Is breach of copyright theft?

Claude Mariottini writes that You Shall Not Steal Thy Brother’s Song (sic with the mixture of “you” and “thou” forms, and I guess he intends it to refer to sisters’ songs as well). Thanks to Tim Bulkeley for this link and his discussion of the issue, and to Claude for his follow-up post. Let me first assure everyone that I agree that it is wrong to copy Christian and other songs without permission. But is this really what Claude claims it to be, theft and a breach of the Ten Commandments?

First, a note on profit making in the Christian music industry. I think Claude, Tim and I agree that excessive profits are a bad thing. But I wonder how many people in the Christian music sector are actually making large profits? Very few here in the UK, I am sure. And many of those who are making a profit are ploughing it back into ministry of one kind or another. No doubt some are also making a reasonable living. But, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:14 (TNIV),

the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

The same principle surely applies to those who serve as Christian musicians.

However, if people copy these musicians’ music without permission, is that theft? Claude argues that it is, because the copyright on the music is “intellectual property” and to breach that copyright is theft of this “property” and so a breach of the commandment. I don’t think so. Nor is it coveting something that belongs to my neighbour, as Claude suggests in his reply to my comment.

For theft, as it would have been understood by the original recipients of the Ten Commandments, referred only to material things, and perhaps also to people and animals. So did coveting, as is made clear by the examples (house, wife, servant, ox, donkey) in the tenth commandment. Also theft referred only to original objects of which the owner was deprived, not to taking copies so that the owner loses nothing. The Israelites would have had no concept that anyone could steal or even covet the “intellectual property” of anyone else, as distinct from the papyrus or tablet that it was written on. For the concept of “intellectual property” dates back only to the 19th century, more than 3000 years after the commandments were given – although intriguingly the Jews who wrote the Talmud had a concept of Gnevat daat, theft of knowledge, but even that was perhaps 1500 years after Mount Sinai.

We cannot allow the Ten Commandments to be extended in their application just because modern civil law extends its scope. That could lead to ridiculous consequences. Suppose for example some agents for celebrities decided that they didn’t want their clients to be seen or photographed without extracting a fee. So they decide to claim ownership of any light coming from their clients’ faces and bodies, calling it their “luminous property”, and condemning unauthorised viewing as “theft of luminous property”. Now does that suddenly become a breach of the commandment, just because someone has called it theft? Perhaps these agents even manage to get this “theft” prohibited by the law of some country. Does it then become a breach of the commandment in that country, but not in another country?

No, we cannot allow pressure groups, or greedy individuals and companies (the secular ones who came up with the idea of “intellectual property” in the first place), or even government legislatures, to redefine or extend the scope of the laws of God. If we start down that route, we end up in the kind of situation where, as Jesus explained in Mark 7:9 (TNIV), the Pharisees were

setting aside the commands of God in order to observe [their] own traditions!

So, how should we Christians relate to copyright law and “intellectual property”? We should note that according to the secular laws which we are expected to observe, it is (at least in most countries) illegal to copy someone else’s work without permission. If we do so, we are not breaking God’s law and (apart from Christ) under his condemnation, but we are breaking the law of the state and subject to its penalties. However, in our dealings with our fellow Christians, including Christian musicians, we should not rely on the law of the land and expect to see matters resolved in the courts (compare 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Rather, we should avoid wronging one another. And when that other is a Christian musician, this clearly implies not copying their songs without their permission. This should be obvious enough to all Christians without inflaming the situation unnecessarily with accusations of theft and breaking the Ten Commandments.

5 thoughts on “Is breach of copyright theft?

  1. Cris, commenting on Claude Mariottini’s blog, has pointed me to an excellent article by Vern Poythress, which makes the same kinds of points which I do in more depth. He argues that copying

    is not after all morally wrong. It has been made into a “wrong” by arbitrary laws. … In my opinion, both the so-called “property” and the so-called “rights” have been created out of thin air to conceal the actual situation, namely that the government is using bad laws to subsidize monopolists.

    I’m not sure that I would go all the way with Poythress, for I would accept that an artist has some rights to their own work, but I am closer to his position than to that of those who call unauthorised copying theft.

    Poythress says he can only speculate on

    what might happen if the restrictions on copying were loosened.

    Not quite, he can look at what happens in the many countries in the world (mostly towards the East) where such restrictions, even if existing in theory, are in practice not enforced and ignored by almost everyone. I used to live in such a country. But his speculations seem reasonably accurate about what things were like there: life went on, but intellectual work tended to depend on sponsorship.

  2. Peter,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I will read the article suggested by Chris and then, probably, write a response. You and I are in agreement about the question of copyright. The only issue is whether violating copyright laws can be considered theft.

    At least, this topic allowed us to discuss a topic that is of interest to all of us.

    Claude Mariottini

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    The concept of theft and ‘intellectual property’ is a curious one, especially when including and concerning billion-dollar corporations commonly treated as ‘persons’ under the law as in corporate personhood (, corporations have been also considered psychopathic in ‘personality’, see the film documentary “The Corporation”).

    This is also curious when considering versions or translations of the Holy Bible which are also copyrighted, sometimes trademarked, and then to consider distribution of the Bible, or portions thereof, as ‘theft’.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful comments.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image