The idea of property is a social construct and it varies both in places and in history. But is there a point where property is a given? In an interesting study at Yale Kristina Olson and Alex Shaw have been studying at what age children recognise that plagiarism is wrong?
By contrast, three- to four-year-olds did not rate characters who copied as any less likeable or any more bad than characters who came up with their own ideas. In a control condition, children of this age gave negative ratings to characters who stole physical property, thus showing that the the null result for stealing ideas wasn’t because the children didn’t understand the rating scale or weren’t paying attention.
Obviously it is important to try to understand where their values come from. But this is an interesting starting point in the discussion. Read more Olson, K., and Shaw, A. (2010). ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00993.x
Property is not an absolute concept. The concept of what property means changes both in time and culture. Different groups and sub-groups value their own property and the property of others. Naturally this makes the definition of property difficult. Roman (Justinian) Law defined property as the right to use and abuse a thing, within the limits of the law (ius utendi et abutendi re sua, quatenus iuris ratio patitur).
That is a formalistic definition since it requires limitations to be set within the law. But if we replace the law with the limits set by society then the definition is more fluid but harder to limit.
In recent time the discussion of property has been discussed in relation to the legal, ethical and economic discussions on file sharing. A fundamental part of this discussion has been on the basic idea of digital property and whether copying digital products should be a wrongful act – this is not resolved yet with different subgroups still arguing their standpoints using law and technology to prove their point.
All this is good and well but today I got a more practical lesson in the meaning of property within different social sub-groups.
While browsing in a clothes shop my friends locked bike was stolen just outside the store. My less attractive unlocked bike was left behind. Fortunately we searched the area and found the bike. The thief had lifted the bike and hid it in a nearby ally – apparently planning to come back later to remove the lock.
Part of the experience of living in Göteborg is getting your bike stolen. Most of us have lost more than one. Some people argue that they have lost so many bikes that they actually deserve to “borrow” (a.k.a. steal) a bike when they need one. This means that there is an erosion of the concept of property in relation to bikes.
I know that this is a silly argument but the bike thing really pissed me off.