Is Copying a Copyrighted Work Theft?

This post/essay is dedicated to Poythress and Frame. Any faults arising from this post are solely mine. I thank Poythress and Frame for engaging so helpfully with the issue of copyright, and Soli Gloria Dei (to God alone be the Glory).

Note the question is not, “Is copying a copyrighted work illegal?” The answer is obviously yes, but that is not what I am concerned with. [Let me be clear. I am not advocating that you go out and break the law! Christians ought to follow the law obediently, but no slavishly and unquestioningly.]

Poythress argues in his article on copyright that theft in the biblical/moral sense of the word (not in the sense defined by the MPAA (Hollywood) or recording studios) can only occur if something that one rightfully owns something (say, a chair), and then someone takes the chair away so that the rightful owner is deprived of it and can no longer use it. So breathing air is not theft, because air doesn’t belong to any particular industry or corporation. Copying also is not theft, because it multiplies goods and does not deprive the original owner of anything (except prestige, perhaps, but this, Poythress notes, is irrelevant).

After talking with other Christians, the only serious objection they could raise to the contrary (that is, copying a copyrighted work is theft/morally wrong) is by pointing to the fact that a great amount of labor may have entered into producing a copyrighted work, and surely the Bible teaches that to withhold the wages of a laborer is to commit theft (James 5:4). Such an argument is advanced by Stephen G. Jamieson in his article, “Thou Shalt Not Share? An Ethical Analysis of Peer-to-peer File Sharing.” Presbyterion 32, no. 2 (September 2006): 93–105.

Jamieson concedes that the Bible does not specifically talk about wages in terms of copyright royalties, but he assumes that copyright royalties can be equated with wages, and thus to copy without paying royalties is presumably to withhold payment of royalties, which is presumably to withhold wages and is thus theft, according to James 5:4.

However, I believe this argument is misleading, because it misunderstands what wages are. I contend that unless a laborer has a right or a reasonable case to expect payment he cannot, naturally, expect payment. [OBVIOUS FACT/ TRUISM 1]

A laborer must first have the right to expect to be compensated for his work. This can be illustrated with a simple anecdote. Suppose I am driving in the city and find a parking spot on the street. I then proceed to turn on my turn signals (this is traffic law in Pennsylvania) and begin the process of parallel parking. As it turns out, an enterprising fellow comes out to help me parallel park by seeing how close I am to the car behind me and motioning and signaling to me as I am sitting in my driver’s seat. He has performed a helpful service to me. However, I did not ask for it. I may choose to pay him out of gratitude. I may also choose to pay him out of concern that when I am away from my car, he may take a crowbar and dent it. But I am not required by Scripture to pay him. If I do not pay him, I am not withholding rightful wages, and so I cannot be properly accused of theft. If he intends to damage my car unless I pay him, this is properly called extortion (on his part). Therefore, a laborer cannot by moral right demand to be paid for unsolicited labor/services. That is, a worker must be employed by an employer.

Returning to the case of copyright, then, if an author self-publishes a work, he cannot properly cry out “Theft!” if someone copies his work, because the Bible allows for people to copy works, and such people are not withholding wages, because the work he created was done without solicitation. He was not gainfully employed. He may be able to cry out “Copyright Infringement!” and seek to bring the copier to court. However, this speaks more about the injustice of copyright law than it does about morality (at least as the Bible understands it … I don’t particularly care about the moralizing done by Hollywood or other lobbyists or even other Christians who have not engaged seriously with Scripture).

What if an author’s work is commissioned by a publisher so that the publisher has copyright? First of all, the author can negotiate his own contract with the publishers. If the publishers agree to pay him but then renege on actual payment, we can say that this is properly theft, because promised wages (for solicited labor) were withheld. But if after negotiating with the publisher, the author agrees to be paid in royalties, so be it. But what if someone tries to copy the copyrighted work? The publisher cannot legitimately cry “Theft!” because no wages are withheld from the publisher. Let’s mention the obvious: the publisher itself may not even be doing any labor (of course, there may be others, such as editors and cover artists who are laboring to produce the book, but not the publisher as an entity). And again, the above reasoning applies: the publisher is commissioning a work that the public has not asked for; the book is unsolicited.

But can’t one argue that the author is losing out on his wages because he has agreed to royalties? No, because such a work is unsolicited (in the eyes of the public), and for royalties to be morally enforced, all who wish to copy must agree to give up such a right. Besides, the whole process of royalties and copyright is ethically dubious on the part of the publisher. Any employer (such as the publisher in this case, or say, a recording studio), can only pay its employees with its own money (i.e. an employer has a right to give an employee only that which he has a right to give (OBVIOUS FACT/TRUISM 2)). To illustrate the obvious, I have no right to commission a laborer to work for me and promise to pay him with your money (unless you owed it to me, and so I would actually have a “right” to your money). You have not agreed to it. This applies to royalties and copyright. The publisher essentially does no work and shells out none of its own money. Instead, it trades away the rights of the public, something it does not have the right to do (unless the public gives said rights to the publisher). Therefore, neither the author nor the publisher can properly cry “Theft!” Again, they (actually, just the publisher, if the author has signed away copyrights) can take copiers to court and argue that copyright was infringed, but a copier who copies transgresses no moral law (save obedience to the governing authorities, though this is morally grounded in obedience to God?). Thus, the copier only transgresses human law, and an unjust one at that.

One thing that has been consistent throughout is that copyright has little to do with the withholding of wages. Copyright infringement, then, is most certainly not theft. And on that note, this is why I believe that a just government ought never to enforce copyright law (better yet, scrap copyright law), award patents, or protect “intellectual property.” This is morally untenable and morally unjustifiable coercion. Indeed it is theft. As Frame suggests, “for government to penalize consumers in order to give special benefit to an industry [i.e. Hollywood and the rest of the content industry, this] might well come under the biblical definition of theft.” So maybe we need to exercise our legal rights to change those laws (and the fact that we can change those laws means that they are not always morally grounded).

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5 thoughts on “Is Copying a Copyrighted Work Theft?

  1. Pingback: Church History Paper on Copyright | Home of Uninterpreted Facts

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  3. Pingback: The Bible Allows You to Be a Pirate: Or Why You Should Stop Moralizing about Copyright | Home of Uninterpreted Facts

  4. Pingback: Word to the Wise (I.e. Mentally-Challenged DRM-Apologists) | Home of Uninterpreted Facts

  5. Pingback: Copyright and Property Rights Revisited | Home of Uninterpreted Facts

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