I want to raise an ethical issue for your consideration and input: copying and/or downloading music/movies.  Is this a form of theft, or is it morally acceptable?  This has become a widespread practice in the culture at large, as well as by Christians.

I am thinking of the following scenarios:

  1. Your friend purchased a CD you’ve been wanting to listen to.  S/he lets you borrow it, and you subsequently download the tracks to your computer and burn them onto a CD to keep for yourself.  Is this theft?
  2. Your friend illegally downloaded a CD you’ve been wanting to listen to.  S/he tells you s/he’ll let you borrow it.  Should you do so?
  3. Your friend bought a new Bible study program for his computer.  You would like to have it too, but don’t have the money to buy it yourself.  Your friend is willing to let you install his copy on your computer.  Should you?
  4. A man on the street is selling bootleg DVDs.  Is it morally acceptable to buy them?
  5. You download movies from the internet for free, and store them on your computer indefinitely, or burn it to a DVD that you keep in your permanent DVD library.  Is this theft?
  6. You download movies from the internet for free, but delete them (or destroy the disk) after you have watched them.  Is this theft?

To know whether any of these circumstances involve theft we first must define what theft is.  I think this is a good working definition: Theft involves taking something that properly belongs to another person without their permission, and/or using something for which a fee is required without paying the expected fee.  Given this definition, I think scenarios 1-5 are examples of theft.  Scenario 6 is not so clear.  Here is my rationale for each scenario:

Scenario 1: The music company that produced the CD did not give you permission to make a copy.  By making a copy of the CD you benefit from the product without paying for it (as the music company expects you to).

Scenario 2: If someone buys goods they know are stolen, they are indirectly complicit in the crime because they knowingly and directly benefiting from that crime.  For example, if your friend robs a bank, gives you $50,000 of that money, and you use that money knowing it was stolen, you are indirectly complicit in the crime.  I think the same principle holds true for using CDs that have been obtained through theft.  Using such CDs also sends a message to your friend that you approve of the means by which they obtained the CD.

Scenario 3: The software company that produced the program did not give you permission to make a copy.  By making a copy of the software you benefit from the product without paying for it (as the software company expects you to).

Scenario 4: The bootleg DVDs were created via illegal means.  If they were obtained through theft, then those who purchase them are indirectly complicit in the theft in the same way someone who purchases a stolen stereo (knowing it was obtained through theft) is indirectly complicit in the theft.

Scenario 5: The production company that produced the movie did not give you permission to make a copy.  By making a copy of the movie you benefit from the product without paying for it (as the owners expect you to).

One might counter-argue that scenarios 1-5 are not examples of theft because nothing physical is being taken from anyone.  In each case we are talking about digital information, not tangible objects.  This seems to be a bit different than walking into a store and stealing a CD/movie from the shelf (in which case something they have is being taken from them such that they no longer have it).  While I would agree that the theft involved in these scenarios takes on a different form than what we typically think of as theft, it is theft nonetheless.  If nothing else, the owner is being robbed of the money s/he would have otherwise gained if you had not copied/downloaded their product illegally.  You might say, “But they make too much money anyway.”  That may or may not be true, but it is irrelevant to the moral question.  Bill Gates may have more money than any human being needs, but that would not justify my taking $100 from his wallet.  The same holds true of taking music/movies from their owners without paying for use of their material.

One way to see why this is wrong is to use Immanual Kant’s approach to moral reasoning (the categorical imperative).  Kant argued that we can determine right and wrong by asking ourselves what the outcome would be if the behavior in question was universalized.  For example, if everyone killed other people it would result in the extermination of the human race; therefore, murder is morally wrong.  What would happen if everyone downloaded music/movies for free, if everyone bought bootleg DVDs rather than going to the theater to see the movie or buying/renting the DVD, or if everyone installed his/her friend’s computer programs onto their own personal computer?  These products would stop being produced.  It costs a lot of money to create these products.  If those who enjoy them do not pay those who made them, eventually no one will make them anymore.  If I spend $10 million dollars to produce a music CD, but only one person buys it for $15, uploads it to a music sharing website, and millions of other people download it for free, you can bet your bottom dollar I will not continue to produce such materials in the future because I cannot afford to do so.

Scenario 6: This one is a bit trickier.  On the one hand, given the temporary nature of the use, I’m not sure how much different this is from borrowing a book from a friend or borrowing a DVD from the library, which are clearly not instances of theft.  If one deleted the song/movie after enjoying it for a week or two, it may be morally acceptable.  Of course, downloading songs/movies for free differs from borrowing books from friends/libraries in that the former is legal while the latter is illegal.  As Christians we are called to obey the laws of the land, so we must take this into consideration (even if we might disagree with the law).

What are your thoughts on this issue?  Do you have a different perspective on any of the scenarios I raised, or do you have another scenario that “complexifies” the moral issues involved?  I would be interested in hearing your input.