[This op-ed article was published in Eastern University’s (my alma mater) newspaper, The Waltonian on Jan 31, 2013.]
Is it wrong to copy or download music? Now it may be illegal, and Christians ought to follow Rom 13 and submit to authorities, giving Caesar his due. But it is not morally wrong, in that copying is not actually theft!
Theft is wrong. But theft only occurs when a person is deprived of something rightfully his. So if I breathe air, I am not a thief, because air does not (or at least should not) belong to any one person. What if I see a carpenter make a table, and I make my own copy of his design? Or borrow a musical motif from Beethoven? Or recreate something I ate at a restaurant? I would not be committing theft because 1) I did not deprive anyone of anything belonging to him and 2) no one has a divine right to say a certain flavor-combination or musical chord progression is proprietary and exclusive. In other words, copyright is not a God-given right (yes, this applies to Hollywood and recording studios; they cannot take away your right to copy on moral grounds). [To see proofs that copyright is not a God-given right, see the articles of Frame and Poythress. For more information, see Copying Is Not Theft and my Church History Paper on Copyright.]
Now Christians may pull a James 5:4 and argue that copying is theft, because when artists’ wages are tied to royalties, copying a song without paying for it is equivalent to stealing wages. But this argument confuses the Biblical understanding of wages.
The Bible demands that labor—solicited labor, that is—ought to be fairly compensated. I cannot go to your house and mow your lawn without your consent and then demand that you pay me. That would be extortion on my part. This, too, applies to a music artist. Even if artist A spends ten years making a song, his work was not solicited, and so he cannot force people to buy it. Now he may choose not to share his work with the public. He can attempt to make money off it, ask for donations, or enter into contracts with agents and recording companies. But he has no exclusive copyright. He cannot own a musical motif or a string of words. Thus, when he goes public with the song, he cannot cry foul when people copy his work without paying him.
Of course, if a certain patron P commissions A to write a song for P (i.e. P gainfully employs A), then if P doesn’t pay what he has promised, he is committing theft by stealing A’s rightful wages. But what if P agrees to pay A via royalties? This would be wrong if P had to force the public to abide by P’s copyright in order to pay A fairly via royalties. The public has not solicited A’s work and therefore do not owe it to A or P to give up their right to copy. When P chooses to pay A by stripping the public of their right to copy without consent, P is properly the thief, as he deprives the public of their right to copy.
To wrap up, the Bible demands that employers do not withhold wages from laborers, but it does not mean laborers have a right to receive payment every time their work is used. In conclusion, copying is a right. Copyright (ironically) deprives people of their right to copy. So the next time you see someone copying music, don’t say, “It’s wrong.” Say, “It’s illegal.” Because it’s not wrong; the laws are unjust.