Torrenting media is quite common nowadays. Whether it is a movie, TV series, music, video game, or some other file. Many people have torrented at one time or another. Napster really shined a light on the industry way back in the early 2000’s when it was shut down for the illegal sharing of music between people on it. So many years later and we find ourselves still facing the same conundrum that the people of Napster had way back when. Is this considered stealing?
Torrents and peer-to-peer file sharing are nothing new to the internet. Even early on in the dial-up internet days, services like Kazaa and Limewire allowed users to search through millions of songs, movies, and shows hosted by others across the world. In the last decade, torrent trackers became increasingly more popular because one could just search for anything they want online and download files indirectly using a torrent client. With the advent of broadband internet, it became easier and much faster to download higher quality audio and video with the click of a button.
The ease is the deceiving part. Shouldn’t stealing be more difficult and dangerous?
Merriam-Webster defines the word “steal” as “to take the property of another wrongfully.” By purchasing a movie or album, you purchase the right to personally consume those works. When you don’t purchase a work, you haven’t acquired the right to use it and are therefore wrongfully taking the property of someone else. The Bible has plenty to say about stealing.
First and foremost, God gave His commandments to Moses. They are the very basics for living a Godly life. Exodus 20:15 says straight up:
“You shall not steal.”
(I like to imagine Moses looking like Gandalf as he delivers The Commandments.) A good suggestion as an alternative to stealing is given by Paul in Ephesians 4:28, where he says:
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
Have you ever had someone steal from you? Once, someone smashed a window of my van and stole a couple thousand dollars worth of DJ and photography gear from my wife and me in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon in a busy movie theater parking lot. It’s the worst feeling.
Someone just decides to walk up and take something that doesn’t belong to them and they get away with it. Torrenting isn’t too different. Sure, a movie, album, or piece of software might not be taking thousands of dollars directly from the pocket of the creators of those works, but you are messing with the livelihood of others. As Christ-followers, we’re called to help improve the lives of people with hope and love, not burden them a little bit at a time with a sin that seems so innocent and unnoticeable.
If you like someone’s work so much that you’re willing to steal it, contribute to them so they can continue creating those works.
David Austin Black
We’re all geeks. We all have shows, music, video games, etc. we enjoy consuming. I understand that and I get it. For about a year when I was in my teens, I torrented/illegally downloaded various media. In the back of my mind, I always had questions about whether or not my actions in that area were a sin, but every time those thoughts rose up I pushed them right back down. I saw it as sort of a “victimless crime,” per se.
One day, I mentioned to a friend of mine something about torrenting and she was taken aback. She had aspirations to become a musical artist, and saw no difference between torrenting an artist’s music and stealing money from said artist’s wallet. Like those thoughts I always had before, I pushed her comments to the back of my mind. I had purposed in my heart that I was going to torrent, no matter what. I wasn’t going to let questions of morality dissuade my musical desires. Thankfully, Jesus melted my stubbornness over this issue, as He is prone to do. I realized that torrenting really is stealing an artist’s work.
“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” – Romans 13:7
Torrenting is not paying revenue to whom revenue is owed, and is therefore stealing and a sin. I know some people who tell me they are just downloading something illegally, be it a video game, an app, or music to see if they like it first before actually buying it. That’s simply akin to stealing clothes from a Kohl’s and then, when caught, telling them you were just going to see if you liked it and, if you did, you would come back and pay for it later.
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages…” – Jeremiah 22:13
If you are torrenting, I would urge you to prayerfully consider, as I did, exactly what you are doing. It’s tough, I know. Discipline always is. But the result will bring you such a relief and freedom that will be well worth the momentary pain.
Torrenting media is certainly stealing according to copyright laws, which protect intellectual property. But is it stealing in the Biblical sense? I do not believe this is the case.
The Bible has a lot to say about property, and many verses telling you not to steal (Ephesians 4:28). But are any of these verses directed at intellectual property? They are not. In every Biblical passage, there was always a physical thing being owned by another, whether it was actual stuff or land. The idea that one day there would be a technology that could enable you to duplicate something that you had purchased and devalue it by sharing it for free would have been unfathomable for those living in times when the Bible was written.
That’s not to say that the ancient world had no concept of intellectual property. There were laws in ancient Rome, for instance, dealing with things like that. But none of those laws made it into Scripture.
I don’t always take the silence of Scripture as permission to go out and do something, but I do think it’s important to always ask ourselves why God didn’t say something about an issue. In the ancient world there was still entertainment. There were stories and poems and plays and recipes for dishes: all things that can be trademarked and copyrighted under our modern laws, and in some cases were treated that way in the ancient world, yet there is not a single Bible verse telling you not to copy another’s ideas.
The world has its thoughts about what can be owned and what can’t. Two years ago, the video game companies Bethesda and Mojang settled a lawsuit between them about whether Mojang could use the word “Scrolls” as the title of a game. That’s right, the word “scrolls” can’t just be used by anyone, according to the laws of the land.
What I’m saying is that I don’t believe the authority of God is behind every worldly law, even copyright laws. Intellectual property was a thing in the ancient world, but God issues no command protecting a person’s right to a story, a word, made-up characters, and songs. Copying these things is not “stealing” in the Bible.
It is in our society. I’m not going to recommend that any of you break the law, but realize that those laws don’t necessarily line up with God’s thoughts about an issue. I don’t think people should be able to own the word “scrolls,” or “face,” or the ancient gladiatorial “thumbs up” (Certain film critics who shall go unnamed actually have the phrase “two thumbs up” trademarked, so no, you can’t legally use those words as you please).
Torrenting media is problematic, though. It does cost companies and individuals money that they would have otherwise gotten from consumers. What it doesn’t do is steal from them in the Biblical sense of the word. That doesn’t automatically make it okay, but it’s dangerous to redefine a word that God uses one way and say, on our own authority, “Now this word also includes this.”
In our recent community article about video game emulation, I referenced the Bible story where Jesus and Peter get into a discussion about paying taxes and Jesus tells him that “the children are free” from such requirements (Matthew 17:24-27). Jesus then says to go ahead and pay taxes, so as not to offend. (Also see 1 Corinthians 8:9 for instructions on not using our freedom to offend others.)
No one can give an explicit Biblical commandment to not copy and share other people’s ideas or inventions, or to not accept someone copying something they paid for and choosing to share it with you. This is not a Biblical idea, so I don’t think it’s stealing. According to our laws, however, it is stealing. And it’s illegal. I recommend that we try not to offend.
When it comes to things that we think are morally “gray areas” I think the best advice is found in the words of Jesus: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…”
Wesley Wood is an aspiring film director. He would love to make GOOD films to help spread God's word and help Christians grow.
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