Wednesday, December 23, 2009

stealing, ethics, and deep pockets

A couple weeks ago I was talking to a friend in pretty bad economic straits about the ethical problems with watching pirated still-showing-in-theaters movies on the Internet.

I had a hard time responding to her sincere question, "Is this against God?" after spending the summer in a country where pirated movies are easier to find than the real thing, and where my house was home to quite a few of them (As a simplistic moral lesson, I will add that the one DVD I bought was such horrible quality that we couldn't even watch it).

And her situation just seemed so sad. It's a financial impossibility for my friend to treat her kids to a full-price movie theater expedition. A pirated internet movie at least gives them some entertainment to enjoy while the neighbors are sitting in $11 seats chugging $4 Coke and $6 popcorn.

Add to my own guilt complex and socialistic proclivity the fact that pirated media seems so harmless. People are still going to theaters, still paying extra to buy real DVDs (that work), still buying music. It's not like the American entertainment complex is going out of business because a few people are desperate enough to watch distorted knock-offs on their home computers.

And, for better or worse, most people ascribe to that same internal cost/benefit analysis.

This is why I find it hard to share in the secular condemnation of Father Tim Jones's sermon advocating shoplifting for poor people:

The Rev Jones – or "Father Tim", as this Anglican minister prefers to be known – is preaching that theft is good, at least if you're one of the poor and needy. Addressing the congregation at St Lawrence's church in York on Sunday, the vicar, whose photograph suggests he has certainly mastered the art of pious posing, said that the worst-off might engage in a little light shoplifting in order to avoid resorting to mugging and prostitution.

"I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses," he continued in his rather unique spin on the festive lesson, "but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices… I would ask them not to take any more than they need."

The man is wrong, but the principle is not as foreign as some would like to imply.

What is hackle-raising is Father Tim's condoning stealing in God's name.

Somehow I doubt that the God who told a crowd of needy Palestinians gathered on a hill in East Jerusalem, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell," would follow that with "but stealing from big business is okay."

I guess the lesson here is the one David taught, "Against You and You only have I sinned, and committed this evil in your sight." Not against a corporation, not against a Hollywood producer, not against a pop musician.



kenji said...

One complexity that might make it harder to hold a strong opinion on this is that pirating movies and music isn't really stealing exactly. It's copyright infringement, which differs from outright theft in that it doesn't remove any goods from anybody's possession. This obviously is a crime uncontemplated in the Bible or any document older than the modern idea of copyrights. Maybe early Christians and pre-Christian Jews would have considered copyright infringement to be equivalent to stealing if they had had it explained to them by some time traveler. I don't know how we could go about determining that.

Emily said...

Yeah, it's an interesting problem. It's almost like there's no "it" to steal, but then there kind of is...

kenji said...

Yeah, I was gonna say that what you're stealing is the abstract pattern of information contained in the disc or hard drive, but it's not even that. They still have that after you do it. What you're violating is a right to _exclude_ people from possession of that pattern of information, however encoded. Which is all a copyright is, I guess.

I'm trying to imagine an analogue to this right if it pertained to physical objects as well as information. What if you had a herd of goats and people had the power to just walk up and create a duplicate of your goats out of thin air and carry those duplicates off, while leaving your original goats there? Would that be wrong? For it to be a crime, your property rights over those goats would have to be redefined to mean you had a right for other people not to have identical goats, rather than your simply having a right to possess those goats.

Emily said...

Hmmmm. A couple years ago I did a continuing legal education seminar in copyright and trademark law, but it didn't get into this kind of question very much, except to reiterate that copyright infringement is, indeed, illegal. IT law seems like an interesting area.

I think the problem, conscience-wise, is that you are taking something that has a price on it without paying for it.

kenji said...

So in the goat example, would it violate your conscience if the goat owner said "You can copy my goats for $5 a head" and you went and copied them without paying her, but she still had all her original goats unchanged?

Emily said...


kenji said...

It sounds like your moral objection isn't against just outright theft, but any use of somebody's property that they aren't okay with. Is that accurate?

Emily said...

Hmmm, I think I would be comfortable saying "yes" to that.