We have patent offices and trademark offices, and harsh penalties for unauthorized copying of movies and software, among other things. $250,000 and/or five years in prison is one stiff penalty one may face for clicking on a movie and saving it to one's hard disk.
One obvious thing is that this represents a huge immunomemetic subsystem, or megaimmunomemeplex, of our economic system. Why do we need it? Obviously because lots of people would just steal creative work otherwise, and then nobody would be motivated to create anything. But why is this type of crime such a huge problem and not a rare exception?
Do we have a problem giving people credit for their ideas and the creative work they do?
Memes Know No Master
In a memetic environment, memes like to make it easier and easier to get themselves copied. Libraries, the printing press, computers, the Internet (and the Web), Facebook, Twitter, even speech itself (1) all represent triumphs of the memes, often at the expense of human beings and their happiness, to transmit themselves faster, in larger quantities, and more efficiently. A strong case may be made that "selfish" memes (2) have actively pushed us to create these artifacts.
Obviously, an individual, intent upon retransmitting a meme, or copying media without taking the extra time or other opportunity cost, such as paying, is slower and less proficient than one who just fires away, blasting out something created by somebody else to as many other people as they like. Or watching media, consuming memes, with the minimum of effort. Even using somebody else's idea or passing it off to others as one's own, plagiarism, "imitation" are rampant, certainly not the exception, and difficult to eradicate.
Just passing a meme along is much faster and cleaner than adding notes that it was somebody else's idea, or paying for it (which may be impossible for media already coming from an elicit source). Does it go deeper than just wanting to get the credit for oneself? Is that the only motive?
The anticipation of reward, or memetic resonance, is predicated on the assumption that a "large number" of people will react to the meme one thinks of deploying. This may sometimes have bearing on people's tendency to ignore intellectual property. Citing oneself as the originator makes one vulnerable to immunomemes against novelty. By the same token, citing another who may be equally obscure fares no better. The perception that a meme is already well-established makes it more likely to resonate. Citing a source may diminish that. If a memetic deployment is able to access a memetic nexus, a group of people who are directly connected to some distribution channel. One also hopes to become a memetic nexus, which sets one up for high levels of guaranteed memetic resonance. To become perceived as being a meme fountain that deploys memes that continue to dovetail with the existing and increasing inventory of memes of a growing cohort promises reliable and growing memetic reward. Stealing ideas that will play well amongst this cohort is an obvious tactic, in addition to continuing to produce one's own (which may become increasingly difficult). Stealing ideas from those who are influenced or inspired by one's previous work is particularly effective. The victims tend not to have the forum not the reach to fight back, and their only options may be to just keep going, stop working altogether, or change their style and output, effectively starting over at zero. This is the sort of memetic calculations, and hoped-for rewards, that drive people like authors, performers, artists, politicians, and even scientists.
Summary and Conclusions
Memes don't care if anybody gets credit, and it just slows things down, and possibly distorts the memes, to do so. To be at the center of a memetic nexus, one must regularly pump out memes which are palatable to the nexus cohort, and stealing the work and ideas of others becomes an attractive option to keep the stream going and the resonant rewards coming in. Memes want to move and be copied, and this is the imperative that they force on us. It is part of our human nature as memetic creatures.
One could imagine an immunomemeplex more sophisticated than gradeschoolers calling one another "Copy-Cats" or the adult version of academic censure for plagiarism (3) or having to wait for an over-burdened FBI to break your door down for downloading movies. This is a topic for another essay, I think.
(1) ...and historically governments, kings, emperors, corporations have spent a huge amount of effort controlling speech, or trying to.
(2) just like "selfish genes." cf., Richard Dawkins
(3) In Carnegie-Mellon University's Computer Science Department it was the full-time project of a graduate student to build and maintain a comparison system to check all of the code of all of the programming assignments of undergraduates to detect if they were "too similar."