In the debate on copyright, there is a long-time discussion on the appropriateness of the word steal to refer to "make a copy of a non-rival good"; see for instance this article, or this essay.

How old is the usage of the word "steal" in English with this meaning? Is it something that was widespread at the time of Shakespeare or Dickens, or is it mostly modern usage? If so, which is the earliest use of the term?

  • 1
    I'm with Mitch, word for word. What does "non-rival" mean and until we get past that, what could the Question mean? Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 23:03
  • 2
    It's just simple negation of the word rival folks, as in two people who want something that only one person can have. A question like that would probably be closed for inadequate research. Also, @RobbieGoodwin I made a meta question regarding my edit and there's also a chatroom if you want to say anything to me directly.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 23:30
  • 6
    What on Earth are you talking about? How could "It's just simple negation of the word rival folks" explain what "a non-rival good" meant? I know nothing about any edit, nor any meta question, nor where you cropped up earlier in this Topic… Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 23:37
  • 2
    I'm sure the equivalent of "You stole my idea!" goes back to Grog and Ork and the invention of the wheel.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 23:59
  • 1
    I commented in the meta question, but let me be more precise here: (1) this question is about the use of the word steal (and maybe theft, which I see as directly related) to refer to making a copy rather than deprive the owner of something; for instance, reprinting a book without permission, making a photocopy, downloading an mp3, or also copying a poem by hand on a stone tablet. If the use of that technical term is confusing, then I guess it's a good idea to remove it. (2) Plagiarism is related, but not the same thing: when I download an mp3, I am not claiming I wrote the song myself. Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 7:49

3 Answers 3


When I wrote this preface I thought it was an interesting aside

"My own family were involved in a 6th century battle where many were killed over copyright of just one copy, since we spoke Erse and wrote Latin I will just link a mention to the battle of Cul Dremhne A.D. 561 but in context the economic cost was rival just the same as the mortalities were."

However It seems that events on this thread have made it more pertinent, without going into parallels, I was trying to show that civil battles can ensue when another persons arrangements are regenerated as a variant without authorisation. In some but not all cases this is labled plagiarism. The crux in some cases is that there may be no intent to deprive the author of attribution but an impact ensues. This was often the case throughout history until we agreed an across the board common ruling that to impact the value of authorship is to cause distress whatever the form (monetary or not). Modern technology has allowed opportunists to hide behind a question of value. "It is not stealing if it does no harm, is it?" I have seen "but in our country we do not need to comply", I think they have not read their laws, or read into them what they wish to see. In all countries ignorance is no defence.

I will leave the rest of my answer as it stood, just simply pointing out that the act in the conclusion attempted to address all the battles across the millennia before. However it still leaves loopholes that may distress many an author or their descendants whether familial or financial.

Book cover: steal this book, by Abbie Hoffman Licensed under Fair Use
"Never call it stealing though, always refer to it as "research and development."

From the quoted article most intellectual property is non-rival."Non-rival" as a term seems to have originated in late 1980's so I don't think the relational use of steal can be applied before then no mater how much it was common practice to record radio on tape or photocopy pages for a handout.

Equally Steal is a modern word coming from middle dutch though could have been "stehlen" when used by the Father of the printing press. Certainly Gutenberg was sued for many a broken promise. He could be attributed the cause of this discussion since the lowered cost of duplicating others works potentially rests on his shoulders although his work in turn was based on a Korean concept from 1234 AD (wood) through to 1377 AD (metal). It is ironic that Gutenberg was paranoid about others stealing his ideas but seems not to have considered his works as depriving others of their living. Note it was reportedly Fust that bankrolled and owned the press.

Theft and to steal in English law only apply to tangible goods (rival), so again we have to shift the above terms to another concept to discuss copying or purloining others ideas in a non-rival sense.

The best historic concept of intellectual property (IP) theft can be attributed to plagiarisms which were debatably "rivalrous" perhaps since a concept of "non-rival" was not prior art. In roman times writing was "rival" since the salarium of calligraphi was very high per duplicate, but it could be argued Poetry was "non-rivalous" as it was negligable cost for rivals to note and orate others words.

Certainly in his day Shakespeare was accused of IP theft of stealing food from others mouths on countless occasions, both by his non-rivals and his rival Nashe. Plagiarism is well documented going back thousands of years 1

Vitruvius (257–180 B.C.E.) is said to have revealed intellectual property theft during a literary contest in Alexandria. While serving as judge in the contest, Vitruvius exposed the false poets who were then tried, convicted, and disgraced for stealing the words and phrases of others.

Certainly at the time of the commandments we have Thou shalt not steal and from the corresponding Seven Laws of Noah was interpreted as "Thou shalt not kidnap", aligning with Martial's view when he coined the literary form thou shalt not “plagiarus”

1 Martial used the latin word “plagiarus” to describe a seemingly unnamed literary thief. The term previously had meant “kidnap” and it specifically related to either the kidnapping of one’s slaves or to take a free person and make them into a slave. Others have depicted the plagiarist as somebody who "shines in stolen plumes." and Green a contemporary playwriter of Shakespeare implied that the bard was "beautified with our feathers" using the everyday verb steal is irregular for a wordsmith who used a feather quill for his craft.

"Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine."
See my source copy, oops :-). "in which Martial accuses Fidentius of stealing other poems" however that is a modern writers interpretation of latin.

Conclusion @HotLicks implies we need to stop later since steal can only be inferred as illegal after The British Statute of Anne 1710, full title "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned", was the first copyright statute, in terms of the OP question I would have to concur although there were prior enforeable contracts about stolen copyright.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer! Actually I'm not interested in examples of unauthorized copying / IP theft from the antique times; I am interested in the usage of the word "steal". When Nashe accused Shakespeare, did he use the words "steal/theft"? Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 15:05
  • 2
    Directly to your point, @FedericoPoloni, in the original Latin Martial writes "meorum fur avare librorum", 'greedy thief of my books' where Latin fur literally means thief. So the usage goes back a long way. Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 15:48
  • 2
    Bear in mind that the concept of a "copyright" is a relatively recent invention. Prior to the legislation of copyrights there was no real concept of "unauthorized" copying. It was more an issue of courtesy and mutual respect.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 15:50
  • 2
    There are some errors in this answer. 1. An action cannot be "(non-)rival" in the economic sense, only a good (see the linked Wiki article). 2. Plagiarism is not directly an economic action, since it doesn't primarily involve economic rights; that makes using "(non-)rival" even less appropriate in context. 3. The information copied in an act of plagiarism is clearly non "rival", since copying doesn't change the original in any way (see again Wiki definition). 4. In case of violated copyright, intellectual property is violated, not stolen: for the right to copy the work remains with the holder. Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 20:19
  • 1
    Thanks, KJO, and could you drop all the opinion and speculation, and fall back on some facts? Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 21:34

I am not sure, but my best guess is that in English, it began to be used in this context starting sometime around the 18th century.

What is widely acknowledged as the first copyright law was the Statute of Anne, in 1710 and no variant of the word steal or thief is in that document. However, we have this little gem of a quotation from Scotland's Court of Session in 1774 in a case that for brevity's sake, I shall dub John Hinton v. Alexander Donaldson and John Wood:

"Who steals from common authors, steals trash; but he who steals from a Spencer, a Shakespeare or a Milton, steals the fire of heaven, and the most precious gift of nature."

This same ruling also abounds with the word theft.

It is also worthy note that most dictionaries of repute have been using the words theft, purloin and steal to define plagiarism pretty much since the word plagiarize was first used around 1716. Here is a list of dictionaries that define the word plagiarism I checked:

It should be noted that part of what makes me unsure is that the online etymology dictionary has much earlier dates for plagiarism (1620s, 1590s).

It should also be noted that the O.E.D. Second Edition (1989) shares its definition with the first edition.

If you check these same dictionaries, the definitions for theft, purloin and steal in isolation can often seem as if they do not apply to non-rival goods. For example, while defining theft in the American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster wrote:

[T]hat is, it must be with a design to deprive the owner of his property privately and against his will.

However, if we assume words to be what economists call non-rival goods, then the argument that theft and its kind only applies to what they would call rival goods holds no water amongst reputable lexicographers, and the notion that plagiarism constitutes theft was very commonplace. Perhaps this is due to an inherent bias since they are writers, but then again so is anybody else we could reference.

  • 1
    I'm confused. Is the OP asking about the words 'theft' or 'plagiarism'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 18:57
  • @Mitch He expressed interest in a comment Also the question is about the applicability to the word steal for what economists call non-rival resources, like literature. That the word steal appears in some definitions of plagiarism is germane to the question.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 19:04
  • 2
    It is hilariously ironic that a dictionary should be a copyrightable work, given that it is necessarily composed entirely of the words, phrases and ideas of others.
    – Peter Wone
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 22:20
  • 1
    @BenHocking Since plagiarism is defined in part by a lack of attribution, it is worth looking at the front material of the dictionaries. Ogville attributed Webster's dictionary as the basis for his work, so he is not a plagiarist. I am not sure about Walker. Since you are interested in knowing who the plagiarists are, it is probably worth noting that Webster accused Worcester of plagiarism, but I.I.R.C., Worcester also wrote a book in his own defense.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 2:09
  • 1
    @mitch It isn't. You and Alanis Morissette should look up the meaning of the word before using it again.
    – Peter Wone
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 12:41

The minimally metaphoric use of 'to steal' to refer to intangible things (ideas, turns of phrase, rather than objects you can hold in your hand and surreptitiously slip into your pocket) is attested by the OED:

1d. In wider sense: To take or appropriate dishonestly (anything belonging to another, whether material or immaterial).

  1. Sinners Beware! 153 in Old Eng. Misc. 77 In helle he may adrynke If he steleþ cristes theoþinge. ( = In hell he may drink if he steals Christ's tithe meaning what is owed to the Church)

As citations, these instances are the first found in printed material. As printed material is scarcer before movable type, it is difficult to really prove that something was not the case at a certain date before a citation. But it is clear that the different translations of 'steal' in other languages are used very easily for intangibles like ideas or sayings.

  • I should've thought to check the O.E.D. entry for steal. I'm a little confused about whether I should vote this up though. Is there a less ambiguous word than tithe in the listed quotations? Something that is intangible in its literal meaning? The form of payment can be physical, which is why I ask.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 15:29
  • @Mitch, this is just a terminological point, which does not affect the gist of the answer, but the concept of intangible goods is not quite the same (although it greatly overlaps) the concept of nonrivalrous goods; the question was about the latter.
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 17:09
  • @jsw29 Yes, the question was explicitly about 'non-rival' meaning. As that is a modern technical distinction and not one that maps naturally to historical usages, I chose to stick with (as you say) mostly overlapping 'intangible' which is more natural.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 18:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.