If piracy is stealing, why do Christians do it? – @tim_hutchings

Do Christians have anything to say about the ethics of the internet? 

If they do, where are they saying it, and is anyone listening?

Think about digital piracy. There are lots of ethical questions to ask about how to behave online, of course, but this one seems particularly interesting to me. Christians seem to have a bit to say about pornography and being nice on Twitter, but those are just about the only issues I’ve seen discussed. Let’s think about something else.

Piracy has been a big issue for any industry that sells something in a digital format – music, movies, images, software, and now books. It’s easy to copy, share and download files without paying for them, and lots of people do. Recently, I’ve heard from some book publishers that Christian industries are also struggling with piracy, because lots of Christians are happy to download  Christian music and books (and Bibles) without paying for them. This is a bit of a puzzle – don’t Christians spend an awful lot of time talking about right and wrong? 

One possible answer is that Christians are no better than anyone else. Christian theology talks about right and wrong, but it also talks about sin. Christians are forgiven, but they aren’t made perfect. So perhaps we shouldn’t expect theology to make any difference to how people act.  

Here’s another answer. Maybe Christians who steal copies of music, books and Bibles have thought about this issue, and they have decided it isn’t wrong at all. In 2004, a survey in the USA reported that only 1 in 10 Christian teenagers thought downloading music illegally was morally wrong. Who loses anything, really, if you copy something you were never going to buy? And wouldn’t Jesus really want you to have music and books that will help your faith? Maybe it’s wrong for anyone to charge money for Christian resources. Maybe the real problem here is that anyone expects a “Christian publishing industry” to own creative work and sell it for money, and the sooner the industry finds a more sensible business model, the better.

There are a few alternative responses to the piracy issue online. Blogger Tim Challies argues that Christians should obey the law of the land, whatever the law says. The United Church of God is the first Christian denomination to come up in a Google search for this topic, and the UCG says that the Bible forbids stealing, and also that workers deserve to be paid. But actually, most of the hits on that Google search were for web forums – people discussing this question amongst themselves, without involving Christian leaders or churches.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon in church that said anything about how to behave online – certainly not a serious discussion of downloading music. I don’t think we’ve discussed this issue at the Christian New Media Conference in London, either (someone correct me if I’m wrong!).

So! Back to the opening questions in this post. Do Christians have anything distinctively Christian to say about right and wrong and the internet? If so, what’s the best way to communicate that message to Christian believers?

Let me know what you think – and next month, I’ll come back to this topic of “internet ethics” and see if we can take this discussion a bit further.

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.