What Would God Say About File-Sharing?

Opinion

The file-sharing, copyright and piracy debate continues to burn just as aggressively today as it did with the dawn of Napster. When compared to the seemingly endless wars of words over religion, however, it's only just begun, but the opposing sides in both debates seem equally polarized. So, for an argument that will probably never end, let's bring them both together.

religionWhile writing about any contentious issue has its pitfalls – and the file-sharing and copyright debate has many – bringing religion into the mix simply has to be a recipe for disaster. While the debate over copying music and movies has seen people argue aggressively over the Internet for more than a decade, at least no-one has been killed in that particular war. Religion really does have the potential to blow up in one’s face, and in the worst cases, literally.

But religion has so many good sides too and much to say on many issues, so what advice does it have to offer on file-sharing? Is it a sin? Or is sharing with one’s peers a supreme act of kindness and generosity?

As I was brought up by a fairly religious mother active in a branch of the Christian church, perhaps a good place to start is with Jesus, and God. Ok, technically they’re the same, but if we’re going to get bogged down in too many details we’ll be here forever. Bottom line – is file-sharing a sin?

The 8th of The Ten Commandments, Thou Shalt Not Steal, seems the closest direct answer to our question but also raises an age-old piracy dispute – is copying theft? In file-sharing circles the answer is generally ‘no’, one has to deprive the owner of the original in order for a theft to have taken place. But is it as simple as that? Isn’t it the purpose of most religions to offer guidance, to provide a moral compass by which one can lead life?

During the latter part of the previous decade organizations such as the RIAA and MPAA were very keen to press the moral stance of not sharing files, and have suggested that every copy affects the quality of life of someone, somewhere, in the entertainment business. But what happens when all elements collide – when file-sharing, music and Christians come together?

In 2004 the Gospel Music Association conducted a survey to find out how the Christian music industry had been affected by, presumably, Christian pirates.

“Like all other segments of the music industry, our album sales have been affected by the ongoing music piracy committed by consumers,” commented GMA president John W. Styll. “We went into this study wanting to learn more about our young consumers and how their faith intersects with this vital issue. We were somewhat surprised to find that it does not.”

Indeed, the survey found that Christian teens pirated at nearly the same rate as their non-religious peers during the previous 6 months, 77% and 81% respectively. It’s not clear if those questioned felt that their copying failed to constitute a sin or if they simply didn’t care. Nevertheless, copying hasn’t always been considered a sin.

According to all four Gospels, Jesus himself once took five small barley loaves and two small fishes and multiplied them using a kind of biblical BitTorrent swarm to enable the feeding of 5,000 people. They weren’t starving people, it just wasn’t convenient for them to get food where they were at that moment in time. While they all got to eat a very nice meal it could be argued that local fisherman and bakers wouldn’t have appreciated the slump in business, but there again they could have adapted more quickly and followed the demand……Sound familiar?

While the rule of God is all important to followers of a religion, there are other more earthly laws too, and luckily it appears they can work together.

According to Romans 13:1-7, Christians must obey the laws of the government they live under, which for American citizens means no recording a movie in a theater and definitely no up or downloading. British Christians seem to be obeying the rule of God when they cam a movie but file-sharing in either direction is still out. The Dutch, however, can stay on the good side of the Lord by downloading only for personal use.

All these variations means that making an internationally relevant religious decision is quite a task. But despite their differences, many religions have a similar moral base.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writing recently in The Jewish Week on whether or not file-sharing is kosher, says it all comes down to drawing the line between sharing and stealing.

“Before Al Gore invented the internet, I used to lend friends cassette tapes and no one arrested me,” he explains. “So why can’t I do the same thing via e-mail? I’m not selling the material. And as one bar mitzvah student put it to me a few years ago, after having downloaded 800 songs on the old Napster, ‘Being part of a sharing community makes me feel like I’m living out the commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.””

But shouldn’t the ‘spirit’ of Thou Shalt Not Steal rise above all other concerns? We’re back to that wavy line again, the one drawn between stealing and sharing. While the exact positioning of that line might be a throwaway issue for some, it will be of particular interest to file-sharers living in the 97% Muslim country of Saudi Arabia.

Governed under Islamic law with the Qur’an as its constitution, persistent thieves can lose a hand as punishment for their crimes. As it stands, Saudi Arabia does not consider copying to be stealing and instead chooses to fine infringers. Today, RapidShare, 4Shared and MediaFire are in the top 30 most-visited sites in the country. If sharing really did become stealing, expect all that to change.

TorrentFreak reader Pastor Burt Wilkins from God’s Church of Faith contacted us a couple of weeks ago with a nice email. While we can’t take credit for the work of the Vuze and uTorrent teams as he suggests, his message still stands.

“My life has been divided between the ministry and programming. Right now after 40 years of programming in 15 different languages I am now retired in the Philippines. I am writing you to tell you how impressed I am with uTorrent and Vuze and I am not one who is easily impressed,” he explains.

“It is written in the Book of Genesis, ‘In the beginning God created …..’ This is what you have done. You have created. Maybe the comparison is a bit of a stretch, but as a result of God’s creation billions of people have now dwelled upon the earth and hopefully benefited from the experience. You have joined that special category of special creatures that create and quite obviously millions of people have benefited from that creation.”

“I have now become a user of your program and find what you have created as awe inspiring. You have done something significant and something wonderful. I appreciate and I think understand what you have done and the journey that this has taken you on. I can see your dedication, determination and sense of vision,” he concludes.

Those familiar with the 4th commandment will recognize that by publishing this article today, I am in breach of it, but times have moved on so hopefully most people will forgive me for this particular sin. Time will tell if the various Gods in the universe will choose to forgive those who copy music and movies, or those who merely covet their neighbor’s files.

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