Thursday, January 22, 2009

What to Do With Illegally Downloaded Music

For some people, this post may seem so absurd, so ridiculous, so silly, that you may not see the relevance of it. In fact, many of you may think I am downright foolish. But this is a case into modern ethics - when we don't have a "thus saith the Lord." And I'm looking for your insight.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Corey said...

You'll have to let me know what you decide. I've often thought about this too. I'm happy to say that I don't think I have much, if any, of misbegotten music - - at least that is if you don't count Duncan's stuff. But if you're married, it becomes the spouse's music too, right? Anyway, someone whom I'm related to recently told me to just copy a CD he/she has that I particularly liked but I chose not to do so. It doesn't seem like the right thing to do. And a common argument that I've told myself is "we're related so it's okay." But I don't think that counts unless it's the marriage argument.

Corey said...

I just wanted to clarify that Duncan's music is all legal stuff. My point was that I use Duncan's music which I did not pay for but I think it's okay since we're married. When I re-read this I realized it sounded like I was talking about Duncan's music that he had gotten illegally.

Mithun said...

Hmmmm...I've always considered myself on the right side of the whole music downloading thing. I did download illegally, but somewhere midway through highschool, I decided it was wrong, and simply deleted all my illegally downloaded music. Ever since then I've been persuading others to do the same. There was one pseudo-breakdown in college when I paid a minimal fee to "legally" download a Casting Crowns CD off of a Russian website, but my friend Wally convicted me by showing me I knew that Casting Crowns wouldn't see one cent of the nominal fee I paid (about 2 cents per song).

That said, I've never even thought of going to the lengths of restitution you're contemplating. While it is debatable whether the music companies erred in not allowing for free download and whether property law, for policy purposes, should protect such interests, the law is the law, and I believe we should follow it, even as we might work to change it. Honestly, it would be impossible for me to remember which songs I had downloaded (now deleted for a good 7 years) and thus convey restitution.

My advice, from moral and biblical intuition (and not from what I would do, flawed as I am), is err on the side of righteousness giving no regard to selfish considerations.

the dad said...

Some wrongs in life can't be made "right". At least not exactly right. Delete the songs, ask for forgiveness, and thank God for the Holy Spirit that has accomplished a refining work in your character. God forgets the confessed sin, and we should too :). Very nice post, and a topic that I've struggled with too. There's software that allows you to copy DVDs too. I mean, if you rent it, why not just copy it so you can watch it later? Right? Pardon me while I remove my tongue from my cheek. Thanks again for a great post.

Melanie Brace said...

This is from Freddie:
Shawn, You are definitely right. You can find better things to do with your time then to waste it writing this and any other blog you might write. If your conscience is bothering that badly I would ask that you consider the following: traveling the speed limit(going to the Busl home I don't think you did less than 80 mph). This is to me is more concerning than borrowing someone's cd and making a copy of it. At those speeds you could put someone else's life at risk. This to me would be more thought provoking than the 17% that you seem to be so distraught about. Secondly I was thinking about sermons and information used at sermons. I'm sure you've gotten information from other sources and not given proper credit. This may occur only 17% of the time. The list goes on and on Shawn. I am not saying this to diminish the fact that we all do wrong things. Thank the Lord for His sacrifice on Calvary's cross for us.


Shawn Brace said...

Thank you all for your comments. I appreciate them - though I'm not sure I quite understand yours, Freddie.

I am in the process of deleting my music right now, for what's it's worth!