I know many friends—honest, God-fearing people—who have no problem “stealing” entertainment in the form of illegal downloads. Why have we let our attitude toward this kind of theft become so permissive? Can we stop it? Should we? Or, as many people claim, since they wouldn’t have paid for the show/music in the first place, it’s not like anyone lost money on their download. What is right? What is the Jewish view?
The issue of intellectual property, of which this is a case, is one that has challenged every legal system. How do you assign proprietary rights to an intangible? This is clearly also an issue within Jewish Law, however the nature of Halacha is such that it need not approach this issue solely from a perspective of property. The questioner asks whether downloading is a form of stealing or theft which, to answer, would first demand a determination of a property right in the intangible download. The issue within the realm of Halacha, though, is much broader; the question being whether it is right or wrong – and this answer may have little to do with the establishment of proprietary rights.
It should not be surprising, as such, to find that over the centuries there have been many variant approaches undertaken to answer these types of questions, namely to what extent, if any, can someone benefit, without pay, from another person’s labours or financial outlay. This is essentially what is happening when one downloads a form of entertainment, one is benefitting from someone else’s efforts. The challenge, though, is that one is still not causing the other to actually expend more time, energy or money by downloading an item. In addition there may be other policy or ethical reasons for allowing this download. It is with a recognition of all these and other factors that Halachists have attempted to approach these questions.
There is a key shift, however, that occurs with the formulation of the issue with Halacha. In the language of Halacha, we would say that the prime focus of the issue becomes no longer one of cheftza, object, but gavra, person. What this means is that we are no longer focusing on the object – i.e. the download and its ownership – but the people involved and whether it is proper behaviour to download items without paying for them. The answer to this question may have little or nothing to do with actual ownership of the object but simply emerge from an ethical view of the behaviour itself. Is downloading objectionable behaviour?
This brings us to a key concept in the Halacha’s determination of the ethics of financial interaction. What is asked are the questions of whether one has benefitted (nehneh) and/or whether one has lost something including an opportunity cost (chaseir). The underlying broad values are that one should pay for a benefit and one should cover the cost of a loss that he/she has imposed upon another. Of course, the Halacha also recognizes that there are numerous details and further concerns that have to be considered and evaluated before these broad principles can be applied to any specific case. For example, one can only be held liable for a loss if one is responsible for causing it – what makes someone responsible? In many ways, Jewish financial law is an investigation of the many such details.
It would be first important, though, to understand the essential distinction between nehneh and chaseir in their legal ramifications. Mishna Baba Kamma 2:2 presents a good example. The case involves an animal eating the produce of a merchant in the public domain. As animals were common in the public domain in Talmudic times, it was deemed to be the responsibility of the merchant to protect his wares from animals. As such, an owner of an animal was not deemed responsible for what the animal ate in terms of the financial damage that was caused to the merchant i.e. he was not responsible for chaseir. Yet the Mishna informs us that he is responsible for the benefit he received through having his animal fed with the merchant’s produce i.e. he should still pay nehneh. The Gemara informs us that the owner does not have to pay the merchant for the price of the fruit but rather must pay him for the benefit he received in not having to feed his animal i.e. the amount he would have paid on the cheaper feed he would have used of the same quantity. It’s not always about what you cost the other but sometimes you have to consider your benefit. This would seem to be an important principle in regard to downloads for, while people contend that they are not directly causing a lost, they do cause opportunity costs and they do benefit. This approach to establishing copyright law was actually taken by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the Noda B’Yehuda.
Consideration for chaseir may even be broader. While the topic is actually complex as the Halacha also values competition, there is concern for activities that may impact on another’s business. For example, T.B. Baba Batra 21b states that once a fisherman has marked out an area for himself, perhaps putting out feed to attract fish, other fisherman cannot fish in this area. Again the issue is not propriety rights; this place and the fish are not owned by this fisherman. It is simply a recognition that you are causing loss – the fisherman has extended time, effort and, perhaps, even money to mark this area. It is, as such, improper to fish there and take a fish that this fisherman may have otherwise caught. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Chatam Sofer, applied this idea in his discussion of copyright.
The reality is that Jewish Law takes a serious approach to issues of intellectual property while in many ways not focusing on the property question but rather on the conduct that should be expected from the ethical individual. Consideration for Dina d’Malchuta Dina, that the law of the land has standing in Jewish Law, also is to be considered. Nonetheless, especially when the secular law has such exceptions, there are opinions that would consider the extent of the download and whether it is just for personal use before absolutely declaring it forbidden. Other ethical motivations for a download may also be considered.
The bottom line is that the issue is much more than a question of stealing with implications that you are taking something. The definitions of taking are much broader than an object of something. In addition there is the fact that you have benefitted. I would not say that this means that every action of downloading is forbidden but that the issue is one that needs to be approached seriously.
For further investigation of Halacha’s view of copyright, see:
In classic halachic terms, we usually associate possession or ownership with the ability to physically GRASP something; this is the tenor of the mishnah from Talmudic Tractate Bava Metzia: “Shnayim ochazin b’tallit – zeh omer kulah sheli, v’zeh omer kulah sheli – Two people clinging to a tallit – each says the entire thing is his [exclusive possession]….” The underlying assumption is that the ability to hold something is the prime indicator of exclusive ownership – and therefore, stealing that thing would involve physically removing the object of value from its owner’s grasp.
Of course, in today’s Information Age, the ownership of things of value is often a DIGITAL, as opposed to a PHYSICAL, holding. It is too easy for us to overlook the fact that such possessions are as real as the “tallit” in the teaching above – and that they have value. We should treat such information (files, programs, songs/media, etc.) as true possessions – even if the legal meaning and the spirit of these holdings has a new connotation. In this case, then, piracy and other forms of stealing are exactly that – theft – and should have safeguards and ramifications.
A Conservative Jewish approach would certainly embrace the new, modern application of such terms as geneivah (theft) to things not physically held – given the value that these things have. Additionally, certain traditional terms might be applicable in spirit, if not in ancient sources: There is the concept of geneivat da’at – which usually is used in contexts of false pretenses, or misleading someone with your apparent intentions. Indeed, the claim that “I would not have paid for it, so there is no loss” is related to the classic definitions of geneivat da’at – whose examples include taking a merchant’s time and hope of a sale, with no intent of ever spending any money in the store – a practice frowned upon under this concept of geneivat da’at. However, the literal meaning of geneivat da’at is “stealing of one’s thought / intellect / perception / opinion.” [Sidebar: When I originally typed geneivat da’at without the apostrophe, my word-processing auto-correct changed it to “geneivat DATA –DATA stealing!”]
Further, one term for gossip in Hebrew is rechilut – from the Torah: “Lo teileich rachil b’amecha – Do not go about as a tale-bearer amongst your people” (Leviticus 19:16) – but a modern critical read of the Torah text links this word, rachil, to the Hebrew root-word for “peddler” or “merchant.” This hints of someone who “peddles” the commodity of information. Seemingly, Judaism does recognize the power and value that inheres in words, data, songs, games, media, and other Information-Age files.
It is true that increasing amounts of online information and media can be downloaded for free, as “share-ware” – but this only means we should be extra-cautious in what we steal. The fact that it is a digital possession does not decrease its value; it only allows us the “cover” (or the cowardice?) to not have to look our victim in the face, personally.
As part of my response, it seems appropriate to acknowledge a prejudice I may bring to the query. In fact, were I responsible to adjudicate this matter in any formal way, the only ethical decision would be to recuse myself. Specifically, I have a family member whose field of legal expertise focuses on "protecting" (with or without quotation marks) intellectual property from unwarranted use, including stealing. That said, I also inquired of younger family members, who, it seems, have a greater familiarity with and acceptance of the behavior at the heart of the question.
Nonetheless, there is no shortage of Jewish sources on what we should or should not do in the above matter. Consider that tradition challenges us with Dina D’malchuta Dina (the law of the land is the law), which of course means that unless a strong ethical case may be made against a particular statute, we have an obligation to abide by it. Additionally, in what seems a clear analogy to this situation, the Torah instructs that we are not to withhold wages from a laborer, which this action clearly does. Further, especially in light of an always slippery slope, the rationale that everyone is doing it might well mean an end to movies and music, at least as we know them. That result would impoverish us all.
One additional reflection: Judaism has a stirring and wonderful notion called Livnim Meshurat Hadin, which I shall translate/interpret as doing more than is required. We are called to set an example. So to speak, all rationales for this behavior, even though one may get away with it, fall short in light of the urgency to embrace, if not set a higher standard.
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