Thou Shalt Not Share

Pirate-bay What are the implications of extending the word “stealing” to include “unauthorised sharing”?

Some words to consider

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. (Acts 4:32)

You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ (Mark 10:19)

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11)

12 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not Share

  1. i would highly recommend the film ‘r.i.p. – a remix manifesto’ in addressing this issue. i think much of the anti-piracy debate has only arisen because of the rise of people (read: corporations) immorally clinging to culture in order to make money. take them out of the equation and allow culture to return to being dialogue rather than brainwash and any seeming contradiction outlined in your quotes above dissolve.
    you can watch it (legally and fully) online at – though it is a full movie, set aside an hour and a half.


  2. The sharing passages mentioned concern necessities of life, so have limited applicability to music.
    The civil-disobedience argument for file sharing is that music companies are no longer necessary for music distribution, but in clinging to their market hegemony, now harm more artists than they help. This can be through controlling airplay to such an extent that those without contracts cannot obtain exposure; or by having thus created ‘demand’ for contracts, tilting them steeply in their own favour, such as by giving the artist 5% of proceeds and paying all promotional costs out of that 5%. Consumers who find this repugnant can pay artists without paying their labels, however. This is done by buying their merchandise, on which they make 100% of the proceeds; a single t-shirt sale can be worth twenty CD sales because of standard industry contracts. To proceed from informed purchasing to civil disobedience, one then also copies their music to as many people as possible, and encourages them to act in the same way for the same reasons. In the Christian tradition of civil disobedience, the aim is to be arrested and imprisoned in order to highlight the injustice and seek social change. My personal choice is to develop my musicality and play songs from memory; more enjoyable and difficult to charge for.
    In a Christian context, I think a ‘sharing’ (information) ethic applies most importantly to education: we don’t have something like the Khan Academy yet. I’ve more ideas now for blogging, and when I take it up it may go in that direction.


  3. This week I have just gone self-employed. I have been earning a portion of my income through writing for some time. I am well aware that anything I write can and will be ‘shared’ and that I will receive no reward for my work. At least, if my book is borrowed via a library, I will receive some small benefit. I know it’s easy to make mistakes but it’s more honest to say piracy is theft and then argue about the mitigating circumstances.


  4. Phil, do you expect that your writing will be copied by blogs (is it online writing?), students and professionals (is it a text?) or admirers (is it fiction?) — What is the avenue by which you expect you will lose income?
    The comment on libraries is interesting, as they arose before the major rise in literacy in the 18th and 19th centuries and thus were a kind of established usage; would you like, as an author, to either profit from or prevent or use of your book in second-hand bookshops and libraries, or any private loans of your books between individuals? If not, should their electronic analogues be permitted? Or is it only the potential scale of electronic copying that is of concern?


  5. I think downloaded files from the net which are uploaded and share with others is somehow not a form of stealing. It’s just a modern way of sharing what you have to others. Most especially those people who are not asking for payment.


  6. I was thinking much broader than music sharing in posing the question. Books, DNA, repeats of 70s shows that you’ve seen a thousand times on TV but can no longer find anywhere else other than a file sharing site, the list could go on. Any form of information that used to be shared but is now being restricted. Even with music, what about sourcing digitized versions of vinyl records you have already purchased legitimately? But beyond all this, the broader social impact on our idea of sharing. Just as Facebook has devalued the word “friend” how is the information age devaluing the words “sharing” and “stealing”?


  7. Another great post Matt.
    If I steal your bike, I deprive you of something you own. If I make a copy of your bike and use that, then I’ve deprived you of nothing. Depriving you of something you own is theft, not copying.
    It amazes me how we tell children to share, but when they get older we tell them it’s wrong to share – in fact we are hurting people when we share. I find it equally ironic that Christians ape the world system of intellectual property ownership. Did you write the song for God or money? Do you want the word of God to be spread or to provide you income?
    It’s a total duel mentality. If God gave you a song then did he give it you for worship or did he give it you to make money off? I know some Christians don’t see a difference between the two but or me it looks like a balancing act between serving two masters.
    Finally the most ironic of all is the corporations want you to buy their content, but at the same time they don’t let you own it – instead they have subtlely changed the wording in places and introduced DRM so you are effectively buying a license. A more restrictive license than you ever had when you purchased hardcopy – and as Amazon has proved, they can take it back off you at any time – unlike hardcopy. Yet they want to call this theft when you duplicated it? How can you steal something that isn’t even owned in the first place?
    Let’s not get started on how they want to charge the same price as hardcopy for a digital work which costs less than a penny to reproduce and distribute…


  8. I’d tried to find a couple of links on this when posting a few days ago. Finally located them…
    (1) A comment on the desire of labels to protect the interests of musicians, as expressed in standard recording contracts…
    (2) A reaction which advocates piracy as a protest…
    Music isn’t a particularly central thing in my life; I play some for my own interest, but don’t even listen to it most of the time; so this affects me not much.
    But if I wanted to make a living from music, I’d probably be convinced that the current status quo had to be changed, insofar as the major labels, by effectively extorting the copyright to music away from it’s creators, then actively impeding airplay and distribution for anyone who won’t pay their tolls, were acting as a cartel against my interests.
    That, I think, is the positive case for piracy as protest. But as I’ve said, Christian civil disobedience focuses on shining a spotlight on unjust laws, not merely enjoying criminality.


  9. True, that’s why I think it needs discussion. Because on the one hand I do see the criminalization of sharing as potentially corrosive, but on the other hand a cavalier attitude to the law is also corrosive, so I don’t think it’s a question we can answer with a pithy slogan or five second tweet.
    Consider this conundrum I now have courtesy of Amazon. My wife and I have two Kindles linked to two separate Amazon accounts. Technically speaking, it would be illegal of me to crack the digital rights management on an Amazon purchased book to share it with her electronically …. even though it is perfectly legal for us to swap the actual Kindles. So, in a real sense Amazon are dictating to my wife and I how we should share EVEN WITHIN OUR OWN FAMILY. The temptation to ignore the in-house sharing restrictions are quite high I find. But then, should we subvert such an apparently rediculous restriction, where does one then draw the line? This gets me wondering about the long term spiritual impacts of technological shifts. The technology is brilliant, but like all new technologies it raises ethical conundrums.
    But beyond this question there is also the question of: should Christians copyright in the first place? This in turn raises wider questions about the commercialization of discipleship. What would Simon Magus do (WWSMD)?


  10. I’m going to focus on the publishing industry, as I happened to get schooled by both an author and two different librarians on this very topic. The first thing that they pointed out to me is that when it comes to book, there are more people who need to be paid for the work they put into a book than the author. There are editors, people who format and lay the actual pages of the book out (often two different sets of people for hardcopy and electronic editions), and so on. They all deserve to get paid.
    There’s also the fact that most books in print actually result in a net loss for the publishers. In fact, they’re currently working on cutting costs (which is why many librarians and other bibliophiles in the know are lamenting the increasingly poor editing most new books go through, as expecting the author to do their own editing is a great cost-cutting measure) to keep the losses from getting out of control — not to mention increase the profit margins of those miraculous bestsellers and textbooks that manage to turn a profit.
    It’s easy to talk about “greedy corporations,” but truth be told, there are people working in those corporations that need to get paid too. And piracy robs them just as much — perhaps moreso, as they need what little money they get from each sale — as the fat cats at the top.


  11. In the specific case you mention I’m not saying I disagree. I likewise have many friends who are authors. However by calling it “stealing” rather than “unauthorized copying” are we muddying the ethical waters rather than clarifying them? Stealing, admittedly, has a well ingrained emotional pull. But such language is only going to have traction to the extent that people take it seriously. What we are faced with here though is a shift of value between the tangible and the intangible. In pre-digital cultures the tangible had more value. In post-digital cultures the opposite seems to be emerging. Yet few are discussing it. Fuzzing the language hardly helps us to tease out the new realities I feel. In short, I think there needs to be clearer and more concise dialogue on the ethics of unauthorised copying as a legitimate topic in and of itself. In some cases unauthorised copying can harm artists, in other cases restricting copying can count as repression. How can we clarify the difference between the two if we don’t even clarify the language?


  12. Hey man, just discovered your blog and I’m loving it, but I must disagree with this. I come from Northern Ireland, the music scene here is good but small. A number of bands over the years have literally been crippled and had to split up after spending everything on the release of an album and then people ‘sharing’ it through torrent sites. Most recently a fantastic instrumental group called ‘And So I Watch You From Afar’ had to half the price of their latest album and then further reduce the cost because a high quality torrent was leaked. As a result most of the members had to move back in with their parents because they couldn’t meet rent and one of the guitarists had to leave. This came just after a European tour with Them Crooked Vultures, (one of Dave Grohls side-projects) which I would imagine was a good earner, so it shows just how debilitating file sharing on the Pirate Bay etc, can be.


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