Like Comparing Apples to ...

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This week Joe interviewed Shira Tarrant, a gender studies professor, about the financial side of porn. At one point doing their Q&A, Tarrant compares watching free porn to stealing from a grocery store:

We wouldn’t dream of walking into Whole Foods and stealing. But that part of people’s ethical behavior turns off when they go online and they find free porn. Watching free porn is the equivalent of walking into the grocery store and walking out with food that you’re not paying for.

Several readers disliked this analogy, offering up their own versions. This reader sticks with the Whole Foods setting:

The average porn viewer does not even know that the content was stolen. A better metaphor would be that people go to Whole Foods, don’t buy anything, but eat the free samples not realizing that Whole Foods stole those samples from some other store.

Another reader switches to a cafe:

Watching pirated vids is more like sneaking into Starbucks and using their restrooms without buying anything (when there’s no one else waiting to use them). The restrooms are still available for paying customers when you’re done. (And just because you didn’t buy a coffee this morning doesn’t mean you haven’t in the past and won’t in the future.)

The idea that it’s theft is predicated entirely on the idea that the company has lost profits it would otherwise get when you were forced to pay for the service. But since you can’t force people to pay for things like videos and one-time washroom usage, it’s hard to see what was truly lost.

It’s not at all like tangible goods. When they go missing, you know exactly what you paid for them that you can never recover from other customers. Stolen food from a grocery store doesn’t replenish itself. It’s inventory that is simply gone forever.

In other words, it’s a simplistic and basically dumb comparison. I wish people would think a bit harder before they repeated it.

Downloading or viewing pirated videos isn’t theft. Nor is distributing them to others. But the latter certainly IS copyright infringement and therefore certainly a crime—for good reasons. But I guess infringement just isn’t as sexy a word as “theft” and it doesn’t quite assault our moral instincts so strongly.

The fact that it’s porn is utterly irrelevant. People watch pirated episodes of The Trailer Park Boys as well, and I’m fairly sure for most viewers it has very little to do with their ethical minds turning to mush in a fit of sexual excitement. Ditto for people who download random pretty sunsets to repost on Facebook.

Sounds like the interviewee is trying way too hard to find some correlations between porn and pirating that just aren't really there.

This reader points out it can be hard to decipher ownership:

Users have no way to judge whether aggregated content is there with the permission of content owners or not. Many times, content owners put content there as an advertisement, tolerate it for the publicity, or may have an ad revenue split agreement. People probably assume—rightly or wrongly—that the sites are run basically like YouTube, where content owners cooperate with the site (tube) owner and jointly try to minimize copyright violations.