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October 13, 2006

Can People "Steal" the Word?: Christianity and the File-Sharing Debate

Tuesday's Los Angeles Times featured a great piece about the current state of the Christian music industry and how the "piracy" question has leaked into a genre of music that has long been known for putting importance on proselytizing in a rather literal sense, with less thought given to making money but instead on saving souls. This piece looks at both the Christian music industry's approach to file-sharing and the opinions of listeners as well as to whether there is an ethical obligation to resist file-sharing Christian music.

Geoff Boucher, who wrote the piece, explains the debate succinctly: "Those attitudes, along with the arrival of an edgy and restless new generation of artists and lean times in the usic industry, have created a clash between familiar imperatives: Spread the Word and Thou shalt not steal. It actually raises a pretty fundamental question that doesn't apply as directly to other mass music industries. Similar to the economic arguments of the movie industry, reminding viewers that key grips need to eat on the money that theater tickets and DVD sales provide, there are some religious groups trying to tug on people's heartstrings, especially because the gospel music industry is not as substantially lucrative as some other popular music forms.

But there are organizations within the Christian music industry that have now taken an ethical approach, claiming that it is a sin to engage in file sharing with any type of music, including Christian music. John Styll, president of the Christian Music Trade Association is quoted in the story as saying:

"The RIAA feels it can't address it as a moral issue, but we certainly can, and our audience should be more receptive to that. It's like stealing. You wouldn't walk into a Christian bookstore and steal a Bible off the shelf...some fans say, 'This music is made to spread the Word, and I'm just helping.' Well, this is also about people's livelihoods."

However, a lot of Christian music fans and artists don't see it that way. There are even some who see it as a moral strength to spread the word of gospel music. And, if you think about the history of gospel versus the Christian music industry, it is understandable. I remember attending gospel music singings in my youth at small churches in Western Kentucky, almost every Saturday night, where a variety of regional gospel music acts would come by. Many of them would only charge a minimal fee, if anything at all, but they made their money from the generous love offering always planned for the end of the service. The church people always balked at the bigger-name acts or one of the regional acts who gained more widespread appeal because some of them would then charge a bigger fee for agreeing to come and sing. Is that un-Christian?

It's a moral question that doesn't take place in the rest of the music industry, with music built on a religions that says that money is the root of all evil. In that case, isn't Christian music meant for free consumption? Singer/songwriter Derek Webb, who has made his music available for free, says he supports grassroots Christian groups from various genres that are using MySpace and other methods of Internet distribution to gain fans. "Forgive me for saying it this way, but that looks a lot more like Jesus to me than packaging some album and telling people what to do with their art."

And, according to the story, the continued growth in digital downloading is coming alongside a growth in popularity for Christian music, with the music--which spreads across almost every genre and is defined by the subject matter rather than the musical style--experiencing an 11 percent growth in the first half of 2006 compared to the first half of 2005, much better than the 4 percent decline for the rest of the music industry. Since downloading numbers have increased substantially during that time as well, it is not because moral guilt trips are affecting fans.

Does this piracy argument play out differently in the Christian music space compared to others? Do Christian music groups have less of a right to be concerned about profit than others? Or do artists still end up gaining more profit in the long run with their music spreading through MySpace and file sharing? The popularity of grassroots Christian bands indicate that a lot of economic and cultural gain can come through making your songs available.

In any event, the article is well worth a read.

Thanks to Joshua Green for sending this article to me.


Stealing is only stealing if the person being robbed resists. If one allows themselves to be 'taken' the exchange might still be considered swindling, but it might alternatively be considered charity, a bedrock of the Christian church. One solution to this conflict would be for Christian music artists to make some of their songs available for free download, much the same way Bibles of all versions are made available online for the good of the cause. I'd like to think that a truly pop culture savvy Christian artist could find a way to increase their profits by taking a creative approach to free content.

Until that happens file sharing does strike me as theft and while in high school I felt like Robin Hood taking a small something back from a record company that would sell a twenty cent CD for twenty dollars since then I've grown more conflicted and confused as I've looked for a less breezy perspective. Ultimately today I still believe that file sharing is less a theft than it is an exchange without consent, which in some cases will end up profiting the victim directly or indirectly and in some cases will amount to a painful but not fatal series of paper cuts.

My conclusion is this: File sharing is a kind of theft and theft is a sin. Until Christian artists either as individuals or as a group find a way to capitalize on the excitement over their music that's leading people to file share, file sharing their music is a sin. But I sometimes find there to be a difference between what seems wrong, even what IS wrong and what IS a sin. A sin is something that God knows from overwhelming experience is generally a bad thing. It's always a correct call from an aerial view of the cosmos (or at least it was at the time the Bible was written). What I believe is wrong, on the other hand, is based on far more limited experience but it could be relevant to the individual circumstance I'm dealing with as long as I'm not lying to myself. Maybe, if examined impartially by the wise and all knowing God, I'm making mistakes right and left or maybe I'm understanding something far more profound than someone who holds to the rules even when they don't make sense. He will decide that and I can only pray that he will be merciful. But until I'm able to talk with him directly and explicitly I still have to decide for myself how I want to live my life. And I know I - both a modern, civilized intellectual and a sinner - am most likely to live by God's requests when I understand why they make sense and when I feel motivated to make healthy decisions for myself. Not stealing from the rich is a hard rule to be enthusiastic about, but I do see the righteousness in it. Not stealing from the poor is an easier rule to grock and to live by.

Christian artists do not have a responsibility to give away their art for free, at least that is to say I'm not going to condemn them if they don't. What they have is an opportunity to do some good. Finding a balance between living a life they can be morally happy with and one they can be financially satisfied with is up to them and not our place to judge.

Posted by: Charlie | October 14, 2006 11:50 PM

Thanks for the insight, Charlie!

Posted by: Sam Ford | October 20, 2006 12:25 AM
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