I was hoping to get some insightful answers regarding this issue since I have been unable to find any authoritative material on the relationship between copyright laws, theft, and restitution as a moral question in the eyes of the Church. If I’m wrong about any Church teaching in my post, please correct me.
My questions are partially motivated by past experiences of mind, and trying to find clarity in regards to how I should act in this digital age and if I have any obligations regarding restitution for past instances where I violated certain copyrights which may or may not be considered stealing depending on who you ask and the circumstances, something which I am highly confused on.
So basically the issue is two fold, is downloading copyrighted material without paying theft?
and is merely viewing copyrighted material without paying theft?
Let’s say you buy a DVD movie and invite some friends over and you all end up watching the DVD together. No theft right?
But Let’s say you burn the DVD and convert it into a file which you then post on a file sharing website where many people can in turn make their own copies by downloading it. It is my understanding that this is considered piracy and closely associated with theft if not theft itself. I think this is somewhat clear since you can see somewhat clearly how someone can suffer a loss.
But how about this third scenario where you upload the film onto youtube, and people aren’t downloading the film, but merely viewing it. Is it stealing for someone to watch it? And if it is stealing, how is it substantially any different from inviting friends over to watch a film they didn’t pay for? Let’s say you invited 10 friends over and you all watched the film, and then only 5 people ended up viewing your upload of the film on youtube. Can you see how confusing this is? Now the person who uploaded it may be in the wrong in terms of violating a civil law, but is it necessarily theft? And if it is theft, who is the one doing the stealing, the person who merely viewed what someone else uploaded, or the person who burned the DVD and created a file which they ended up uploading to youtube as an example?
Now if someone were to come to the conclusion that reproducing a product without compensating the owner is intrinsically immoral, then how do we reconcile this with the civil law which essentially allows for exceptions to copyright law commonly referred to as “fair use” One example of fair use is copying of a copyrighted work in an educational setting; so if someone were to photocopy a book and give out copies to friends it would be considered illegal, but if a teacher in the classroom did the very same thing with the very same book and handed it out to students it would not be considered illegal. So my question here is, is this copyright issue essentially a civil law issue with issues of morality sprinkled in, or the opposite, where this is at its core a moral issue with copyright laws muddling the clarity? Or is it some other combination entirely?
Now how this all relates to the matter of restitution is an entirely separate issue which is itself difficult to come to a clear conclusion on. I suppose one should seek out the advice of their confessor in specific circumstances, but in terms of general moral principles, what can we regard as the right course of action?
It seems to me from my reading of the catechism, and other moral theology, that if someone were to steal a CD from a store, they would be obligated to return what they stole, and if they no longer had it in their possession, then to compensate the store for the amount the CD would have cost them.
But if someone were to download music from a CD that was legally purchased, how would one make restitution for this? It seems to me that at the very least they should delete the music they downloaded illegally, buy beyond this is there any other obligation? It doesn’t seem like the artist has necessarily suffered a loss if it is a situation where the person who downloaded the music had no intentions of buying the music regardless, and in the cases of music uploaded to youtube where someone merely listens to a song and does not download it, is this theft on the part of the listener? It seems hard for someone to make that case to me since there are other instances where similar circumstances are present, such as if you were video chatting with a friend and they had music playing, in both instances you are listening to a song over the internet without paying, and the music is being played in two different locations even though in one instance (on youtube) there is an extra file involved.
And on a related note, does ignorance excuse the obligation of restitution in regards to things on the internet? Let’s say someone was ignorant of the law or thought their activity qualified as “Fair use” and ended up viewing but not downloading copyrighted works, would they have to then make restitution by actively going out and buying whatever they viewed, be it a film, a song, etc when had they known that such an obligation was present they would not have viewed/listened to the copyrighted work in the first place?
So basically, correct me if I am wrong, but the only conclusion that seems clear in the midst of my confusion is that at the very least, violating copyright law is breaking the law, and we are obliged to obey just laws, so on at least that basis people should refrain from downloading copyrighted material illegally, and uploading copyrighted material illegally, and refrain from any illegal sharing of such.
Now the jump from committing a sin of disobedience against legitimate authority to a sin of theft seems so much more confusing to me and if anyone has some good Church approved material on this I welcome it, but I haven’t seen a lot if any.
Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on this whole issue CAF, since it is becoming more prevalent in this digital age.