Q – Is it ethical to download and share current movies, songs and articles without paying for them?

It’s hard to find a justification for the free use of video or music that people should be paying for. There’s a reason they call it "piracy." But it all comes down to drawing the line between sharing and stealing.

Online, that line has become increasingly hard to draw. The internet culture proclaims freedom throughout the cybersphere, unto all the media outlets thereof. Like the classic game of "whack-a-mole," for every Napster that was shut down, dozens of other free streaming sites have emerged. I’ve even found sites featuring free downloads of lectures dealing with the ethics of free downloads!

As one ethics site explains, photocopying a copyrighted article for personal, non-commercial or educational purposes is considered "fair use" and is legal. That covers much of what I share in classes and at services. Online, where sharing is de rigeur, wouldn’t the sharing of nearly any material fall under the same category of "fair use?"

Before Al Gore invented the internet, I used to lend friends cassette tapes and no one arrested me. So why can’t I do the same thing via e-mail? I’m not selling the material. And as one bar mitzvah student put it to me a few years ago, after having downloaded 800 songs on the old Napster, "Being part of a sharing community makes me feel like I’m living out the commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"

Further, wouldn’t this sharing only help the artist, by getting his name out there and creating buzz? The more downloads, the more he stands to cash in, eventually.

And what if I’ve already bought the song in several formats (LP, cassette, CD), thus giving the musician his royalties several times over – for the same song! I’ve paid for the music already, so what’s the big deal about downloading an mp3 to play it on my iPod? Same goes for movies that I’ve already purchased in VHS and/or DVD format, or (heaven forbid) Betamax. The distributors are making a bundle on repackaging old stuff. Regarding the economic impact of file sharing and piracy, the only thing clear is that nothing is clear.

But shouldn’t "Thou Shalt Not Steal" trump all other concerns? We do have to consider the artist’s right to gain income from her intellectual property. And even though it’s hard to like some of those others who stand to profit, the mogols, the agents, the huge companies, we have to think of their rights too.

What’s considered improper from the perspective of Jewish law is not giving credit to the originator of an idea. The Talmud states (Megilla 15a) "One who quotes a statement in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world."

Improper, yes – but not necessarily illegal.

Beyond that, the jury is out. Freedom reigns, no matter how much the mogols try to rein it in. As for me, I prefer to download legally and above board, appreciating the convenience and low-cost of iTunes.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at HammermanOnEthics@gmail.com