For quite some time now I have been convicted about all the music I have downloaded during my lifetime that has not been secured through iTunes or uploaded from CDs that I have bought. You know what I'm talking about. About five years ago or so I stopped acquiring music through these other means. For some reason or another, I finally realized that I couldn't in good conscience download music without paying for it. No matter how much I tried to justify it or come up with excuses as to why it was perfectly fine, I couldn't get around the fact that I was getting something for free that I otherwise should be paying for.
I'm sure you've heard the excuses or uttered them yourself: "The music industry is so greedy and making so much money anyway." "It's not really illegal." "No one ever complained about copying music when it was just cassette tapes, so why should it be any different now with mp3s?" "If my brother buys a CD, shouldn't he have the right to share it with whomsoever he chooses?" "I used to record music from the radio onto tapes and no one every complained. How is this any different?" "It's not like I am trying to make money off these copied mp3s, and selling them to other people." And on and on it goes. You name an excuse, and I've probably used it in my mind.
Of course, as I said, I gave all this up when my conscience took over. Now, if I download a song, I go to iTunes and pay my 99 cents for it.
But this is where my dilemma lies: in the last year or so it all of a sudden dawned on me that, even though I am now downloading music by "legal" means, I still have quite a few songs in my library that were not secured by such means. And, just because I am now doing it the "righeous" way, this doesn't change the fact that I still have "stolen goods" on my hands. To make it a little more tangible: just because I might be buying shirts now, it doesn't make it all right for me to have a whole drawer full of stolen shirts, which I wear regularly.
Now, some may argue that when it comes to creative "property" it is a little more challenging to regulate. After all, one shirt is one shirt, and if someone can find a way to copy that shirt without buying another one, well, then all the more power to him. So long as he is not selling those shirts to someone else then it is perfectly fine.
But this is not the case with creative property. The laws of the land declare that if a person writes a song, a book, or whatever, then people cannot copy or use that piece of creativity without paying for it, or getting permission from the creator.
Another excuse that I've come up with is that much of the music I downloaded was before it was clear that downloading music without paying for it was clearly wrong. It seems as though there was quite a while, when the mp3 format came out, that people weren't sure if it was wrong to procure music this way. Thus, I can say that I downloaded a lot of it out of ignorance.
But the problem is, the Bible doesn't necessarily excuse "sins of ignorance." Though a person may very well have done something wrong without knowing it, or not meaning any ill-will by it, they were still expected to make amends for the wrong that was done (see Numbers 15:27-29).
And so I am left wondering what I should do about the music I have in my library that I didn't pay for. Clearly I feel the conviction to make restitution. You may not feel that same conviction about this matter, but this is something that has pricked my conscience over and over again the last year or so. And so this morning, I finally went through my library and made a list of all the songs I did not buy (which is roughly 17% of my library). It's amazing how easy it is to remember which songs I got legitimately, and which songs I did not - even if I got those songs eight or nine years ago.
But now I'm not sure what to do. There are a number of scenarios that have gone through my mind:
- I simply delete all the music that I've downloaded illegally and call it a day. This doesn't seem to be a good way of making restituation, though. The individuals I have wronged and withheld money from are none the better for this route.
- I go on iTunes and legitimately purchase all of the songs that I have downloaded illegally in the past, thus putting money into the pockets that I have taken from. This, to me, seems like the easiest and most reasonable solution. However, there are a few problems that arise in my mind: should I still enjoy the music that I have taken? What about the reality that I downloaded a lot of this music before there ever was an iTunes and songs could be purchased for 99 cents? The only way I could have legitimately procured those particular songs back then would have been to buy the whole CD. Thus, it seems as though I am still not fully restoring what I have taken. And what about those artists that don't even have their music on iTunes?
- God seems to have instructed the Children of Israel to add "one-fifth" to whatever they had stolen from people (Lev 6:4, 5). Should I not at least do the same? Zacchaeus, of course, went above and beyond that and restored anything he had taken "four-fold" (Luke 19:8). This is especially remarkable considering the fact that Zacchaeus, serving as a tax collector for the Roman government, was allowed by Roman law to take whatever he could get from people, so long as he got at least the minimum for taxes. Should I not follow his example - thus paying at least $3.96 for any songs I might have? And what about interest? And if I do that, should I still keep the songs? Certainly when Zacchaeus returned money to people he had cheated, he didn't still enjoy the benefits of that money.
- Maybe I should write a check and send a letter to each music company, admitting my fault and making things right with them. Not only will they get their money, but they might also be touched by the sincerity of someone who is trying to make things right. Of course, I am not so sure that these people will so much as bat an eyelash as they are going to the bank to deposit the $2-3 that I am returning to them. Still, should their potential reaction change my behavior?
As you can see, I have put quite a bit of thought into this issue. And perhaps you are thinking I'm making a big deal out of it. Maybe I am. Maybe all God wants from me is a sincere and good-faith effort to try to make restitution for my downloaded music. But I'm not sure.
Others may think I am spending way too much time pulling my hair out over this matter, or that I am being very legalistic. But doesn't God's goodness lead us to repentance, and part of that repentance is seeking to make restitution for ways that we have wronged people?
Perhaps you can set me straight.
*As an added bonus of looking through my whole library, I was able to see all the songs and music that I probably shouldn't have anyway.