis should literally be ported to the browser as an engine, but I do think that the ideal in-browser store would look almost exactly like Redis. It would be able to set values on keys, have them expire, add values to lists and sets and generally be a “key value store and a little bit more.” Implementation-wise I would imagine that this would be an in-memory store that had the ability (but not the necessity) of flushing to the disk.

Here’s the reasons it would work:

  1. Straightforward API: No complex schema migrations, just a simple API that can be used to accomplish powerful things.
  2. Small Footprint: Redis, for all its awesomeness, has a very small footprint in terms of complexity of implementation. I believe that something akin to Redis could be taken down the standards path because, unlike WebSQL, it is simple enough for each browser vendor to implement independently.
  3. Just Enough Power: SQL is overkill for an in-browser storage layer. Similarly, a document store would be nice to have but would also be overkill for the 95% use case. Redis gives you a simple key value store that can do just enough to cover almost everyone almost all the time.

So Mozilla, Google, Opera (heck, even Microsoft) if you’re looking for an example of a storage API that would match the web browser perfectly, look no further than Redis.


So Fantastic It’s Double Fine

Today is the day that I stand in awe of the internet and the wonderful things it can do. My particular amazement is directed at the fact that yesterday Tim Schafer (a famous adventure game designer and creator of amazing things like Psychonauts and Day of the Tentacle) created a Kickstarter project to fund a new adventure game with an ambitious funding level of $400,000. Eight hours later, he met his goal. As of the time I’m writing this, the project is at $554,000.

Think about that. In eight hours the internet came together to contribute more than half a million dollars to create an original video game. Whether or not you believe that video games are a worthwhile expenditure of money the ramifications of what just happened are staggering. As a technologist fed up with the status quo of the content industry, this is a shining beacon of where things are going.

In the future it won’t be record labels and media conglomerates deciding what is worth our time and money. It will be the creators themselves convincing us directly that they are worthwhile, that they deserve a shot. I’m a proud supporter of Tim Schafer’s game and I intend to do a lot more investing in Kickstarter projects moving forward. It’s the most honest and amazing way of raising capital that I can imagine.

On the same note, everyone should contact their Senators to support H.R. 2930, the crowdfunding bill that would allow ordinary people to invest money into startup businesses for real equity. It’s currently stalled in the Senate and getting bogged down with needless extra regulation, so some action is needed to get this thing into law!

The Innovator and the Inhibitor

Two little girls, Holly and Ivy, start lemonade stands in their neighborhoods one summer. Each has about the same foot traffic and each begins by selling lemonade at 25 cents. They do this for several days and, to their surprise they’re making more than $20 a day with their lemonade enterprise. Wow!

Other kids in the neighborhood hear about how much money Holly and Ivy have been making and decide to open their own lemonade stands…and this is where things start to diverge. Holly and Ivy’s next door neighbors both open their own lemonade stands and sell lemonade for the same price as Holly and Ivy. With the new competition, that day Holly and Ivy each only make $10.

Ivy spends the evening thinking about the new competition, and resolves that she will just have to make her lemonade stand the best one it can be. The next day she offers pink lemonade and real lemon wedges to her customers. This, along with the fact that her neighbors have been buying from her for days already and she makes $18 that day. As it turns out, she’s particularly adept at making pink lemonade (even better than classic) and it’s a huge hit. The next day she finds herself swamped with business because her neighbors all told each other how delicious the pink lemonade Ivy makes is. She makes $30 in one day, a new record!

Holly spends the evening talking to her mother, who is very well connected in the neighborhood. She tells her mother that it’s not fair that Billy next door opened a lemonade stand because she had the idea first. Holly’s mom calls Billy’s mom and asks her to tell Billy not to sell lemonade anymore. Billy’s mom, a bit confused, agrees because she doesn’t really want to have to buy lemons anyway. The next day Holly is once again the only lemonade stand in the neighborhood and is back to making $20 a day. Life is good.

Ivy is so successful with her pink lemonade that her neighbor copies her recipe and, in addition, three more people open lemonade stands in the same neighborhood. “Wow,” she thinks, “I’m going to have to really do a good job to keep all of my customers with all this competition.” So she tries lots of ideas: she starts selling cookies along with the lemonade, she hand-draws little cards that give someone a free lemonade for buying five and uses her mom’s hole-punch to keep track. She’s a friendly little girl and while the other kids in the neighborhood are making a little bit of money selling lemonade (and copying her every move), Ivy’s house has become something of a neighborhood gathering point. People come just to stand and talk about the day, all the while buying cookies and lemonade. It gets so popular that Ivy has to enlist some of the other neighborhood children to help her make enough lemonade and cookies to satisfy demand. Ivy is now making more than $100 a day, and three other kids in the neighborhood are making $30 a day helping her.

Other kids keep opening lemonade stands in Holly’s neighborhood too, but each time she tells her mother that it isn’t fair and her well-connected but a bit overprotective mother dutifully calls and asks the parents of the other children not to sell lemonade: that’s Holly’s thing. The other parents are starting to grumble a bit…Holly’s mom has been a good friend but isn’t it a little ridiculous that their children can’t sell lemonade just because Holly is stamping her feet and throwing a tantrum? Holly’s sales begin to dip as the parents (who are also Holly’s customers) get fed up with this entitled little girl.

As the weather cools from the hottest part of summer, the demand for lemonade starts dropping. Ivy has proven herself a consummate innovator and begins offering coffee and hot chocolate in addition to her cold beverages. Holly gets angrier and angrier that her profits are dipping and now her mother is calling in favors with neighbors to get them to come buy Holly’s lemonade. This can only go so far, and Holly’s sales dwindle down to almost nothing. Now she just asks her mother to pay her $20 a day directly to buy lemonade because it’s not fair that people don’t want to buy it anymore. Her mother, finally fed up, says “Holly it’s November, no one wants to buy lemonade. Go find another game to play.” Holly is shocked at the audacity of her mother’s statement and stamps off to her room, throwing herself on her bed and locking the door. Holly’s mother feels a fleeting moment of guilt for being hard on her daughter, but is more relieved just to have some peace and quiet around the house for once.

Which little girl would you rather be friends with?

If Government Embraced Technology…

As an entrepreneurial software developer, I don’t usually look to the government to solve problems for me. Instead I usually try to think of ways to solve the problem (or start a business to solve the problem) myself. Sometimes, though, I stop to think about what it would be like if the government truly embraced and understood technology the way I do. Here are three big changes that might come about from such a government.

Digital Currency

Physical currency’s days are numbered. It may be some time yet before we truly replace it, but the time has come to build the systems that will eventually supplant it. The government should create a system of digital currency that would include at least these features:

  1. Peer-to-Peer Transfer: Any digital currency must obviously be as transferrable as real currency is now, both between individuals and from an individual to a business.
  2. Not Device-Locked: Digital currency should not be tied to some specific “card” or device except as a convenience of transfer (such as a gift). I should be able to lose my wallet without losing my digital cash.
  3. Anonymous Transactions: Digital currency should retain the same level of anonymity as physical currency. I should be able to buy something without it being tied to an account or the destination of my funds recorded. Any kind of “tracking” of specific digital currency must only happen after court order (if at all).
  4. Online and Offline: Digital currency should be simple to use both in person and online.

The impact of digital currency would mean an immediate boost for peer-to-peer economies that are already developing online. If everything from Etsy to eBay could be paid for in cash instead of through an intermediary the growth of individual power in the marketplace would be greatly increased, something that I think is vital to our economic future. I’m guessing that many of the ideas surrounding Bitcoin could be used for “official” digital currency.

This would also negatively affect a number of large companies. Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, and a number of players small and large would have to drastically alter their business models to cope with a convenient, universal digital currency. Since digital currency is (in my opinion) inevitable, this is not reason enough to abandon the concept but instead a warning that there will likely be lobbying interests trying to stop such a move.

Phase Out Physical Addresses

The Post Office is struggling, and plenty of people say it shouldn’t exist at all any more. I’ll avoid weighing in on that, but one thing that should exist is a central registry that maps people and businesses to physical locations without the need for physical addresses. I would propose that the identifier should be an email and the system could work like so:

  1. The system should be entirely opt-in and completed via some kind of online form.
  2. I should be able to map multiple email addresses to my account and specify privacy options for each. This could include the ability to reject mail from unapproved senders or get emails to approve/deny the delivery of mail.
  3. When I mail something, all I have to do is write the email address and affix a stamp. I can just write my own email address for the return address, or I can buy verified stamps associated to my own email address. This way someone can know that the message is actually from me.
  4. There should be publicly available APIs to allow businesses to check if an email address is associated to a physical one and what the privacy policy is for that email. This way Amazon.com can check if my email is associated to an address and, if it’s not, have me do so.
  5. There should be special APIs that can be accessed only by delivery companies such as UPS and Fedex that actually allow dereferencing an email address to a physical address. Usage of these APIs should be tightly restricted and regulated to prevent abuse.

The impact of this would be to drastically increase the ease and convenience of sending physical packages and mail. It would also encourage a whole new industry of startups based around the ease with which delivering physical mail would be handled. It would also ease the frustration of changing address, since people are now mailing things to you, not you at some specific address.

Negative impacts mostly center around the privacy dangers of having identity-based physical mail, but these are mostly addressed by the opt-in nature of the system. I would absolutely love to see this work.

The reason the government can do the above while it would be difficult for a business is because both of these problems have solutions that only work at massive scale. If there isn’t a single digital currency that everyone can depend on using it won’t take off. If there isn’t a single accepted repository for physical address mappings they won’t be used. What other infrastructure

Automatic Tax Preparation

It’s always seemed slightly insane to me that the calculation of taxes is a burden for the citizenry and not the government. It’s seems akin to hiring a plumber who hands you a complex rate sheet and a calculator instead of a bill when the work is done.

For the millions of individuals with relatively simple taxes (the kind that are mostly just filling in numbers from W-2s and other documents into TurboTax), why can’t the government simple accept the documents themselves and send a bill or a refund? Why do we have to purchase software or hire a professional to do something that could obviously be automated if the right systems were in place?

If implemented, this would greatly disrupt the accounting industry, of course, but given the productivity gains of millions of Americans not spending hours worrying about preparing taxes each year, the benefits would far outweigh.

Technology and Politics

I’m often only thinking about politics when they start mucking about in my own technological backyard (e.g. SOPA/PIPA), but the truth is that a government that truly embraced technology could do some pretty amazing things. What grand ideas do you have that could be a reality if the government had the same know-how as a startup?


Forward: Let’s Start a Political Party

I’ve never really been very interested in politics. At least, I wasn’t until SOPA/PIPA came along. The issue demonstrated for me two very important facts:

  1. Technologists are severely under-represented in our current political system.
  2. Technologists are capable of causing political change.

The first I’d known for ages, the second came as a surprise. I honestly never expected that my outrage and participation in activism regarding SOPA/PIPA would actually succeed. So what now? Well, we can start with crowdfunding for startups, but why not aim a bit higher?

I think it’s time for technologists to organize and get some real change happening. The Test PAC is a great start, and I think any action should recognize that we may (for now) have more success influencing current political stakeholders than becoming them, but I believe that to truly move things forward we need actual people in office. Oh yeah, and I propose we call the party Forward. Simple, to the point, and not confusing for ordinary people like Sweden’s Pirate Party. I also have a few ideas for ways to make the party successful in ways other third parties aren’t:

  1. Large Active Member Base. It is simply amazing how many technologists joined together to fight SOPA/PIPA. I truly believe that we can have a larger base of active party members (people who actually contribute in a meaningful way) than many other third parties.
  2. Online Organization. We already know how to organize. We can use Reddit, Hacker News, Twitter, and networks we create to build consensus and tackle specific issues in a way no other group can.
  3. Position of Power. We are the people building and shaping the most important industry in the world, the one that continues to grow despite the global economic setback. We can use this power for demonstration like with SOPA/PIPA and we can use it for education, too.

If we can get one person into Congress it can be the same as if every member of the party was elected. Why can’t we have an elected representative who puts a piece of proposed legislation on GitHub, accepts pull requests, and then submits the collaborative bill to Congress? From there we can collectively gather support from our representatives using phone campaigns, emails, etc. It’s time to change politics, and we have the power. Who’s with me?

P.S. I created a Forward Party Reddit and would love to see discussion, links, and more there to evolve this idea and really make a difference.


This is How I Want Social to Work

I think that solving the dual problems of privacy and noise in social networking applications are very difficult. Personally I don’t think any of the major players (Facebook, Twitter, Google+) have tackled these problems entirely successfully. I did a little thinking and if I built a social network today, here’s how I would tackle the graph.

Let’s say that I just signed up for the network. As part of the sign up process I would be asked to create Topics that I might post about. By default there would be two topics pre-populated: Personal and Work. In addition, the app would suggest that I add other topics that I might be interested and give examples such as Technology or Fashion. It would also say “hey don’t worry, you can always create topics while you post”.

So far so good. Now, whenever I share something I’m encouraged to select topics from those I have already posted about. I can also create a new topic on the fly just by typing its name. “Golly gee, this sounds an awful lot like Google’s Circles” you might be thinking if you were a 1950s era television character. Wait for it, here comes the payoff.

Now I want to connect to people on the network. When I click “Follow” I’m greeted with a dialog box that says “For which topics do you want to follow X?” and presents me with a list of all of the topics that X has posted about (or I can say “all”). For my close family members I follow all topics, for friends I follow their “Personal” topic, for coworkers I follow their “Work” topic and for everyone else I follow the topics that I think I’ll enjoy reading from them, maybe “Funny” or “Ruby” or any number of other things.

This is the best solution I’ve thought of to the “noise” problem with social networks. Right now I pretty much use Twitter for work and, well, I don’t really use Facebook much but if I did it would be for personal stuff. I don’t want to bore my friends with programming observations and I don’t want to bore my coworkers with personal observations. This system makes me certain that anyone looking at my posts has pro-actively decided that they are interested in hearing from me about that.

The final piece of this puzzle is privacy. I would also have the ability to create private topics that require my approval before someone can follow me on. When someone subscribes to “all” of my topics they can check a box to request permission for private topics as well, which I can approve or deny on an individual basis. Private topics are not explicitly listed out nor are they revealed when I post to them (in this way private topics are much like Circles).

There it is, my best attempt to describe a system that maximizes privacy control, minimizes noise, and creates as small a burden as possible. The only time that this requires “work” is that I need to tag each post I make with topics, and when I follow someone I have to decide which topics I want to follow them about.

Pros/Cons

Here are some of the advantages that I see to a system like the one described above:

  • I believe that this solves the noise problem better than any existing system. Being able to subscribe to a subset of a user’s posts allows for specialized content without alienating followers who are interested in something else.
  • Brands would be able to leverage this to their advantage as well. I could follow my favorite brands, blogs, etc. but only on the types of stories that would interest me.
  • Gets us a little closer to “one network to rule them all” instead of needing to create a dichotomy between our personal and public lives.
  • Since I’m encouraged to tag every post I make, lots of semantic data can be gathered about posts and used to make content discovery and other serendipity work on the system.

Of course, there are drawbacks as well, some surmountable some less so:

  • The biggest problem is that people have to tag their posts accurately or none of this matters. It requires more work when I share and friction there is definitely a problem.
  • What happens when people create new topics? I would imagine something like the Twitter interactions pane that would say “X posted about new topic Y, do you want to follow it?”, but this would have to be tuned to be user friendly.
  • Users may feel tempted to follow all topics just out of fear of “missing something.”

I’m putting this out there because I’m both wondering if anything like it exists and if there are huge glaring problems with it that I’m not considering. If this isn’t the right model for social, what is?


Free-to-Play Could Crash the Gaming Industry

This post is part of my Where Games Are Going series in which I talk about the future of one of my favorite industries: video gaming.

ET Didn't Help

At the same time that digital distribution is poised to level the playing field more than ever before for independent developers, another trend has the potential to cause a crash the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1983. And it’s all Zynga’s fault.

These days you can’t throw a rock in the gaming community without hitting someone who is talking about the brave new world of Free To Play. Everyone is taking a look at the hand-over-fist cash generated by the addiction engines pumped out by Zynga (no, I won’t call them games) and wants their piece of the pie. From the expected ranks of big publishers like EA to some of gaming’s most respected brands like Blizzard and Valve, everyone is exploring “alternative monetization” for games.

But, you might say, won’t these alternative monetization strategies just lead to more people playing games and more games being made? If games are cheaper (or even free) isn’t that better for everyone? The answer is no.

Free-to-play and in-game purchase models break the incentives associated with game development. Sure, it can be done in a tactful manner and, in some cases, may even lead to a bigger audience for a great game. I haven’t played it, but I hear that League of Legends handles free vs. paid players in a very fair way. The problem is that once your money comes not from an up-front or monthly fee but from in-game purchases, you are no longer incentivized as a developer to make the game as fun as possible. Instead, you are incentivized to make players make as many in-game purchases as possible.

We don’t have to make up a worst case scenario for how this could end up, it already exists. Games like FarmVille are, quite literally, addiction engines. They are fine-tuned to draw a player in and build an obligation to continue playing and then an obligation to continue purchasing. The problem is that there isn’t really a game underneath all the addiction; it’s just a psychologically tuned profit machine.

In-game purchases might actually be more profitable in the short term. If you can convince people that they aren’t spending as much when they actually end up spending more, you’re going to make money. The problem is that in the long term people will come to realize that they are “playing” these games but not actually having, you know, fun. If the industry focuses on this model as much as I fear it is gearing up to do, the realization that games aren’t fun anymore could have sweepingly negative impact on the industry as a whole.

The video game crash of 1982 was precipitated by a glut of mediocre-to-bad titles and little information to know which ones were good and which were bad. The gaming crash of 2015 might happen after developers have stopped making games fun in the quest to make them microtransactionally profitable. Casual and hardcore gamers alike could end up feeling jaded and alienated by an industry that treats them like marks instead of players, and if that happens gaming as a whole will suffer greatly.

Personally I loathe the idea of in-game purchases. I don’t want my experience playing a game to be marred by thinking about the price of my fun. “Gee, would I have $2.99 more fun if I bought this Vorpal Sword right now?” It’s not that I’m price-sensitive, it’s that I explicitly play games to escape the pocket-conscious decision-making of the rest of my daily life and now I’m being slapped in the face with it every five minutes.

I care deeply about the gaming industry. I believe that video games helped to shape my logical thinking and problem-solving, and I know that my interest in them precipitated my interest in computers and technology as a whole which has become a passionate and fulfilling career for me. So when I talk about this problem, it’s not because I think that there is something seriously wrong with games now. I just think that many in the industry are being fooled by this mirage of a free-to-play future, and I implore these people to think twice before signing up to willfully misalign their incentive to simply make a great game.

Calling Infringement Theft is Dangerous

Note: I actually submitted this as an op-ed piece to the New York Times which is why it’s far less technically voiced than my normal work. Unfortunately looks like I’m not getting picked up there, so I’ll just have to stand on my own soap box.

One day, Terry walked into a popular record store, slid a CD into his back pocket, and left the store without paying. The same day, Ian visited his favorite file sharing website and downloaded an album (as it happens, the same one that Terry shoplifted) without purchasing it or obtaining permission from the artist. If you think that these two cases sound almost identical, then you have likely fallen prey to a spreading and dangerous misnomer that has become nearly pervasive: conflating theft and copyright infringement.

In the story above, Terry has committed theft, a criminal offense under state laws. In legal terms, theft is taking the property of someone else without consent and with the intent to permanently deprive them of the property. Ian, however, is not guilty of theft but rather copyright infringement: he has created an unlicensed copy of a copyrighted work. By downloading an album from a file sharing service he has not taken it from anywhere but rather duplicated it. While each person is entitled to his or her own opinion as to the difference in morality or ethics between the two, one thing is clear: from a legal perspective these are very different illegal actions.

Theft is a criminal offense and is punishable by a wide array of remedies including jail time. Copyright infringement, on the other hand, is a civil infraction and can incur a lawsuit but cannot be prosecuted as a criminal offense (some instances of copyright infringement do warrant criminal punishment, but not as theft). The difference between criminal and civil infractions in our legal system is great: criminal infractions must be tried with the famous burden of proof of “beyond a reasonable doubt” while civil infractions are tried in court with a burden of “a preponderance of the evidence” (that the party is more likely guilty than not). The difference in burden is attributable to the weight of punishment: one cannot be jailed for a civil infraction, only fined.

Copyrighted works such as books, movies, songs, and even software are all protected by federal law for the purpose of encouraging their creation. “Intellectual Property” is the term given to these types of works and, in the United States, we have three means of protecting intellectual property: copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Intellectual property is something that cannot be stolen because it is, by definition, intangible. You might say that someone “stole your idea” but what you really mean is that someone copied your idea. How can someone have stolen your idea if it’s still in your head? I can understand how this confusion comes about, but while it may feel like a technicality it is actually a very important distinction.

I’m not surprised when representatives of copyright holders call infringement theft; it is to their direct benefit to create a direct equivalency between intellectual property rights and real property rights. What continues to shock me is seeing this confusion trickle its way into the vocabulary of everyone from Harvard law professors to members of Congress. It is frightening to think that this misnomer is being used by the very people who are currently debating laws regarding copyright infringement with sweeping ramifications.

My plea is simply this: stop thinking that these two terms are interchangeable and using them as such. Sure, “stealing” and “theft” are shorter and sound a lot more sensationalistic and juicy when one is talking about the issue of copyright infringement. But please at least use a term like “piracy” if you want a one-word term for the behavior. It may not be any more accurate but it doesn’t share the same effect of confusing everyday people about our legal system. Until there is a law decreeing that copyright infringement is a criminal offense punishable in the same manner as theft, one thing is certain: theft and copyright infringement are NOT the same thing.

P.S. I started a Tumblr to record these misnomers, feel free to submit one if you see it.