You’ve embarked on four (or more) years of study. What will you do with your years in college?
Okay, I just need to get this off my chest; I have a dirty little secret. I download. I know I’m not supposed to do this, but man, I love getting something for nothing! We live in a world where information flows freely. Just about anything you want is at your fingertips. This open access extends beyond information. You can get music, movies and software, often before they are even available to the general public. But does that make it okay to download copyrighted stuff?
Welcome to the digital world. What a wonderful feeling it is to have access to something others don’t, a huge collection beyond what you could afford to own otherwise. Like I said, I love getting something for nothing. And get this: I don’t really have anything, just information, simple computer code that I can delete anytime. Right? (Yeah, right!)
This drive we have to get something for nothing has led to numerous legal battles and anti-piracy campaigns. Leaders in the music, movie, and software industries are frantically looking for ways to limit and stop illegal downloads of their products. Meanwhile, others are looking for ways to get around these limitations. (I can just picture this person sitting in front of a computer right now liberating the world one download at a time!) As followers of Christ, we face at least two dilemmas as we look at this issue.
One dilemma is that we are surrounded by easy-to-download material, yet we are constrained by conscience and law. At home, on campus, from friends and even from people at church, it seems like everywhere I go there is someone offering me the latest greatest digital copy for nothing. Deep down I know this is wrong but when everyone seems to be doing it and when I too really want to do it, it is hard to say no, really hard. So why should I say no? After all, if I take too hard of a stance as a believer in my culture, I might alienate those that I am trying to reach. I don’t want people thinking I am some kind of wacko. (Admit it; half of you reading this already think that!) But what does it say about me and my faith if I am willing to justify actions that are clearly wrong when in the end I am really just stealing? Hey, don’t worry; I am not going to tell you not to download because it is stealing … well, not exactly. Besides, if that’s all you needed to hear you would have quit a long time ago, right?
A second dilemma is the general carefree societal attitude toward the legality of these downloads on one hand and the moral issues that need to be faced on the other. The common perception is that “information” should be free or at least “fairly priced.” So, those downloading this “information” illegally are justified, nay they are heroes, vigilantes and crusaders against injustice!
Give me a break!
Moral relativism is the preferred seasoning of the day. You’ve heard it: “There is no real right or wrong. You should do whatever feels best to you.” If morality is perceived as relative then each individual gets to decide what is right for him or her. If you think music, movies or software should be free then it is okay for you to download those things. Likewise if you think something is over-priced it is okay to buy, download or otherwise acquire a less expensive bootleg copy. This kind of thinking can lead to ignoring what is illegal: “It might be illegal for you to download bootlegs but for me it is all right to download as long as I don’t buy or sell.” Or, as the thinking continues to drift, “I think it’s fine to download, buy and sell these bootlegs.” Got that? Yeah, me neither. This thinking does not make sense. Something cannot be right for some and wrong for others. There has to be a standard. So, who sets the standard?
When I was a student I “owned” a large collection of MP3’s, movies, and even some high priced software (for “educational” purposes only, of course). I understood that my collection was not legal but I managed to justify and reason out why it was okay for me to have it. After all, I was a “poor college student” and “I would buy it when I had the money.” Besides, “I am not the demographic that they are trying to reach. They aren’t expecting me to be buying this.” Also, “They make tons of money and people are still buying their product.”
The truth is that I let my justifications prevent God from speaking truth to my situation and from transforming my attitude. I would like to tell you that I just woke up one morning, realized the error of my ways and started doing things right, but the reality is that I was stubborn and I liked my “free stuff.” What it took for me as a Christian was to see that God has set standards and that no matter what justifications I want to make, those standards don’t change and I must weigh my actions against them.
In Romans 13, the apostle Paul wrote:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves… . Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13: 1-2 and 7-10)
When it comes to the issue of downloading, our standard should be to submit to the authorities. When we choose to listen to, watch, or use copyrighted material, we are entering into places in which God has placed certain people in authority, governing how that material is to be used. Paul reminds us in Romans 13 that there is no authority “except that which God has established.” Every commercial industry has governing authorities that regulate the use of its product and programs to stop the illegal copying and distribution of their products (also know as piracy — Arrr!). The RIAA for music and the SIIA for software are examples of this. These governing authorities have decided to outlaw copying and distribution of their products without permission or payment. Christians are called to submit to these authorities. However, before we submit to any authority we must first look to our ultimate authority, God.
So what does God have to say about copying (or using copies of) music, movies and software? Not surprisingly, this wasn’t an issue the early church faced. Paul didn’t even have dial-up internet, much less the high speed access offered today. But God’s living Word can speak to us regarding this issue, if we will listen. The message is simple: “Do not steal.” This is the eighth commandment listed in the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments, and is reiterated by Jesus himself. Jesus summarizes the needed response to this commandment with these instructions: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we are to be honest with ourselves we would not want something we created to sell to be used, copied or sold without our getting compensated. We love ourselves too much to let that happen.
You might be thinking, “Well yeah I should love, but this is a faceless organization with lots of money.” That “faceless” organization is made up of thousands of individuals who invested time, energy and talent to provide us their product. “Yeah, but I don’t think people — especially Christians — should give their money to some of these organizations!” If it is in your view a misuse of your money, then isn’t “owning” and using it a misuse of your time as well? Bottom line, when we refuse to give the organization what we owe, we are refusing to “love” the individuals in that organization like we would expect to be “loved.” Additionally, our rebellion is not just against some “rich” authority; our rebellion is against God, something we dare not take lightly.
For those who submit to the Lordship of Christ, it is incredibly important to allow God to speak truth into areas of life where the lies of the world have intruded. The lie here is that we can redefine morality based on the circumstance. God is speaking loudly to those who will listen and obey. We love God by loving people, all people, without compromise. When we choose to live this way we will be a light for Christ in a world feeling its way around in darkness. Make today the day you choose love, obedience and integrity. Make this the day you light up this world for Christ!
— Tye Parks