I recently got into an argument in which I declared that copyright laws were theft. If true, then sharing your CD’s, books and movies with other people is perfectly fine no matter how many copies you make. If false, then “sharing” may not be sharing at all. Before those sorts of issues can be discussed, one needs to define the basic terms of discussion. The most fundamental term of discussion is not copyright. It is ownership. Ownership is the moral right to categorically control something.
This definition cannot be easily proven in a single blog post. Nonetheless, I will start by making a gesture towards such a proof. Ownership is a moral right. So it is the same as the right to free speech, self defense or any other moral right. There are several ways to show this. First, most laws against stealing condemn stealing even if the criminal can get away with it. Second, most people agree that stealing is wrong even if no one knows that it happened and no one is immediately harmed by the theft. Third, most people agree that ownership of something cannot be taken away by governments unless the person has done something wrong. Finally, philosophical analysis of ownership has tended to agree with what people generally think on the matter. All of these points are not only compatible with ownership being a moral right but require it.
What makes ownership different from other moral rights is what it is about. There are two ways to examine a moral right. We could examine various perceptions of that right the positively support it. We could also examine the ways in which that right is denied and that denial is punished. Applying these ways to an examination of ownership should tell us what makes ownership different from other rights. Positively, support for ownership is primarily about things. Whether land, objects or people, most laws in the history of the world have restricted ownership to those things. The only thing that they have in common is that they are things. On the other hand, universals such as humanity, whiteness and threeness have never been considered property. In addition to this positive support, there is also negative support for the same position. Theft has generally been punished by fines comparable to value of what is stolen, by death (if you steal from the gods) or by removal of a hand. Theft is understood to be taking some thing away from the owner. The owner no longer has it, therefore you must be punished for taking it away from him.
This may be enough to restrict the concept of ownership, but we do not completely understand it until we compare it with lesser rights regarding the same things. Owning is having a moral right to a thing. But so is borrowing or renting. The difference should tell us what owning is. When we borrow a thing or rent it we have limited rights to that thing. Someone else gives us specific and limited rights to do various things. So if we borrow a thing, then we must return it undamaged within a limited period of time. Ownership has no such restrictions. So the difference between ownership and rental is one of control. Owners can do whatever they like with what they own. If we call that sort of control “categorical”, then it is now possible to define ownership. Ownership is the moral right to categorically control something.