Piracy originally was used to describe something that happened at sea and involved the robbing of ships, but the word has taken on another meaning in today’s context. Today, piracy is also used to refer to the unauthorised use or reproduction of another’s work. For this article, we will be limiting the scope of our discussion to digital piracy, which basically refers to the illegal downloading and usage of games, software, videos, music, etc.
In order to identify digital piracy correctly, we must first understand what the law says is wrong. And what the law says is wrong will also play a part in what we consider as stealing. Singapore has in place a Copyright Act, which was revised in 2006. Whenever someone creates and expresses a piece of original work in a tangible form (such as in writing or recording), he enjoys copyright protection without the need for registration. An original work means that there is a degree of independent effort that was put into the creation of that work. With copyright protection, the author of the work enjoys certain privileges such as deciding how to distribute, sell or use his work. The author may also choose to sell or give the copyright to another party.
Copyright infringement occurs when one or more of the copyright owner’s rights are violated. This happens when someone copies or distributes all or part of the copyrighted work without permission from the owner. Note that even if it was never viewed or used, just by obtaining a copy of the work without permission constitutes an infringement.
The problem today is that proof of infringement lies with the copyright owner. He has to show in court not only that he is the owner of the material, but also produce evidence that the other party has copied his work without permission. This is done to prevent a misuse of the law but the flipside is that this makes it a relatively hard and tedious process for copyright owners to protect their work. Most copyright owners feel that it is not worth their effort and there is also the risk of a public backlash as well.
This, combined with the advancement of the internet and technologies that make use of the internet, has made digital piracy so common today. The law cannot effectively regulate what the general public practices. The chaotic and anonymous nature of the internet has made it such that it is practically impossible to put a stop to digital piracy.
But what does all of this that mean for the Christian? When society practices something that is at odds with the law, how is a Christian supposed to react? What are the principles that we should base our decisions on?
Lord’s Day 42
Q. 110. What doth God forbid in the eighth commandment?
A. God forbids not only those thefts, and robberies, which are punishable by the magistrate; but he comprehends under the name of theft all wicked tricks and devises, whereby we design to appropriate to ourselves the goods which belong to our neighbour: whether it be by force, or under the appearance of right, as by unjust weights, ells, measures, fraudulent merchandise, false coins, usury, or by any other way forbidden by God;, as also all covetousness, all abuse and waste of his gifts.
Q. 111. But what doth God require in this commandment?
A. That I promote the advantage of my neighbour in every instance I can or may; and deal with him as I desire to be dealt with by others: further also that I faithfully labour, so that I may be able to relieve the needy.
Lord’s Day 42 in explaining the eighth commandment on stealing touches at the heart of our discussion and sets forth the principles that we should follow. In Q&A 110, the explanation given is that not only outright stealing is forbidden, but also all other forms where we short-change the neighbour. To put in the words used by the Heidelberg Catechism: “whereby we design to appropriate to ourselves the goods which belong to our neighbour: whether it be by force, or under the appearance of right”.
The Heidelberg Catechism was written in a time where the common form of stealing would be at the market, through the use of something like false weights or coins. Times have certainly changed since then. Today, there are much more sophisticated forms of stealing, some of which can even seem legitimate. Nevertheless, the principles that are laid forth in the Heidelberg Catechism still stand. Digital piracy is basically still stealing because we are using or viewing something without giving due compensation to the creator, thus short-changing the neighbour.
Technologies that enables Digital Piracy
We first need to be aware of some of the technologies that have made digital piracy so easy today. The underlining technology is the internet. The internet has allowed people to download illegal content easily with a high degree of anonymity.
But there are some specific uses of the internet that has enabled digital piracy to become so common. One such use is by something called BitTorrent. What BitTorrent does is to allow the easy sharing of content, be it software, games, videos or music. All it takes is for one person to upload the pirated content and everyone who wants to download will share it with others as well. This P2P (Peer to Peer) technology that is used by BitTorrent requires those that download the content to automatically upload and share it with others. From a legal point of view, torrenting is against the law as one not only makes an illegal copy but also shares that copy with others. There are legitimate content that can be downloaded through BitTorrent but most of the content available is pirated.
Another way is through streaming which is used for videos and music. The content is generally hosted on a website where others are able to view. Once again there are content that can be viewed legitimately through steaming, but other content actually constitutes digital piracy when viewed. We will discuss more about this later in the article.
Software and Games
Digital piracy can take many forms. For software and games, that is a little more straightforward. Using a software or game without paying for it when it is supposed to be paid for is digital piracy. We are stealing from the developer of the software or game when we use their work without paying them. Of course there are those free software which can be used without paying but it is digital piracy if we deliberately find ways to use them for free when we know that it actually requires payment. It sounds very straightforward because it actually is! But because it is relatively easy to get a pirated copy and relatively hard to get caught, using pirated software and games becomes almost a norm today. Once again, we need a reminder that just because everyone does it does not make it right. It is not right in the eyes of the law but more importantly, it is not right in the eyes of God.
For the sake of simplicity, when videos are referred to in this article, it would also include all movies, TV shows and music. This article does not go into whether it is right for a Christian to consume such content in the first place and only focuses on whether it is digital piracy.
A video that is downloaded without the permission of the creator is digital piracy because we have obtained an unauthorised copy of the video. But when we stream a video, one might argue that we are not actually downloading the video and we are just watching it online. But actually, when we view pirated videos through streaming, our computer stores a temporary copy of it on the hard drive and this is illegal according to the law because we are still making an unauthorised copy of the video.
One of the one the most familiar platform that does streaming is YouTube. Content that is placed on YouTube is generally legal because YouTube actively removes pirated content. But there is bound to be some illegal content, which we must be careful of. Other streaming sites do not police what is uploaded as much as YouTube does and as a result, much more pirated content can be found.
There are legitimate ways to watch videos through streaming. Platforms that require a monthly fee to access paid content are one legitimate way. There are also creators that allow their videos to be watched for free so that they gain publicity or earn through advertisements. Some signs which can help us to identify illegal videos are when we realise that we are paying nothing to watch content that we know should be paid for, or if the video was not uploaded by the original creator.
The problem is that sometimes it can be very tricky to differentiate between what is legal and illegal. One such example is something like though a software called Popcorn Time. What this software does is to allow one to watch all sorts of paid content for free. On the surface it mimics legal platforms that require a monthly fee, but it relies on P2P technology to offer the content for free. It is basically torrenting, as was described earlier, but done in a very subtle way. When you watch the content, it is downloaded through P2P and stored in a secret folder on your hard drive. This content is automatically deleted on a system reboot.
Technology is constantly changing and the world is getting better at making something illegal seem legal. But when we consider what the Heidelberg Catechism says in QnA 111: “That I promote the advantage of my neighbour in every instance I can or may”, it helps us to see though their schemes. By using the software, game or video in such a way that the creator is not properly compensated, we are not promoting the advantage of our neighbour.
Because digital piracy is so common and could very well be considered to be a norm today, we have not really been forced to consider this issue carefully. We might also hesitate to consider this issue carefully as it could have deep implications on the activities we enjoy. It might even mean more trouble for us, as sometimes obtaining a legal copy could prove difficult or almost impossible, while an illegal copy is just a few clicks away. There are excuses that we might give, such as “I only want to try it out before buying”, or “everyone is doing it”, or “the company is already earning so much money”, or “if I like it after I use it, I will buy more” and others.
We need to consider if what we do is pleasing to God, when we look at it in light of what the eighth commandment really means. The principle of Christian stewardship is that God owns everything. God has given to each person his share of earthly possessions and our calling is to use them wisely and for the glory of God. Part of it is to be contented with what with have and not steal from our neighbour.
What we have discussed in this article is stealing. It does not matter if everyone does it and very few people are actually caught and punished. As long as it is against the law, it is stealing. And even if it is not against the law, as long as the neighbour is not properly compensated, it will still be wrong. The eighth commandment is very strict in its instruction. And one of the implications is that we are to consider the good of the neighbour and to deal with him in a way that we would wish to be dealt with if our positions were reversed.
Because of how quickly technology advances, it is impossible to discuss all the ways that digital piracy can take place. But by asking some simple questions such as:
- Is it against the law?
- Is the creator properly compensated?
- Am I using it in a way that is beneficial to the creator?
- Am I using it in a way that the creator intended?
We can accurately determine whether what we are doing is legitimate or is actually digital piracy. May God grant us the wisdom and the conviction to do what is pleasing to Him.
Written by: Deacon Cornelius Boon | Issue 43