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Christian Piracy

Yesterday I wrote that Sex Isn’t Selling. I followed an article from Canadian Business magazine showing that the porn industry is falling upon hard times. It is easy to be glad that the industry is suffering, but it is suffering for all of the wrong reasons. One of the things that is destroying the porn economy is piracy. And as I thought about piracy, I had to admit that Christians are not a whole lot better here than unbelievers. The same piracy that threatens the porn industry is damaging Christian music labels and artists.

Some time ago Bob Kauflin posted some thoughts on MP3 downloads and copies (link). Bob serves as director of worship development for Sovereign Grace Ministries, and as a pastor and worship leader at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Having just finished reading The Future of Music by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, Bob decided to reflect a bit on the book. The authors “think that increased access to music and freedom to distribute it legally will benefit consumers, companies, and artists alike.”

He provided a brief summary of the current copyright laws governing music. “Copyright laws still exist. Basically, the Copyright Office says:”

Uploading or downloading works protected by copyright without the authority of the copyright owner is an infringement of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights of reproduction and/or distribution. Anyone found to have infringed a copyrighted work may be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 for each work infringed and, if willful infringement is proven by the copyright owner, that amount may be increased up to $150,000 for each work infringed. In addition, an infringer of a work may also be liable for the attorney’s fees incurred by the copyright owner to enforce his or her rights.

… The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) site makes exceptions for personal copies:

Owning a CD means you own one copy of the music, and the U.S. record industry believes you should be able to make whatever personal use you choose. For example, you may make a compilation recording (on tape or on a CD) to use in the car or while exercising. But it’s a very different matter - and clearly neither legal nor fair - to make a copy of that CD or even one song available on the Internet for others to take.

Despite the clarity of the law, many people continue to ignore it. This is true both within the church and without. A Barna report (link) from 2004 showed that only 1 in 10 Christian teenagers believe that music piracy is morally wrong. This varied very little from the percentage of non-Christian teenagers who believe the same. I don’t think a lot has changed over the past 6 years except that more and more adults are now equally ambiguous about piracy. After all, everyone’s doing it, and when everyone does something, it is easy to think that we can do it too.

As Bob says, “Christians have a higher standard than ‘everyone’s doing it.’ Romans 13:1, Deut. 5:19, and Eph. 4:28 come to mind. While file sharing, copying CD’s for friends, and downloading music illegally is easy and attractive, it’s still wrong, despite our rationalizations.” I have been amazed in talking to friends, and young people in particular, just how little they care for copyright laws. Excuses abound: “Everyone is doing it. The music companies don’t really care. The artists say they don’t care if we download their music.” I am even more amazed when I hear young people talk about pirating Christian music (I recently spoke to a young man who had pretty well the complete Sovereign Grace music collection but it was all illegally copied). I’ve even spoken to people who laugh, saying, “You don’t want to lend me your music. I’ll just copy it.” Long before I stopped buying CDs (I now buy almost all of my music online) I stopped loaning those CDs to other people.

Now I tend to agree that the music industry is going to have to change. I also agree that, by and large, pirated music has benefited many artists and many record companies since people are able to listen to a much wider variety of music than they ever could if they had to purchase it all. Sooner or later people who copy music tend to buy it as well. Derek Webb proved as much when he offered his CD Mockingbird free in its entirety and found that, while the album was downloaded some 80,000 times, not only did CD sales increase, but so did attendance at his concerts. I suspect other artists would find the same. Some of the more creative artists have been able to pretty much build their business model on free albums but paid merchandise and paid concerts.

So the times are changing and will change. The music companies are going to have to stop swimming against the current and are going to have to figure out a way of surviving and thriving in this new world. They can do both, but will need to be willing to adapt and let go of some long-held but outdated ways of doing business. To this point many have been stubborn, but they will change. They will have to.

Until then, we are bound by the law. We are bound by both God’s law and the law of the land to respect the copyright rules. As Romans 13:1 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” What disturbs me far more than the actual individual acts of piracy is the mindset and worldview that allows Christians to do such a thing. It is only a secularized worldview that would allow a Christian to do something that so clearly violates the law. It shows clear evidence of the moral relativism that is so prominent in our culture and so foreign to Scripture.

In her book Total Truth Nancy Pearcey discusses a woman she met who professed to be a Christian and yet worked at Planned Parenthood. Clearly there was something wrong with this woman’s mindset that she could work at a place that was so unbiblical and even antibiblical. It seems to me that those who pirate music are doing something much the same. They are ignoring God’s laws and are doing something that directly conflicts with their statement of faith. People who commit music piracy are, at some place in their lives, forsaking a Christian view of the world, a Christian way of seeing life. They are thinking like the world rather than thinking like Christ. Most of them know this, but continually violate their consciences and continually thumb their noses at what they know to be right. This concerns me (and ought to concern them) because a mindset that allows music piracy is one that will undoubtedly allow other violations of both law and conscience. The first sin is usually the most difficult one. Subsequent sin becomes easier as the conscience is hardened and as the heart is polluted.

The fact is that laws are are not ours to tamper with and interpret as we see fit. The ruling is clear: according to the laws of the land and the copyright of those who own the music, we have no right to copy or distribute it. Period. It makes no difference how much money the record companies make, how rich the artists are, how poor we are or how annoying and outdated the laws may be. It makes no difference how much we despise the militancy of the record companies and their irrationalities.

Interestingly, the first comment at Bob’s site begins with “I personally don’t believe in committing music piracy…” And perhaps this is the problem. This should not be a personal decision. Some things are fully, objectively right and others are really, objectively wrong. Music piracy is wrong. Period. This is not an issue of conscience or an issue of sorting better from best. There is nothing to ponder, nothing to wrestle with, and nothing to fret about. There is nothing that calls for some kind of a personal reflection or decision (just as there is no reason to worry about whether or not we should march into record stores, pull CD’s from the shelves, and walk out of the store without paying for them). Just don’t do it. It’s really that easy.

If you have a hard drive or MP3 player filled with pirated music, you owe it to yourself, to the rightful owners, to the copyright holders and to God to erase it. I might venture so far as to suggest that you ought to purchase that music yourself since you have already benefited from the enjoyment of it. At the very least, repent of your sin, ask for forgiveness, and commit to obeying the laws of our land. Commit to obeying God.