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Why Pirates Need to Repent

The recent controversy over pirated books on Scribd raises an important question for those of us who care about both the arts and the poor. What do we do when valuable content is available, free but illegal?

Naturally, we want everyone to have access to information and the arts. We believe knowledge and exposure to resources enables disadvantaged people rise above their circumstances. Many of us believe the arts enrich people, inspiring them to share their own stories and live better lives. In that sense, free online content breaks socioeconomic barriers.

I'm a big fan of free. I wouldn't contribute to UrbanMinistry.org if I felt otherwise. I use open source software, listen to songs on Pandora, download music samplers from Amazon, and go to the Worship Background group at Flickr for my church's PowerPoint needs. This digital age has spoiled me in ways previous generations could never have imagined.

The downside to all this free content is that we can, if we let ourselves, devalue these resources. Not long ago I cherished every CD I bought, carefully selecting each purchase and eventually memorizing the lyrics to just about every song. Since discovering legal, free mp3 downloads on Amazon, I can't name all the musicians represented on my hard drive, let alone sing along to every song. I'll often download something and then change my mind, possibly sending someone's masterpiece into my virtual recycle bin with a few clicks of a mouse.

This isn't exactly a sinister change on my part; privileged people have taken major conveniences for granted for centuries, and that doesn't seem to harm their creators. When was the last time you exalted in your ability to flush your toilet, or marveled as the street lights changed? However, there is an abstractness that separates digital content from material objects—toilets and streetlights, composed of solid materials, have never been free. The majority of people you meet have stolen neither, and you would certainly think differently of them if you knew they had. Yet with Internet piracy, the victim as well as the material is more abstract. Theft of such content is at most considered a minor vice; many people find it perfectly acceptable.

This does not, however, justify Internet piracy. Firstly, though it may require a little more thought, I do not believe we are incapable of understanding abstract value. We track it in our bank statements and investments all the time. People spend real money to buy fake property on Second Life. The idea that we can't visualize the work artists and writers put into their creations is absurd.

Secondly, Internet piracy is not victimless. In the case of books, the money authors receive comes directly from the sale of each copy. Viewing their work online without their permission is a theft of service and the equivalent of stiffing your server at a restaurant. I am less familiar with the way the music and movie industries work, but someone is not getting their fair share when pirates steal content.

Do we care if it is fair? After all, we are about seeking justice for the poor, not protecting the property of the rich. Some may therefore contend that artists who are already successful do not need our help. This argument only works if you would not like the arts to be a way out of poverty for those with talent. If artists cannot make any profit from their activities, careers in the arts will only be available to the independently wealthy. How does that correct inequality?

Anyone who knows how digital content will be financed (or not) in the future understands a lot more than I do. But in the meantime, we have content that volunteers have generously donated, whether for self-promotion or just to serve the community; we also have content that is sold to support its producers, and sometimes to support its creator's favorite nonprofit. Perhaps as the digital age matures we will see more of one kind of content or the other, but regardless, I urge everyone to respect the intentions of the artists and authors. If you think so little of them that you don't believe they deserve that respect, why do you want their work?

Yes, it may be tempting to illegally download intangible content created by someone you don't know, whose hardships you will never see. It may also be tempting to lie or commit murder. Temptation is never an excuse.