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.