As I explained, computer data theft is a little different from real-world theft because the data being stolen is usually copied . . . which means that both the thief and the rightful owner have the data. But, as I also explained in that post, the law can accommodate data theft by simply recognizing that the transfer of any quantum of the property – of the data – results in a loss to the rightful owner. Since theft criminalizes the act of depriving the owner of (some of his or her) property, copying data constitutes theft.
This post, though, is about a different kind of computer theft. Rhode Island has a computer theft statute that dates back to 1983 and that baffles me. Here is how the statute read a few years after it was adopted in 1983:
Whoever, intentionally and without claim of right, and with intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession, takes, transfers, conceals or retains possession of any computer, computer system, computer network, computer software, computer program or data contained in such computer, computer system, computer program or computer network with a value in excess of five hundred dollars ($500) shall be guilty of a felony and shall be subject to the penalties set forth in [another statute].Rhode Island General Laws § 11-52-4 (1986). Here is the current version of this same statute:
Whoever, intentionally and without claim of right, takes, transfers, conceals or retains possession of any computer, computer system, computer network, computer software, computer program, or data contained in a computer, computer system, computer program, or computer network with a value in excess of five hundred dollars ($500) shall be guilty of a felony and shall be subject to the penalties set forth in [the same statute]Rhode Island General Laws § 11-52-4 (2008). In 2006, the Rhode Island legislature modified the language of the statute so it no longer speaks of taking any of the items it lists “with intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession” of the item. That, I assume, was intended to incorporate the non-zero-sum conception of theft (data theft) I described above.
I don’t have a problem with that, or with making it a crime to steal data or software. What I have never understood about this statue is why the Rhode Island legislature found it necessary back in 1983, and still finds it necessary, to have a statute that specifically makes it a crime to steal computer hardware. Since computer hardware is tangible property, stealing it should fall within the scope of the state’s regular theft statutes.
I can’t find any cases or legislative history or law review articles that explain why the legislature did this. Maybe it just seemed like a good idea back in 1983, since that’s when personal computers were coming in, and they were a lot more portable (and therefore a lot more stealable) than the mainframes that preceded them.
Or not. I don’t know. If anyone does, I’d love to learn what the purpose of the statute really was.