Feist Publication, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340, 349-50 (1991) (citations omitted) gives the primary purpose of copyright:

The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts. To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art.

The first clause above seems to imply that U.S. law does not consider copyright infringement an act of injustice toward the copyright owner.

Which countries do or do not consider copyright infringement theft?

cf. the § "IP & Property Rights" of Stephen Kinsella's CC BY-licensed work Against Intellectual Property or Aaron Swartz's related short article "Downloading isn't Stealing"

  • Theft is a clearly defined crime, which does not include copyright infringement: do you mean "In which countries is it illegal?" or "is it immoral?" The latter is off-topic. Jan 14, 2017 at 15:55
  • 1
    @TimLymington "Theft is a clearly defined crime, which does not include copyright infringement" I didn't know that. Perhaps you could back up this assertion in an answer and quotes from legal sources.
    – Geremia
    Jan 14, 2017 at 16:04

2 Answers 2


Criminal copyright infringement is defined at 18 U.S. Code § 2319.

2319 does not call copyright infringement theft, and theft is a separate crime, defined at state level (except for a few categories of theft affecting federal interests). Copyright infringement doesn't meet the elements of theft in any state.

For example, California's Penal Code Section 484:

Every person who shall feloniously steal, take, carry, lead, or drive away the personal property of another, or who shall fraudulently appropriate property which has been entrusted to him or her, or who shall knowingly and designedly, by any false or fraudulent representation or pretense, defraud any other person of money, labor or real or personal property, or who causes or procures others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character and by thus imposing upon any person, obtains credit and thereby fraudulently gets or obtains possession of money, or property or obtains the labor or service of another, is guilty of theft.

All signatories of the Berne Convention define copyright infringement separately from theft.

  • 1
    You could say what the elements defining theft are.
    – user6726
    Jan 14, 2017 at 19:20
  • Do any countries consider it theft?
    – Geremia
    Mar 23, 2019 at 23:58

Contrary to what many laypeople believe, neither theft nor fraud mean 'unpleasant behaviour of which I disapprove'. In England and Wales , theft is defined (Theft Act 1968): "A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and “thief” and “steal” shall be construed accordingly." So if an author copied a work but did not appropriate property, he is not a thief, full stop.

(He may, of course, be called "a robber and and a villain", and he may be guilty of copyright infringement, which is a tort and sometimes a crime.)

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