It occurred to me that the institution of intellectual property didn’t exist in pre-modern times, and that the intention of the commandment might not extend to this relatively recent legal invention. For full disclosure, I think that intellectual property is on balance a harmful institution, so I’m predisposed to believe that the 7th Commandment doesn’t include it.
Here’s a source that surveys the history and justifications of intellectual property law:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intellectual-property/#HisIntPro
To summarize: the ancient and medieval world did not know intellectual property law in any rigorous form. This gives good grounds for believing that ‘thou shalt not steal’ was not understood to pertain to ideas; or, if it was rudimentarily understood this way, the protection of ideas and ‘trade secrets’ fell to the concerned party, not the civil law.
It’s possible that intellectual property law is a legitimate extension or progression of the commandment, one which God perhaps intended us to discover in good time. But I see no intrinsic reason to believe this. The assumption behind this seems to be that since the present is better than the past, it follows that present legal institutions must share in this superiority. Now, it would be just as incorrect to reason the inverse, that because past institutions are superior to present ones, no intellectual property law is therefore better (while this is generally my point of departure, I recognize that one needs better reasons), and therefore were not intended by the commandment.
Basically, my reasons are these:
1. That ideas are not the same as physical property. If I take your house, you’re out on the street. But if I take your song, you still have it.
2. That intellectual property law exists to ensure future revenue
on protected goods. It confers legal monopolies that protect corporations from legitimate competition. In short, intellectual property is pure corporate handout. No commercial entity has a right to future revenue.
3. That the institution of intellectual property only grew up within a capitalistic and plutocratic society, which Catholic social doctrine detests. This is a good reason to mistrust it.
4. That the dismantling of intellectual property laws would – by enriching culture, reducing the profit motive, making many goods less expensive, and helping to break the corporate stranglehold – serve the common good, which Catholic social doctrine supports.
Combined with the historical argument mentioned above, these points provide grounds for thinking that the 7th Commandment did not, does not, and should not include intellectual property. If anyone can direct me to a firm Catholic teaching on this matter I’d appreciate it.