Is piracy stealing? Thoughts on ethics and the internet – @tim_hutchings

Last month, I asked a question about ethics and the internet. If piracy is stealing, why do Christians do it? I’ve heard tales of illegal copying and downloading from the Christian music and print industries, but I’ve never heard a preacher say a word about this as a relevant ethical issue for Christian discipleship. Should we be more vocal about this issue, and if so, what should we be saying?

There are at least three different questions here. First, there’s a really important question about theological method: how do we figure out what’s right or wrong, in a new cultural context? Which sources do we listen do, and how much attention should we pay to what people are actually saying? Second, there’s an ethical question: is piracy wrong? And third, there’s a pastoral question: how should Christians address this issue in our conversations in church and in public, to encourage more ethical behaviour online?

Last month’s blog post picked up a bunch of responses across the blog, Facebook and Twitter, with two very different points of view. I’ll quote some of your responses here, but I’ll keep them anonymous.

1. Piracy is illegal downloading and that is stealing and stealing is WRONG!

This group of commenters based their argument on three passages of the Bible – the Commandment “thou shalt not steal”, Jesus’s instruction to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, and Paul’s command in Romans 13 to be “subject to the governing authorities”. All Christians should obey the law, whatever the law happens to be, even if they don’t like it, and churches should preach about obedience. There is nothing to discuss. “If something is against the law, then it’s against the law.” Christians download because they have “lazy theology”, or they are selfish and “self-serving” – as one commenter put it, “you can’t just take what you want”.

2. Piracy might be illegal, but if you really think about the internet you’ll see it isn’t really stealing.

This group of commenters used a completely different theological method. Instead of discussing the Bible, they started with their experiences and their ideas about the internet. Piracy “doesn’t feel like stealing,” and it isn’t really the same as stealing because you’re just taking a copy, and in some parts of the world people have different cultural assumptions about what counts as property anyway. From this point of view, the task of Christian discipleship should be to learn from internet culture and then work to change the unfair copyright system, because no one should obey laws that are unjust. According to one person, to think about internet ethics we first need to ask “what are the relevant circumstances of the environment that would help us reason about online activity”, instead of assuming that the Bible has easy answers.

So we have two different viewpoints here, using different methods, coming to a different conclusion and recommending a different course of action. It should be possible to reason theologically using the Bible, theological traditions, observations of culture and reason, all at the same time, but that isn’t easy. The comments on last month’s blog post tended to focus on just one of those sources – either the Bible, or culture-and-reason. Online comments tend to be short, so it’s possible that the medium encourages brief, one-dimensional contributions. Theological method is one of the challenges of online discipleship, and something we need to keep thinking about on this blog.

Personally, I’d favour the theological method that starts with an effort to understand the culture around us, looking particularly at the effects of illegal downloading on musicians and authors and then moving to theology as a second step. There are quite a few academic studies of the positive and negative impact of digital media on musicians and the music industry (here’s one example, by Nancy Baym) – where are the theological responses to their work?

If you’re looking for a longer discussion of these issues, Mark Howe and Stewart Clark have written a short book in the Grove series called “Creativity and Ownership in a Digital Age”, arguing that “a proper theology of humanity suggests that we should not treat ideas as property to be owned and sold”. Can you recommend other resources?




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.