(this page is just one part of my “Dangerous Copyright Myths” piece. Please also read the introduction and index for more context)
This argument usually goes as follows: “If something is intangible and infinitely reproducible, why should copying and (re) distributing it be limited? Property, or the right to limit the use that others do with something, only makes sense when applied to material, finite objects and resources”. The truth is that the actual text of a poem or a good manual may be intangible and infinitely shareable, but the time to create it is finished, limited and worth much more than the price of one copy.
This also applies to works which may appear as a mere reshuffling of information, like many non-fiction texts. The fact that many of the concepts in such works had already been expressed doesn’t automatically lessen the author’s effort and his or her right to compensation: the main/real value of such works could just be in how ideas and feelings are communicated, explained and linked to each other as never before. Tim Berners-Lee himself, father of the World Wide Web, said in an interview:
"...if you go randomly picking up pieces of paper in the street or leafing through garbage at the garbage dump what are the chances you'll find something reliable written on the paper that you find there? Very small. When you go onto the Internet, if you really rummage around randomly then how do you hope to find something of any of value?"
Note that search engines are much worse than humans at solving this problem. We have no time to re-do everything ourselves, and it is not easy anyway: we should recognize and reward those who save us all that time and make us see things we could have missed otherwise, even if we had had all the time in the world.
If material incentives stopped to exist only because it is possible to redistribute at little or no cost digitized works, it would be a loss for humanity, because many talented authors could not afford anymore the time needed to create new works. Their time is a finite property, and if you want it used for the common good you have to pay for it.
“Intellectual Property” is indeed a very generic and confusing term, something that “leads to simplistic thinking” that should be avoided. But this is no reason or justification at all to conclude that copyright should be abolished.