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Professor Stuart Green Urges New Way of Thinking About What Should Count as Stealing in the 21st Century

June 11, 2012 – 

Twentieth-century reformers of theft law aimed to transform a hodgepodge of seemingly arbitrary, overly technical, and loophole-ridden legal rules into a simpler, more homogenized law of theft. But in doing so, argues Professor Stuart P. Green in his new book 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age (Harvard University Press, June 2012), reformers lost key moral distinctions concerning the ways in which theft is committed and the kinds of property stolen. More to the point, they also rendered theft law ill-equipped for an age in which the economy increasingly commodifies information and other intangibles and when the means of committing theft and fraud have become ever more sophisticated.

Professor Green, an award-winning author and scholar whose writing explores the intersection of moral philosophy and criminal law, lays out the compelling need for a thorough reconsideration – by other scholars, law reformers and, ultimately, policymakers – of theft law. For despite the fact that the crime claims more victims and causes greater economic injury than any other offense, “theft remains an enigma,” writes Green, with “fundamentally unresolved questions about exactly what should count as stealing and exactly what types of things can be stolen.”

Green book cover

Is it stealing when I piggyback my neighbor’s wireless connection? Take paperclips home from work to use on non-work–related projects? Buy a lost prototype smartphone that had been found in a bar? Publish copies of confidential government documents on my website? Green uses real cases that center on such knotty questions to consider how their resolution depends on a new concept of theft law that better reflects 21st century social and legal norms.

Describing 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle as “a tour de force,” Professor Leo Katz of the University of Pennsylvania Law School says: “Theft law is strange and this book tries to explain that strangeness — why it matters so much just exactly how something is stolen, by robbery, larceny, fraud, or other means; why only certain things are considered capable of being stolen; why the theft of electricity, sexual services, or glory are so problematic. This is a work of first-class scholarship, in addition to being just plain fun to read.” 

The metaphorical title of the book is intended to communicate “the messy complexity that characterizes theft law’s moral content,” Green explains. The first chapter, a critique of 20th century Anglo-American theft law reform, concludes that while the effort got rid of legal arcana, it also adopted “an all-encompassing definition of property that indiscriminately included tangible personal property, real property, services, and intangibles,” all subject to the same punishment. 

In the second chapter, Green begins to build a model theory of theft law based on three elements: harmfulness, intent, and wrongdoing. Chapter three considers why theft is a crime and when it shouldn’t be. Using the framework he has developed, Green explains why certain “borderline forms of theft and theft-related conduct” should be decriminalized or subject to lesser penalties than other, core theft offenses. Moving from more to less concrete forms of property, the final chapter considers whether and in what way theft law should apply to various forms of property.

“Especially as we focus increasingly on intangible property,” writes Professor Robert Weisberg of Stanford Law School, “Green’s book guides us to a fresh inquiry into what ways of taking things – and what things are taken – should lead to criminal condemnation. It will dominate discussions of theft in coming years.” The book concludes with a brief “how-to” guide for writing a better theft statute based on eight principles.

Professor Green is the author of Lying, Cheating, and Stealing: A Moral Theory of White Collar Crime, which received the Outstanding Publication Award from the National White-Collar Crime Center and has been translated into several languages. He is co-editor (with R.A. Duff) of both Philosophical Foundations of Criminal Law and Defining Crimes: Essays on the Special Part of the Criminal Law. His scholarship has been published in numerous law journals and his opinion pieces in major newspapers, including most recently “When Stealing Isn’t Stealing” in the New York Times (3/28/12). He is a member of the editorial boards of Criminal Law and Philosophy and the New Criminal Law Review and has served as a consultant to the Law Commission for England and Wales.

Professor Green received a B.A. in philosophy from Tufts University and a J.D. from Yale Law School.