Digital Information is “Property” after all

In a welcome development the New Zealand Supreme Court had just confirmed in Dixon v R (SC 82/2014) [2015] NZSC 147 that digital information is “property”: see http://www.courtsofnz.govt.nz/front-page/cases/jonathan-dixon-v-r-1

Putting the more salacious aspects of the Mike Tindall incident to one side what is important for the IT industry, the law and society more generally is that the Supreme Court has rejected the notion that digital files are “pure information” – finding they can be “property” within the meaning of the legislation and were things which could be owned and dealt with in the same way as other items of personal property. 

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed Dixon’s appeal and found that the word “property” does not have a fixed, technical meaning but must be interpreted in context. The Crimes Act defines “property” broadly, to include both tangible and intangible property. The Court’s view was that considering both statutory purpose and context, “property” in s 249(1)(a) of the Crimes Act included the data files at issue (containing the footage of the Tindall incident). Those data files were identifiable, were capable of being owned and transferred and had an economic value. 
On this basis the Court concluded that they fell within both the popular and legal meanings of “property” and that it is a more natural interpretation of s 249(1)(a) to say Dixon took “property” when he acquired the digital files, as opposed to a “benefit”.
In my view this is a good decision which finds common ground between popular and legal meaning – when all too often this is lost in translation.

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