Copying is Stealing?

Mark Loughridge is accusing me of mendacity: He says that copyright infringement is stealing. I say I don’t get it. He says I get it just fine and I’m just playing dumb.

I suppose he’s right. I do comprehend the argument: infringement=stealing. I just think it’s a stupid, fallacious, incoherent argument, which actually undermines any desire that responsible and upright Christians might otherwise have to obey the law.

There are two very good reasons to avoid copyright infringement:

  • First of all, it’s illegal. There is in fact a law against it. It’s a very bad law, stupid and shortsighted, having the effect of crippling the very people it’s designed to protect. But it’s a law, and Christians have a responsibility to obey the law. The only reason a Christian might feel compelled to break the law is if a law, or a person in authority, requires of them something that is clearly immoral and insubordinate to God. Feeding Terry Schiavo is a good reason to break the law. Acquiring copies of music without paying any money isn’t. In fact, it speaks of loving either music or money more than God.
  • Secondly, it’s risky. No, I don’t mean you might get caught. I mean that the vast majority of the resources where you can acquire copies of copyrighted material are hazardous to your soul. They don’t just trade music on p2p networks. In fact, though I don’t have any statistics at hand, I would hazard a guess that the majority of the traffic on “music trading” sites actually involves the trading and dispensing of pornography. Regardless of the ethics of downloading music, Christians do have a moral imperative to stay as far as humanly possible from such resources. They are evil; they are vile; and they incite all sorts of corruption.

Frankly, you don’t need any more arguments than the ones above. But the line “copying is stealing” is a simpler argument. It’s easier to understand and, I admit, it packs a lot more punch. But it’s a false statement; it’s bad reasoning, and it undermines the inherent weight of the command of God not to steal by watering down “theft” with things that are intrinsically less than theft. When you say “copying is stealing,” you think you’re adding weight to the law not to infringe copyright. And you are. But the equation works both ways. If you can say that “copying is every bit as bad as stealing,” then you can also say that “stealing isn’t any worse than copying,” and suddenly stealing isn’t all that bad.

I asked Mark to put the line “copying is stealing” in terms that Moses could understand, and he replied: “It is stealing in exactly the same way that walking into a shop, lifting the software off the shelf and walking out without paying is stealing. You don’t honestly think for a second that it is the little plastic box and the small shiny plastic disk that costs the money do you?” But it doesn’t really matter what costs the money. When I walk into a music store and buy a CD, what I am *buying* is a plastic box, with a piece of paper in it, and a little plastic disc that has music written on it. The music may have intrinsic value in the millions, but what I’m buying is a plastic disc. If I walk out of the store with a shoplifted CD, I won’t get sued for copyright infringement. The police will be called, and I will be sent to jail and fined upwards of $200. I can’t cry out, “Wait! it’s just a copy! they can make more for nothing!” because they can’t. The store had to buy a little piece of plastic, and they were expecting to sell me a little piece of plastic.

If I take it out of the realm of recordings, it may become more concrete. Take an apple (wait! don’t take it! We’re talking about theft here. BUY the apple…). The genetic information required to produce an apple has nearly infinite worth. We can’t *manufacture* apples. We can’t even manufacture the DNA required to produce the apple. Yet apples cost pennies on the pound. Why? Because what we’re buying is the actual apple and apples are relatively cheap to reproduce. Keep in mind that the genetic information from apple to apple within the same breed is generally similar, so this is hardly a fallacious analogy.

Now imagine for a second that I am a brilliant engineer, and I invent a machine that can produce (ala Star Trek) a flawless reproduction of anything I put in it. I buy a nice Granny Smith apple (my favorite), I put it in my machine, and presto! Within 35 seconds, I now have two identical Granny Smith apples, for the cost of water and air and electricity. In fact, my machine saved a copy of the information necessary to do it again, so now I have an infinite supply of almost free apples. Does the farmer, a personal representative of Granny Smith herself, get to sue me for theft? No. What I bought was an apple, and everyone knew it. Everyone also knows that the bottom just dropped out of almost every industry in the world, because what we’ve been paying for isn’t information, but the thing itself. We’re not going to continue paying the same price for something we can produce ourselves without any effort.

Mark quotes Deuteronomy and 1 Timothy in support of his argument that copyright infringement is stealing. Respectively, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox while it treads the grain,” and “The labourer is worthy of his hire.” Please understand that I’m not in favor of ox muzzling or unfair wages. As I said above, I’m not in favor of copyright infringement, and to the best of my ability, I don’t. It’s his argument that I think is bad. Ox muzzling, and ox robbing are two different things, and I think Moses and Paul recognized that. Paul believed that it was appropriate for churches to pay their ministers. There’s no indication that he thought it would be appropriate for churches to only buy copies of his letters from himself alone, or his authorized representative.

So let’s define some terms, please: **Stealing** is taking something, such that the original owner no longer has access to that thing. If I steal your hat, you don’t have that hat anymore. It is immoral, against the law of God. **Copying** is making a replica of something, such that the original owner retains access to the original and the copier has access to the copy. If I make a copy of your hat, we both have similar hats, and people think we’re the Blues Brothers. It is morally neutral, and can be used for evil or for good. **Copyright infringement** is copying without the owner’s permission, in violation of the law. If I put your hat into my magic machine, I can wipe out the entire manufacturing economy. In the case of music, this is inevitable. The bottom *will* drop out of the recorded music industry.

Yet copyright infringement is still morally questionable, and *at this time* it is illegal. Therefore, as Christians, we should not do it.

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

10 thoughts on “Copying is Stealing?”

  1. Hi there,

    Thanks for your clarification.

    Just to clarify – I didn’t say copying is stealing at any point. Nor did you ask me specifically to ‘I asked Mark to put the line “copying is stealing” in terms that Moses could understand…”

    Copying is NOT stealing – instead copying something that someone else has produced and copyrighted so that they do not receive the reward for their work is stealing.

    It is not stealing the product per se, but it is stealing from them the renumeration for their work.

    My argument was the same as the one you understand (a la your top paragraph), that copyright infringement is stealing.

    Hence my title:

    “Thou shalt not pass round copyrighted mp3’s or rip someone else’s cd’s”

    Take care


    PS I see your point about the copy machine – but the idea of intellectual property is what i was drving at.


  2. Thank you thank you thank you.

    This was actually discussed on the radio the other day. The djs were predicting that cds will go the way of vinyl and tapes and it will eventually all be entirely digital, accessible on the radio – cutting out the middleman and allowing the actual musicians to make full profit.

    I guess you could say (and I think a lot do) that the record labels steal from the musicians..

    At school there was a poster on one of the tables advertising a concert featuring two girls from around here that won some country-ish music competition. Their prize was a record deal with 500 cds put out (or was it $500 worth of cds?) with the profits going ENTIRELY to the label. That’s just bull.


  3. Another thing I wonder about.

    Radio stations. They pay their fees to play whatever artists’ songs on the radio. I can turn my radio on and make a copy. I didn’t keep any royalty fees from the artist, but I also didn’t pay anything. I can turn around and put this back on the internet.

    Where’s the stealing, there?


  4. Sorry —
    I have to stand by ‘copying is stealing.’

    It was one of the things that crippled the studio. The people to whome Louie would sell a proof for $10 with no other purchase necessary [against Da’s instructions] and then they would go to Walmart/Kinko’s and copy what would amount to a $300 package. Actually the PPofA brought a lawsuit against Kinko’s for it and won.

    I was standing in a check-out line once and saw a lady who asking for help from a wal-mart associate. In her hand was one of Da’s pictures [couldn’t mistake the background & props] that she had just ran off a few 8×10’s of.

    No, She didn’t pay fo a piece of paper with a picture printed on it — she was stealing all the years and expense of training that enabled Da to take a picture that she like well enough to want multiple 8×10’s of. She was incapable of reproducing that picture using her own photographic skill so she stole his.

    My other issue is that downloading something rather than paying maket price for it would be for me like saying, “My God is unable to supply” or “I want something beyond what my God is willing to supply so I’ll just take it for myself.” I probably have more movies and books than any rational person needs or should want — some have been freebies and I’m never too proud to turn down a free book [even when I don’t have adequate shelving] but I cannot justify to myself the implication of downloading something that I can go into a store and buy.


  5. The odd thing is that copying the song off the radio isn’t illegal. They tried to make it illegal when radio was first invented, but it was shot down under the concept of “reasonable use.” However, the current law is that when you make the song available again on the internet, you ought to pay a similar fee, at the same time, releasing it in a format that makes it very difficult for the listener to copy it to *their* computer.

    There are similar bizarre legal loopholes for written music. I can buy a CD that has PDF files of chord charts for all the songs. I may print as many of these files as I want, however I may not distribute them to my friends. They have to buy their own CD. On the other hand, I *am* allowed to perform the song at a church, provided the church has an appropriate CCLI contract. So… am I allowed to distribute copies of the PDF to other church musicians? What if I merely listen to the CD, notating the proper chords. Can I distribute that information? Currently, yes, but only if I don’t include the words.

    Current contracts between distribution companies and recording artists are incredibly rapacious, and I think it’s entirely correct to say that, in terms of God’s law, what music companies are doing is closer to stealing than any copyright infringement you or I could do. The workman is worthy of his hire, and those are *not* equitable wages. On the other hand, they’ve got a contract. It’s difficult to argue that you’re violating the law as a form of civil disobedience when the musicians have agreed to the terms. Slaves had every right to run away (steal themselves) because no slave ever agreed to enslavement. How can you “liberate” a musician who has agreed to his bondage? You find a way to get a contract with a musician to distribute his music for free over the internet, though, (Creative Commons license, anyone?) and you can do whatever you want.


  6. Maybe the change in the recording industry will come not from the artists who already have contracts, but from emerging bands that see what is happening to those that have been around for a while, and make the decision to remain entirely independent and market themselves how they see fit. The internet is perfect for that.


  7. So what happens to the poor photographer whom consumers feel entitled to rip-off because everyone knows it doesn’t cost that much to print a picture.


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