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Is Downloading Theft?

To download, or to download not, what do you think? A musician looks at the five top arguments people offer in support of the practice.

Exodus 20:15 says, "You shall not steal." And stealing, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is to take or appropriate without right or leave and with intent to keep or make use of wrongfully."

...when you listen to a recording you're supporting a whole lot of others who work to get the music from the artist's brain to your ear.

One of the most common ethical questions of our computer age is over the morality of downloading commercial music (that is, music created to be sold). Does it fit the definition of theft? Is it, therefore, unbiblical?

I had to ask myself these questions three years ago when I noticed how many "free" songs I had accumulated on my PC. And since my concordance has no listing for "MP3," I had to rely on plain ol' logic and prayer to work through my reasons for downloading. Here's the argument I had with myself.

1) I don't want the whole CD, just one song.

If a band chooses to market a collection of songs as a whole, that's their right. You wouldn't walk into a bookstore and photocopy chapters of a book you haven't bought, right? Moral implications aside, this argument is becoming invalid with the introduction of pay-for-download sites such as iTunes, which allow customers to download single songs for as low as 99 cents (Cdn) each. (Aside; I think iTunes is a great idea and encourage people to make more use of it.)

2) I wouldn't buy the whole CD, so they're not losing money. Besides, these guys are millionaires and won't miss my money.

It's impossible to know whether you would buy the CD if downloading was not an option, but let's assume you're sincere. The issue is not financial, it's moral. If you haven't paid for it, it's stealing, no mater how much or how little money it involves for the band. Jesus faced a similar question when the Pharisees asked if they should pay taxes, and His reply was "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's."

3) CDs cost too much, or I can't get the CD where I live.

The underlying belief here is that you have the right to possess the music, that music is different from other products because it's not a physical thing. It's laughable to think of walking onto a car lot and demanding a free car (or, in conjunction with the earlier arguments, a hubcap) because they cost too much. And artists do have the right (moral or legal) to charge what they want for it.

4) It's OK to download from bands, like Dave Matthews, who say it's OK.

Dave Matthews might want to call his label and find out how many people that statement is affecting. There are a lot of other people (managers, graphic artists, producers and engineers to name a few) who depend on record sales for their livelihood more so than Matthews because they can't sell $40 t-shirts or $150 concert tickets to make up the difference. If you want to support the band and only the band, fine; buy a ticket or a t-shirt. But when you listen to a recording you're supporting a while lot of others who work to get the music from the artist's brain to your ear.

5) I'm just sampling it to see if I like it.

Every record store I've been to (and worked in) allows you to crack open CDs and listen in-store. Besides, if a band really wants you to sample their stuff they'll post it on their website or give out samplers at shows. And lest we forget, there are many legal (and moral) ways like radio, e-radio, friends and television to sample your music.

After this argument with myself, I concluded that I couldn't, in good conscience, continue downloading music I hadn't paid for. I don't presume to know what God thinks about downloading, but it sure seems tough to justify biblically.

Downloders, take the time to have a similar argument with yourselves and see what conclusions you reach.

Kerry O'Brien is a Waterloo-based musician who has performed and recorded with artists like Token Glory, Jeremiah's Big Day Out, critical Mass and Monica Joy.

Originally published in Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 20, 2005.




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