Thou Shalt Not... Download?

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There are peer-to-peer sites where copyrighted music is "shared" among millions of users. For those who love music, it sounds like the perfect solution: "If I want to have any music there is, I can have it right now—for free!" There is, however, one problem with this method of music-sharing: It is stealing!


When I was a teenager back in the olden days—the 1970s—the 8-track tape cartridge was a popular medium for portable music. From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, those chunky plastic cartridges were everywhere—in our living rooms, our bedrooms, and even our cars. By today's standards they had serious limitations; songs were interrupted when changing tracks, the player sometimes "ate" the tape, and we sometimes had to insert a ruler or similar object to keep the player from distorting the music in some way. Still, they were wildly popular, and everyone I knew used them.

One reason why 8-track tapes were popular is that people could do what my friends and I did; we would buy blank cartridges and fill them with our own music. My father owned a state-of-the-art 8-track tape recorder that I would use to transfer music from my long-play vinyl record albums onto the more portable cartridges. By doing this, I could create musical configurations of my own choosing—so every song would be good!

Was I "stealing music" back then? Although some record industry officials today would say "yes," courts have generally made it clear that when you purchase a piece of music, you acquire limited rights to use it as you see fit. No, I could not make copies for my friends, but if I had purchased an LP, I could make an 8-track copy for my own use, and could arrange the songs as I liked.

Back then, my friends and I did not even think of the legal concerns that apply to us today. We bought physical media, it was ours, and that was that. Today, however, the world of available music has virtually exploded, and new ways of acquiring music have emerged. Music fans today can download literally millions of different music files—without buying them—right on their computers.

There are peer-to-peer sites where copyrighted music is "shared" among millions of users. For those who love music, it sounds like the perfect solution: "If I want to have any music there is, I can have it right now—for free!"

There is, however, one problem with this method of music-sharing: It is stealing!

Breaking the Law?

Most people understand that tucking a CD under their shirt and walking out of a store is breaking the law. Many of those same people—who would never shoplift—feel no guilt about having thousands of unpurchased music files on their computers. But both are examples of theft—obtaining someone else's property through illegal means.

Most people who "share" music have a vague idea that it is "against the law," but they rationalize that "music wants to be free," or "music stars are rich enough," or "record companies are greedy dinosaurs who are out of touch with today's reality." Nevertheless, copyright law is clear. When you make unauthorized copies of someone's creative work, you are stealing—and you are breaking the law.

"I wouldn't ever buy it, so I'm not really stealing someone's profits," some may say. But would you buy a Ferrari Testarossa? No? Then do you have the right to take one? Of course not!

"But that's not the same! When you steal a Ferrari, they can't just make another copy for free," some will respond. Many music thieves forget that the process of creating the music, just like creating the Ferrari, was far from "free." Behind each piece of downloaded music, there are many more people than just the singers and musicians who have likely spent years in training to become able to perform their music for a living. For each song, many hours have been invested in writing and recording to make it just right. Multiply those hours by the number of songs on an album. Then consider all the time spent by all members of the group, and the studio musicians who have been employed to record the album. Then there are producers, engineers and other technicians who arrange, record and mix the recording. Then, consider that when music is released on compact disc, there are CD-plant workers, warehouse staff, record shop clerks and many others whose income depends on the sale of music. When you download a song illegally, you are hurting the livelihoods of more people than you may realize.

Do you have unauthorized copies of music on your computer? The courts continue to debate the exact definition of "authorized" copying. Some music industry groups, like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), have pushed for legislation that would make it illegal to record copies of music from your favorite radio station, and have tried to limit the degree to which individuals can make copies of purchased music for personal use. Other industry groups have taken the approach, generally supported by the courts, that as long as you purchased the music, and you make a limited number of personal copies for your own non-commercial use, you are not violating copyright. This is a contentious matter, and the RIAA has filed lawsuits against individuals who it believes have violated copyright laws by downloading music illegally. Ask yourself: is the "benefit" of "free" music worth the risk of a multi-thousand-dollar lawsuit?

Not Just Music

The same principle holds true for computer software. Pirated software is a huge global problem. According to a May 2008 global personal computer software study by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), the worldwide software piracy rate is 38 percent of all software used, at a cost of nearly $48 billion. John Gantz, chief research officer at IDC, the research firm that conducted the study, stated, "By the end of 2007, there were more than 1 billion PCs installed around the world, and close to half had pirated, unlicensed software on them." The important question becomes: does your computer right now have pirated, unlicensed software on it? If so, you have contributed to these statistics, and are part of the problem.

Again, some may say, "I would never have bought that software, so I'm not hurting anyone by taking a copy." But if you are using the software, you are gaining the benefit of dozens—maybe hundreds—of other people's hard labor. If you think they are charging an unfair price, you have the right not to buy the software, but you do not have the right to steal it.

Most piracy goes unnoticed, and very few pirates come to the attention of the courts, or the RIAA or BSA. Stealing music and software may be so easy that you do not give it much thought. But if you consider yourself a follower of God, all the technicalities of copyright law are swept away by the plain command of a higher authority. For a follower of Jesus Christ, there is no getting around the Eighth Commandment thundered down by God from Mt. Sinai: "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15).

Just Say No

Even though stealing music and software is easy, and it may seem like everyone does it, it is still wrong. Decide now to get rid of all the pirated files on your computer, and do not allow others to share files illegally with you. Yes, the problem will continue, but you do not need to be a part of it.

Support those who have worked hard to produce the music and software that you use and enjoy by obtaining them legally. By obeying your Creator, you will feel better about yourself, and you will be helping to ensure that in the future the artists and programmers will be able to create more things you like.

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