Knowing, and Avoiding, Digital Piracy

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Is It Sinful to Download MP3 Files or to Watch Videos on Streaming Sites?

(photo: Pixabay)

I am an avid music-lover. I have a Spotify account, for which I pay a monthly subscription and through which I listen to most of my music. But since my car does not have Bluetooth, I cannot use a streaming service like Spotify in the car. So I use an iPod with digital MP3 files.

Sometimes I acquire my MP3 files from “free music download” sites or by other techniques (e.g., “ripping” the audio from YouTube videos). In this case, I am listening to music I didn’t pay for; but I sort of paid for the right to listen to it, since I have access to the same songs via my paid Spotify account. Am I doing something wrong? Peter



In reply, I will address four related questions: Is using music or videos from free download or streaming sites legal? Is it moral (i.e., morally good)? Is it sinful? And is Peter doing something wrong?


Is It Legal?

The legal question is whether this is an instance of copyright infringement, that is, the illegal use of another’s materials.

In some cases, it is not. Some materials on these sites are not copyrighted and so can be used without the author’s permission. In other cases the prevailing licenses, such as the Creative Commons license, grant users “open source” (or free access) to copyrighted materials. Accessing these sites, presuming materials are used in accord with stipulated restrictions (e.g., for personal, not commercial use), does not entail copyright infringement.

But many sites are designed to give users free access to unauthorized or prohibited audio or visual materials. The creators of these sites are engaging in video/music piracy, which is illegal, in some cases a felony.

Is downloading or uploading materials to or from these sites also illegal?

If I do not hold the copyright for some content, have not paid for it or have not otherwise been granted permission to possess it by its owners, then by downloading or uploading it I am in possession of illegal materials and can be prosecuted.

What if I only view materials (video streaming) from illegal sites?

The legality question here is in flux. Technically, when I stream a movie from a legitimate source, my computer makes a temporary copy, which means I am in possession of illegal material for a brief time. Some argue this is illegal; others argue it is not.

Some streamers have received scary letters from their Internet service providers trying to deter the behavior. My suspicion is that the law will eventually get clear on this by ruling that intentionally viewing materials from websites that are illegally operated is wrongfully contributing to criminal activity.


Is It Moral?

In a putatively just economy like our own, unless there are serious reasons for concluding that some property laws are unjust, we ought to take them to be just and abide by them.

Being law-abiding is a serious moral requirement of all members of a community. For if it is okay for me to break just laws because they inconvenience me, then I am implicitly saying it is okay for everyone to do it. But if everyone broke the law, then harmonious communal life would be severely impaired or impossible.

So does this mean it is unjust (wrong) to use materials from sites that are illegally operated?

Catholic philosophy defines justice as rendering to another what we owe them, or what is due to them. Selling copyrighted materials at a fair price and paying a fair price for them is a just activity. Owners are fairly compensated for their effort and their creativity; and buyers have access to materials that they otherwise may not be able to obtain.

Selling materials at unfair prices (a measure that’s not always easy to determine) or thieving another’s materials is unjust. Although downloading or using illegal materials is not theft in the old-fashioned sense, since my use of them does not deprive their owners of the same materials. Nevertheless, I am using them without their owners’ permission and (we may presume) against their wills.

Owners may not be deprived of the materials by my actions, but they are deprived of the income they’d otherwise receive if I abided by the law. In this way I do take something from them against their rightful wills. Morally speaking, this is theft. Moreover, proprietors often pass off revenue losses to customers through price increases, which unfairly disadvantages those customers who abide by the law.

But does Katy Perry really need my dollar?

As an implied argument for illegally using pirated materials, this is unsound. Perry deserves the same legal protections under the law as everyone else. Thus, the relevant question is whether I am being done any injustice by being required to pay for her songs. And the burden of establishing such an injustice rests with me.

It is also unsound inasmuch as the sentiment can be extended to artists who are not wealthy, who struggle to make ends meet, and who depend on the income they derive from the sales of their materials; which, it would seem to me, is the case with most artists.

But millions do it every day! Does anyone really expect people not to?
The fact that a law is widely violated can be an indication that it is unenforceable and so unreasonable. The country witnessed this during Prohibition.

Copyright and patent laws, however, relate very directly to the common good, since they maintain justice within the system of private property, without which a community cannot function healthily. Therefore, the fact that millions violate these laws offers no sound moral argument in favor of doing so also. At most it provides a legal argument for crafting laws and establishing systems more capable of protecting digital materials.


How About Exceptions?

Catholic Tradition has never taught that private property rights are absolute. They are qualified by the responsibility to use property in a way that supports the common good, especially the good of the poor.

This responsibility arises from the theological truth that when God created the universe he intended the Earth, with all its resources, for the use of everyone; this, John Paul II taught in his 1991 encyclical Centessimus Annus, “is the foundation of the universal destination of the Earth’s goods. The Earth, by reason of its fruitfulness and its capacity to satisfy human needs, is God’s first gift for the sustenance of human life” (31).

If, therefore, refraining from accessing copyrighted materials imposes a severe burden on someone (for example, if life or subsistence is threatened by it), and the burden cannot be reasonably lifted through legal means, then using or taking digital materials against their owner’s wills and contrary to the law would not be morally wrong (think of the case of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables).


Is It Sinful?

To sin seriously I must do something wrongful, know in advance it is wrong, be capable of refraining and then do it.

Because of the magnitude of the piracy problem, I think many people believe downloading a song or streaming a video from these sites is innocent. And if they sincerely believe this, they do not sin when they do it.

But other than in the extreme circumstances I have just mentioned, what they do is objectively wrong. And good people are interested not only in avoiding sin, but in doing good. Growing in knowledge of what’s good and bad (called conscience formation) so as to be able to choose what’s good should be important to all.


To Peter’s Question

Peter, if you are certain that a song you download from an illegal site is among the songs for which you otherwise pay for access through your Spotify subscription, and you are careful to avoid scandal (i.e., leading others by your actions to believe that the behavior generally is unqualifiedly good), then in my opinion it is not morally wrong to download songs on illegal sites that you’ve already paid for elsewhere in another digital format.

But knowing it is illegal, you should be ready to accept serenely any legal consequences you may incur if you’re caught.

E. Christian Brugger, Ph.D., is a senior

research fellow of ethics at the

Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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