Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Gift of Music vs. Theft of Music

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
November 28, 2005

Raymond J. 
KeatingThe gift of music is a nice idea at Christmas. Classic hymns, along with a little Bing Crosby, get me into the spirit of the season.

With iPods and MP3 players so popular this year, music choices abound, from browsing stores or to surfing the Web. Unfortunately, some people don't want to pay for their Christmas tunes, or any other music.

But is there a difference between shoplifting a CD, and downloading music on the Internet in violation of copyright? Most people condemn shoplifting, but some get foggy about what's right and what's wrong on the Internet.

However, the ultimate value found in a music CD lies not in its physicality, but with the talents of songwriters, singers, musicians, and technicians. That's the same value found in a digital music file illegally exchanged online.

The recording industry, along with software, movie and publishing firms, face serious challenges regarding online theft. Some headway, though, is being made. For example, the International Federation of Phonographic Industry (IFPI) reported in October that legal digital music sales hit $790 million in the first half of 2005, compared to $220 million in the first half of 2004. And in early November, the file-sharing network Grokster, so popular for illegal downloading, shut down and agreed to hand over $50 million to settle a copyright infringement case.

Still, it is hard to compete with free, and some 900 million infringing music files are available on the Internet, according to IFPI.

Beyond big firms and super-star performers, many are hurt by music buccaneers, including songwriters, musicians, engineers, and retail workers. Music lovers also should be outraged since such stealing raises prices and undercuts creativity.

But where are Christians in this debate? Does the church need to act? Well, the commandment clearly states: "You shall not steal."

The sixteenth century theologian Martin Luther explained in his "Small Catechism" (according to a recent, valuable reader-friendly translation in "Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions") the meaning of this commandment: "We should fear and love God so that we may not take our neighbor's money or property, nor get them with bad products or deals, but help him to improve and protect his property and business." Stealing music online undermines the ability of people to protect their property, business and work.

In Luther's "Large Catechism," though obviously not speaking directly to the point at hand, one passage conjures up images of a person sitting in front of his home computer in a nice house, downloading music files and violating copyright. Luther wrote that "some are also called swivel-chair robbers," continuing a bit later, "for they snatch away easy money, but they sit on a chair at home and are styled great noblemen and honorable, pious citizens."

As for the church's role, Luther instructed: "Yet it must be impressed upon the young (Deuteronomy 6:7) so that they may be careful not to follow the old lawless crowd, but keep their eyes fixed upon God's commandment, lest His wrath and punishment come upon them too." That's an important point considering that so many high school and college students are stealing music online.

Yet, even given the expanding influence of the Internet in daily lives, I suspect that few churches have challenged illegal downloading.

Perhaps St. Paul brings home the point in the most powerful way. In Romans 13:9-10, he wrote: "The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."

"You shall not steal" holds and love is still a requirement even on the Internet, and the church's responsibility to teach God's Word extends into cyberspace as well. Let's not allow the theft of music spoil the gift of music.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Copyright Raymond J. Keating

Posted: 28-Nov-05

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