Copyright law/mortal sin

I have an examination of conscience that says violating copyrights is a mortal sin. So people were posting pictures on a forum (non-sinful pictures) and I wanted to look but was afraid maybe some of the pictures had been posted without copyright permission. I didn’t know that for sure, so I continued to look at them briefly. Then I stopped looking because I thought it might be mortal sin (because of what my examination of conscience says). But later I reasearched the photos and they were NOT copyrighted. So it wasn’t grave matter at all. Does it sound like I committed mortal sin–because I THOUGHT it might be a mortal sin at the time?

I think the best way to get a good answer is to talk to your priest. It was appropriate for you to be concerned about copyright. It simply means ‘the right to copy.’ If a web site has photos but no copyright notice like “copyright 2014, Fred Smith, photographer” then it is appropriate not to look.

God bless,

I would agree that all deliberate copyright violations are sinful - at least venially. But I cannot see how it would typically constitute grave matter. Simply browsing a website with photographs that may or may not infringe someone’s copyright does not strike me as grave matter at all. I am not a moral theologian nor a priest, but I would only personally see “grave matter” in the following scenarios:

  1. One is illegally making a PROFIT off someone else’s copyrighted material

  2. One is illegally distributing copyrighted material to such an extent that it will result in a significant loss of profits to the copyright holder.

If my copyright infringement results in a large company losing $10 out of its annual $1 000 000 profits, I do not see grave matter at play…if on the other hand, a struggling independent artist loses half of his or her potential income as a result of my actions, it is probably grave matter.

Looking at copyrighted material is not a problem.

If YOU use it without permission to make money, or post it when it says not to then you violated copyright law and have committed a crime and a sin.

If you purchase bootleg items where you know that the copy right has been violated, you have committed a crime and a sin.

If you do not know and cannot know if the pictures or items are being used lawfully, then there is no sin. MANY images online (most in fact) are not copyright protected.

If it has the copyright mark on it, or the shadow printing over it, or a notice saying copyrighted material, then you know. But just looking at random photos posted online, unless the photos themselves are sinful, very very rarely is a copy right infringement.

If you have any doubts, refrain from reposting the photos yourself.

Hi Veronica,

Seeing your last two posts, is there any chance you could be scrupulous?

Nothing scrupulous here:


We can quote any books or laws or anything like that and we could even be right. However, this poster is indeed terribly scrupulous. None of us should be giving her any advice as to what’s right or wrong as forums such as these are the worst venue for the scrupulous. There is only one answer to any and all of her questions: take it up with your confessor.

Just look at this thread. There have already been at least two conflicting answers. For normal people, this isn’t a problem. For the scrupulous, like the OP, it will not only not help her, but it will conflate her scrupulosity. The inconsistency only increases her suffering.

I know she’s looking for answers, maybe to help relieve her suffering somewhat, but it’s high time, based on her posting patterns, that she actually stops doing this and just follow her confessor’s counsel.

I guess the reason I’m asking these questions today is because I’m planning on going to Confession this evening, and I have a difficult time telling the difference between mortal and venial sins sometimes. My typed confession is a page and a half and I am concerned that I will take up too much time in the Confessional before Mass, so I was trying to eliminate some things that aren’t necessary to confess. I usually keep it to a page or less, but I had something rather complicated I needed to explain to Father this time. Yes, scrupulosity is a painful condition.

I didn’t know that. It’s too bad we can’t actually talk to one another.


Just confess. Don’t sort, don’t analyze. Why are you even typing your confession? You should not be doing that if you’re scrupulous. Just confess and obey your confessor. Examine your conscience for only five to ten minutes and don’t even review your run your confession through your head after you’re done. Tell Father you’re scrupulous. Confess no doubtful sins. These are only general principles to aid the scrupulous but no matter what: OBEY YOUR CONFESSOR UNCONDITIONALLY.

I have worked in the publishing field for years, so I may be able to help.

Looking at pictures posted on a forum is not a violation of copyright law because posting another’s copyrighted material on a forum is usually considered commentary or sharing news, and in such cases the use of copyrighted material falls under the law of fair use. Some have argued this, but the law on fair use still stands.

Often people post things in humor or as a form of parody and in this case the person posting is protected due to freedom of speech (because we are not forbidden to make jokes about that which the public is given access to in the media). In such a case you can use the intelligent property of others, and in some situations even make profit from it.

While you should talk to your priest about what you are going through (because it does indeed sound like scrupulosity may be involved and your priest can reassure you that we don’t worship such an exacting God), even if it were illegal to post the pictures (in some cases it might be–but that would take a court case to establish that), viewing the material would only make you a witness to a crime.

But since no crime was committed there was no sin.

True, but having gone through the same thing myself (scrupulous thinking harassed me for years) and come out the other side I can tell you that the suffering cannot stop asking questions just because you tell them to.

And sometimes it helps to hear what others have to say, believe me. True, it hurts to hear conflicting information but then again you need to face the truth that we will often be presented with conflicting answers in life or ambiguities or even a lack of answers–and it is this reality that the scrupulous have a hard time with: they are ambiguity intolerant.

The scrupulous want life compartmentalized, black and white, and it isn’t like that. I didn’t get better myself until I was able to embrace this fact.

Oh boy, are you right about that. I like black and white. Mortal sins: adultery, murder, perjury, missing Mass for no good reason. In other words, concrete acts that you absolutely know are wrong. Where I get REALLY caught up is in my own thoughts: did I consent/did I not consent? And complicated situations such as legal issues or grey areas that require judgment calls. In my past life I never thought much about sin or formed my conscience very well…now everyday life can become a minefield for me.

Sounds familiar. It might help to get a medical checkup, and I will explain why.

What I went through was partially due to a simple chemical imbalance in the brain due to a head injury. With medication and the passage of time all was corrected, but I do know from the experience that things like low levels of dopamine and serotonin (such as occur with unipolar disorder) can be the cause of what you are going through. So it could be simply medical and something easily corrected (and something you have no control over till then). Many cases of scruples are just symptoms of a medical problem with a real and practical solution.

In the meantime it may help to just keep asking the priest and friends who knew what you are going through who don’t mind reminding you again and again that all is fine. My best bud never tired of letting me know all was fine no matter how many times I asked.

What helped me was reminding myself that if I am questioning my level of consent then a mortal sin could never have occurred. For a sin to be mortal one has to be sure of their consent.

We can only speak in generalities. While re-emphasizing that you must take it up with your confessor and obey him, there are some general principles for the scrupulous:

Did I consent/not consent? You did not. Do not confess.
Gray area? Do not confess.
Doubtful as to whether it was a sin? Do not confess.
Did I confess this already? You did. Do not confess.

Your information about Fair Use is not accurate. Speaking very generally, the internet is not a good place to post anything without clear attribution, permission and a copyright notice. That’s why google is being sued by photographers. I work for a publishing company and have spent a long time studying copyright law, and we have been involved in litigation. We send out takedown notices on a regular basis.

I hope the OP doesn’t mind me posting this.


I don’t necessarily agree with people using intellectual property in the way I mentioned. Being in the field I am in I have had intellectual property stolen from me and placed on YouTube and other places.

My comments are based on the law explained to me by those in my legal department. And while it may be the subject of current litigation (and I may have not written it correctly), I do know that Fair Use CURRENTLY prevents me from going after a lot of people I would like from using my intellectual property the way they do.

Regardless, if you view my work or someone else’s that is posted illegally, it is not a mortal sin to witness a crime, if that is what it is.

No, it’s okay. I just wish I didn’t know all the stuff I know. I mean, I used to enjoy music videos on youtube and I would repost memes and photographs on Facebook, but now I don’t. I don’t even feel like I can click “like” on a photograph anymore unless it was taken by the person posting it. Most people don’t even think about copyright and so I feel like a “party-pooper”. When people share youtube videos innocently with songs that I like, I feel like I can’t even comment on the song. As a scrupulous person, the internet has become a veritable minefield.

The FBI thinks so.

Intellectual property is real property. Some have this fake notion that “nothing” is being stolen. Those digital bits are very tangible. You watch those digital bits as a movie or a photo or hear a song for nothing, and the people who put heart and soul into that get nothing for their work.

Just today, an artist on our staff asked me into his office. He had produced some drawings we had sent to one location. They were never posted online. Guess what? He found them posted online. I looked at his original and the copy where individual figures were rearranged but it was his work. Not a good felling to say the least.


Ed, I am agreeing with you. If you read my comments I mention I have had the same happen to me. I think you are mistaking my comments with my approval of illegal activities–which I don’t condone.

Did you fail to read that I have had my own intellectual property taken by others and used on YouTube? I know intellectual property is REAL because I make my living making it.

My mention of Fair Use was paraphrasing what I learned from my legal department after having had my computer network hacked into and a film preview stolen from my studio. While the theft was illegal, certain uses of the preview by others in discussing the theft was not. That is where I learned what I paraphrased, and I have the following from those who do my legal work about Fair Use (and my apologies I didn’t do it justice):

Examples of fair use include commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. It provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author’s work as long as the following four factors can be met (according to the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 10):

[INDENT]1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.[/INDENT]

These are the factors I was paraphrasing. I was not speaking about anything outside of this that constitutes a violation of the copyright law. And I was not saying I agree or disagree with Fair Use. I definitely was NOT condoning the stealing of intellectual property!

Besides, what I am concerned with is a different law than that governing Fair Use. I am speaking about the law of God’s love and mercy.

If you go on a forum where someone posted a picture or drawing or video, and you don’t know for sure if it’s use falls under the Fair Use act, you don’t commit a sin when you see the image or intellectual property. If you didn’t set out to purposefully find and view images, videos, etc. that *you know are being used illegally *then you are accidentally coming across them. You don’t sin when you ACCIDENTALLY see something you did not intend to see.

And unless you know for certain and without question that the use was illegal then it is not an issue. Most people cannot and do not sell the images, etc. they include in posts on forums like this, and it is often considered Fair Use.

If I fail to meet the criteria of explaining this, please have mercy on me, Ed. I am trying to help someone, not support or argue against the usage of copyright materials.

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