I admit it…I’ve often copied, borrowed and downloaded stuff without thinking about copyright or the consequences. But over time, I’ve come to feel that as a Christian, I need to find a better way. I’ve been thinking it over – what would Jesus pirate?
It’s not a simple question. The tablets that Moses brought down the mountain were definitely not of the electronic variety. It’s not as if Christ talked about downloads in the Sermon on the Mount. But I believe we should try and apply Biblical principles to every area of our lives.
Ripping CDs, for example. It was only last December that the government decided to make it legal to rip CDs to your computer or MP3 player, which most people have been doing for years. If you asked me about whether Christians should obey the law, I’d say yes, the Bible says we should obey the ruling authorities unless it would mean disobeying God (Romans 13:5). But I was merrily ripping my CDs, even after I found out it was illegal. My beliefs and my life don’t match up. Whoops.
Then there are plenty of seemingly grey areas. What about removing Digital Rights Management from video or ebooks I bought, purely for my own personal use? The legality of DRM removal and format shifting might be slightly murky, but is it really that big a deal?
But Jesus told us to “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” (Matthew 5:37). When I signed up to Amazon, for example, I agreed to their terms and conditions – that I license the books to read on authorised devices, not to own them as I would a physical book.
The surface issue might be trivial, but my motivations are ugly. I don’t have an inherent right to consume media however I like, breaking the law and my own word in doing so. I need to get over my sense of entitlement. So should I just accept our copyright law, no matter how out-of-touch? I believe that copyright needs substantial reform for the digital age.
Copyright is important to ensure that creators can be properly rewarded for their work. But we also need to protect the freedom to enjoy what they create, and to build on it creatively. Copyright shouldn’t remain locked down forever. Since Sherlock Holmes has gone out of copyright, there have been hundreds of adaptations and reinventions. The freedom to use Arthur Conan Doyle’s character has enriched our culture. If the rights are tied up in the hands of big corporations far beyond the lifetime of the original writer or artist, it diminishes our common culture.
So what can we do about copyright, as Christian consumers, creators and citizens? Here are some suggestions both for me to follow and for others to consider:
As consumers, we should be aware of what we’re agreeing to and stick to it. If you think DRM is evil, then you should vote with your wallet and only buy DRM-free ebooks, for example. Value personal integrity over convenience.
As a citizen, read what organisations like the Free Culture Foundation and Create have to say, and make your mind up about copyright. If you feel, as I do, that this is a significant issue, write to your MP, sign petitions, participate in the political process.
Creators might consider using Creative Commons licenses that are less restrictive than traditional copyright. Rather than trying to enforce compliance through increasingly intrusive technological restrictions, build trust and understanding with your audience, so they want to support your work.
I probably won’t be waiting until the law changes before I rip another CD. But I will be trying to work out what it means to love God and love my digital neighbour, right down to the playlist on my computer.