After his recent trial, Joel Tenenbaum was ordered to pay a fine of $675,000 for downloading and sharing 30 copyrighted songs. With more cases like this every day it can be interesting to consider how famous political thinkers might view the issue of copyright infringement, especially involving the internet. In this post I’ll explore how John Locke might view the issue of downloading and sharing music.
In chapter 5 of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government he discusses his view on property. In his discussion of property he says that God gave the world to “all men in common,” but that “every man has a property in his own person.” From this Locke says that one’s labour is one’s property. This means that by removing something from the state of nature one mixes one’s labour with it and therefore makes it one’s property. Furthermore he says, “For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.” This is important because it means that one can’t take something if it means there isn’t enough left for everyone else. In addition Locke stresses that one should only acquire “as much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils.”
While Locke mostly addresses physical property, his ideas on labour and property can still be applied to music. For example Locke might say that if someone writes a song then he or she has taken the sounds from nature and applied their labour to them, making that combination of sounds his or her property. This fulfills both of the restrictions on property Locke discusses; the music will never spoil and there are plenty of other perfectly good combinations of sounds for other musicians to use. Therefore Locke would probably agree that the songs Joel Tenenbaum downloaded were the property of the artists who made them.
However Locke agreeing that the music is the property of the musicians does not necessarily mean that he would agree that people like Tenenbaum should have to pay fines for downloading and sharing that music. What Locke seems most concerned with is that property doesn’t get taken away from the owner. However with the internet and digital copies, property such as music isn’t really ever taken away from the owner, copies are just given to others. Furthermore, going back to Locke’s Second Treatise of government Locke says, “For he that leaves as much as another can make use of does as good as take nothing at all.” If we apply this statement literally to music sharing, Locke would definitely say that it is wrong for Joel Tenenbaum to be fined for downloading music.
Therefore if one applies Locke’s ideas on property to downloading music, one can see that he would almost definitely consider the music the property of the artist, but at the same time would think it wrong to punish those who download music. Ultimately we’ll never know what John Locke would really think about Tenenbaum’s case and others like it, but speculating certainly is interesting.