Book Review: “13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle” by Stuart P Green

September 12, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

13 ways

I let out an audible gasp when I opened up my parcel and saw a copy of 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age by US law professor Stuart P Green. I like to receive free books to review for this trade publication and all, but a near-400-page book on the history of theft law was the last thing I wanted to read.

But since I had to read it, I did, and you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be (partly because it was really only around 280 pages as the rest of it were notes and the index.) Label me surprised because I never thought that theft law could be interesting. Kinda.

The title of the book is metaphorical (because according to Green, you can steal someone’s bicycle in precisely 13 ways, such as larceny, robbery, embezzlement, fraud, extortion — just to name a few). As the first chapter of the book explains, theft as a crime under the common law developed almost by accident, as more and more causes of action with specific elements were created throughout the years. This formed a messy and complex system with loopholes that could be exploited by perpetrators, such as claiming that they had committed a different crime to the one that they had been charged with.

Then came the Model Penal Code in the US and the English Theft Act 1968, which attempted to consolidate the plethora of actions, but in doing so, Green believes, lawmakers ended up “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” and went too far, leading to confusing and unjust results. This flawed system has essentially been untouched for 50 years.

The next two chapters of the book deal with the philosophical underpinnings of theft, including why it ought to be punished as a crime as opposed merely a civil wrong, and the concept of “wrongfulness.” Green draws upon the results of a survey in which he asks students which form of theft they consider more culpable. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, most people thought generally along the same lines. For example, most people believed it was more “wrong” to steal a CD from a record store than to download it online. Almost everyone believed armed robbery was more serious than taking something by stealth, which was in turn more serious than failing to return goods mistakenly delivered to you. Why is that the case? And why do we regard certain types of theft as “permissible,” such as taking stationery from work (guilty) or using work hours to do non-work related things (guilty right now)?

If you are interested in this kind of stuff, then you might find this discussion highly interesting, though I admit there were times when I thought the analysis got bogged down by too many background explanations which required further background explanations which required even more background explanations.

The subtitle of the book, Theft in the Information Age, is somewhat misleading because we don’t actually discuss the topic until the fourth and final chapter of the book, which is a more general discussion on what types of intangibles can be subject to theft. Having finally gotten through all that muddled legal history and philosophy, this was the most interesting part of the book because Green examines plenty of real life cases.

Examples include Mark Zuckerberg’s “theft” of the idea for Facebook from the Winklevii, and the Apple scandal when a company employee left a prototype of the new iPhone in a bar and it was picked up and sold to tech website Gizmodo. One particular case that surprised me was when an American man kept parking his car outside a coffee shop to take advantage of its free Wi-Fi, and he was arrested and successfully prosecuted for stealing it! There are plenty of other interesting concepts and examples, including the theft of glory (such as pretending to own a Medal of Honor, or plagiarism), identity theft, and even stealing electricity or sex.

IP lawyers should find the intangibles section quite illuminating as it goes into whether intellectual property infringement ought to really categorised as theft. For instance, what does LV really lose when someone buys a cheap Chinese knock-off bag? Would that person have purchased a genuine LV bag if a cheap knock-off wasn’t available? Probably not. So what, if anything, does LV lose? Perhaps a bit of shine off its reputation because people might associate their brand with knock-offs? Food for thought.

It’s genuinely thought-provoking stuff, though the only problem is that you also have to sift through a lot of the deep legal analyses, stuff I’ve been desperately trying to get away from for the last couple of years.

Full credit to Green for tackling such an ambitious project though. It was good to see that he doesn’t just criticise the law — in the book’s conclusion, he puts his money where his mouth is and comes up with a set of brief guidelines (which some might consider too vague) on how the theft system should be overhauled. That said, I found some of his ideas challenging because he takes quite a liberal approach in deciding what types of conduct should be excluded from legal punishment, such as plagiarism and virtual theft (eg, of items in video games such as World of Warcraft), which he believes should be dealt with internally by their respective “narrow” communities. It feels intuitively wrong to let such things go, but hey, he’s the expert.

Anyway, regardless of how I found it (and for the record, I liked it about as much as I can possibly like a “law book”), 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle is a truly groundbreaking effort — arguably because I doubt anyone else has ever had the patience or audacity to write a book like this. It’s insightful and informative and often interesting, though you would have to be a complete law geek to fully appreciate all of it.