11

I've come across people who claim piracy to be a theft that breaks one of the Ten Commandments (a sin against God). Yet, I've considered the matter and opined the following.

  1. Equal Opportunities: It is a given, taking into consideration poor countries like India also, that not everyone is in a position to earn as much as his fellow brother, be that due to being born in poor circumstances, in the schooling privileges given him, in mental gifts given him, as in intelligence, ability to learn, ability to carry out work. Everyone has differences in this regard. There is also the point of what he can afford given the economic status of his neighbourhood, wealth and health of his families that he must earn for too.

  2. Taking note of the above, Unfair Pricing and Class Distinction: It always amazes me when a person who is well above his means wants to force a doctrine of morality on others, in that piracy is a theft. I will just say, let pricing be governed according to class. Let the poor pay one thing, let the middle class pay one thing, and let the rich pay thrice the amount for his every need than the poor. And let's see if the "fairness" of the hearts of the rich is willing to still cope with such.

  3. Is piracy immoral: The Bible does mention that anything that is kept away from you unfairly, you have the right to take it. What I think of that, I will not say, but I mentioned it as it might be related to this.

What does the Church think about the morality of piracy?

4
  • 2
    possible duplicate of Is breaking copyright law a sin? Mar 14, 2014 at 1:47
  • 1
    It really comes down to whether internet piracy is theft or not. I can see arguments for both sides. They are going to hinge on whether the sort of thing you are taking is the sort of thing that someone else has a right to be compensated for. For instance, I don't think that pirating a digital copy of Lord of the Rings (the books) would be theft because no one has a right to be compensated for your copy (the author is dead). Whereas, pirating a digital copy of Harry Potter probably is theft, because there is someone who has the right to be compensated (author is alive).
    – jaredad7
    Oct 7, 2022 at 16:05
  • 2
    Following up, some may say that the children of Tolkien deserve compensation because they inherited his estate. I don't find that compelling, but you might. I don't find it compelling because I have disdain for copyright laws in general (they appear to me to often times contradict common sense notions of justice).
    – jaredad7
    Oct 7, 2022 at 16:06
  • "Piracy" is simply a derogatory word for "copying" or "sharing".
    – Geremia
    Jan 29 at 22:18

3 Answers 3

6

The Catechism is explicit.

1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent's responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.

1756 It is an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

Theft of food in order to sustain life is not a moral act and cannot be justified by circumstances, even though responsibility might be diminished by starvation. That is, although the act is wrong, culpability is reduced and punishment might be mitigated because of the extreme circumstances.

"Piracy of information and media" is not essential to the preservation of life.

18
  • 2
    in some cases, I don't understand how piracy is considered theft? I this scenario... Mar 14, 2014 at 4:01
  • 3
    My answer answers all of these questions. Theft is never permitted (and "virtual" theft is still theft), although theft in case of dire need [eg stealing food to stay alive] is less culpable. Mar 14, 2014 at 7:11
  • 2
    How is the catechism 'explicit' ? There is no mention of piracy, file sharing, etc there
    – BCLC
    Oct 6, 2022 at 23:22
  • 2
    This answer begs the question - if you assume that piracy is 'theft', as God intended in the 10 commandments, then of course it follows that piracy is not intended by God. Personally, I suspect that the ten commandments were written in a time when nobody thought that to sing a song written by somebody else who had since died could be considered "theft". Who knows what will be legally considered 'theft' in another thousand years? Oct 7, 2022 at 5:15
  • 2
    @AndrewLeach your "answer" that theft is never permitted is overly simplistic. While technically true, you intend to call things theft which definitely are not (eg taking food for sustenance without paying in necessity; you have a natural right to that food in those circumstance, hence it cannot be theft. See ST II-II Q66 A7), as well as things which may not be in all cases (eg internet piracy). Make better distinctions. This answer isn't helpful as written and ignores much Catholic tradition with respect to moral reasoning.
    – jaredad7
    Oct 7, 2022 at 16:12
6
+50

Moral Theology

Moral theologians treat copyright (authors' rights) when discussing contracts.
Prümmer, O.P., Manuale Theologiæ Moralis, PDF pp. 529-30 (§§8-9) on © (ius auctoris):

All teach, indeed, that it is pure and putrid theft if one secretly steals other manuscripts, artifacts, or artifacts not yet published, because the legitimate owner is reasonably unwilling on account of the serious damage and serious injury inflicted on him. But when the manuscript is already printed, or if the invention (commonly known as a Patent) has already been divulged, theologians debate whether a new printed book without the author's permission or an imitation of the invention is contrary to natural law and there be an obligation for restitution. Some deny it, because once the work has been divulged, it has become the common good, which can be lawfully occupied by all [cf. esp. Bucceroni, Theol. mor. I, n. 878; somewhat Morres, De iust. I, n. 24; Vermeersch, De iust. n. 246 sqq.]; but the more general and truer opinion affirms it, with the restrictions indicated by the positive law.

Omnes quidem docent, esse purum putidumque furtum, si quis clam alteri surripit manuscripta aut artifacta aut inventa nondum publici iuris facta, quia legitimus dominus est rationabiliter invitus propter grave damnum et gravem iniuriam ipsi illatam. Sed quando manuscriptum iam est typis impressum, aut si inventum (vulgo Patent) iam est divulgatum, disputant theologi, num nova impressio libri sine licentia auctoris facta vel imitatio inventi sit contra ius naturale et ad restitutionem obliget. Nonnulli negant, quia opus semel evulgatum iam fit bonum commune, quod ab omnibus licite occupari potest [Ita præsertim. Bucceroni, Theol. mor. I, n. 878; aliqualiter etiam Morres, De iust. I, n. 24; Vermeersch, De iust. n. 246 sqq.]; sed communior et verior sententia affirmat, cum restrictionibus tamen a lege positiva indicatis.

St. Augustine, De doctrina Christiana bk. 1, ch. 1:

For a possession which is not diminished by being shared with others, if it is possessed and not shared, is not yet possessed as it ought to be possessed.

cf. Willinsky p. 82

To Sell is to Transfer Full Ownership

These anti-piracy laws seems to oppose private ownership / private property.

If I buy a CD, I should be able to copy it, lend it, etc., because I own it.

To charge the owner extra to use something he owns or to charge for how he uses it is a form of usury, which the Church has always condemned (cf. Pope Benedict XIV's Vix Pervenit), because usury "is to sell what does not exist" (St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica II-II q. 78 a. 1 c.).

Another question is: Is "intellectual property" even property? N. Stephan Kinsella's Against Intellectual Property (free audiobook) is an excellent treatment of this and related moral questions.

A Doubtful Law does not Bind

The Internet's Own Boy—the free documentary on Aaron Swartz,* who was famously (some contend unjustly) prosecuted for automating the downloads of thousands and thousands of articles from JSTOR, using MIT's subscription—begins with this quote that is reminiscent of the Catholic moral principle "lex dubia non obligat" ("an unclear law does not bind"):

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?
—Henry David Thoreau

*Swartz, who died at 24 years old, was the driving force behind the creation of RSS, OpenLibrary, Internet Archive, Reddit, and Creative Commons licensing. He even had a project that aimed to make all court records available online.

U.S. Civil Law

In U.S. civil law, "Feist Publication, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340, 349-50 (1991) (citations omitted)" gives the purpose of ©:

The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts. To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art.

Related to U.S. law not considering copyright infringement theft is Stephan N. Kinsella's argument in Against Intellectual Property that IP is not property because property rights only apply to scarce resources:

But surely it is clear, given the origin, justification, and function of property rights, that they are applicable only to scarce resources. Were we in a Garden of Eden where land and other goods were infinitely abundant, there would be no scarcity and, therefore, no need for property rules; property concepts would be meaningless. The idea of conflict, and the idea of rights, would not even arise. For example, your taking my lawnmower would not really deprive me of it if I could conjure up another in the blink of an eye. Lawnmower-taking in these circumstances would not be “theft.” Property rights are not applicable to things of infinite abundance, because there cannot be conflict over such things.

This is similar to the argument Aaron Swartz gave in his short article "Downloading isn't Stealing."

Epikeia (legal equity)

Also, the internet and ease of sharing information was unknown when © law was first developed (cf. the Google TechTalk The Surprising History of Copyright…), so the virtue of epikeia (against legal pharisaism) must be applied here. Summa Theologica II-II q. 120 a. 1 ad 1: "it is written in the Codex of Laws and Constitutions under Law v: 'Without doubt he transgresses the law who by adhering to the letter of the law strives to defeat the intention of the lawgiver.'" The intention of the law is "not to reward the labor of authors, but [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" (quoted above), not restrict the sharing of knowledge.

13
2

As is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, evil is never morally acceptable. But, the culpability can depend on the circumstances and intention of the act.

However, your concerns are represented by on another qualifier found in the CCC: Some actions that can appear to be theft are not true theft.

The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing... ) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others. CCC 2408.

Whether there exists anyone in a circumstance wherein digital piracy is that person's only practical means of survival, or wherein the IP owner would knowingly consent, or wherein refusal would be contrary to reason or the universal destinations of goods 1, I couldn't definitively say. But, I would stress the importance of making such a decision, especially as the "pirate", with an informed conscience.

1. The goods of creation are destined for the entire human race to enjoy and be stewards of. Ownership of private property must be subordinate or in service to the common good of all.

9
  • It can be argued that though the goods in question mayn't be strictly necessary for bodily survival, it might just be necessary for psychological well-being, and may be compared to a child living in front of a bakery and not ever able to access an item like a delicious cake while he sees hundreds of people flocking in and enjoying such and coming out with smiles on their faces. Is piracy then immoral in all circumstances, especially when someone has not the means to pay the price. It, then seems, contrary to reason? Maybe the Catechism needs to expand more on the subject to include this topic? Mar 16, 2014 at 17:17
  • 1
    Church doctrine is deliberately vague in respects that require the ruling of an informed conscience.
    – svidgen
    Mar 16, 2014 at 18:15
  • What's the relevance of the first paragraph exactly?
    – BCLC
    Feb 1, 2016 at 4:16
  • @BCLC To respond to apparent concerns in the question regarding whether piracy (or any immoral act) may be morally permissible on the general grounds that "the other guy isn't playing nice." And the point of the remainder of the answer is that, by definition, it isn't actually piracy if you can reasonably presume you have the other guy's permission.
    – svidgen
    Feb 1, 2016 at 15:23
  • @svidgen Where did OP say anything like that?
    – BCLC
    Feb 1, 2016 at 18:57

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .