File Sharing: Kosher or Not?
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 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


Last Update:

08/19/2010 - 08:29
file sharing, Jewish ethics, Judaism, Talmud

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A friend who's been in the music industry commented on this posting and made some important points. I respect his opinion highly. I share them below: Hi Rabbi, I have to comment on your file sharing article. To start, although "file sharing" is the term used to describe this practice, files are not shared. They are copied and distributed to persons who have not paid for them. And the majority of these files are for entertainment, not to sustain life. We are not speaking about food or clothing or shelter. We are talking about people who choose not to pay for something others do pay for, to save their discretionary income for something they are not able to steal for free. Fair use, which you mention, only applies to activities that do not harm the copyright owner's market for their work. Thus, use for educational/teaching purposes would be covered, but not allowing the taking of or giving away a work to some one who would otherwise have to pay for it. Also, the analogy of trading cassettes with friends is flawed in a couple of ways. This activity was always illegal, but not criminal, and not enforced by rights owners as it created a small amount of harm when weighed against the negative pr of enforcing these rights. More importantly, how many cassettes could any one student in a dorm make and give away? A dozen, a hundred even a thousand? That doesn't compare to the literally hundreds of millions of copies made on P2P file sharing sites. In addition, to question the economics of whether a "mogul" or a company or artist has already made enough is surprising in a free market, even if they were the only ones being harmed, which they are not. Who decides when enough money has been made from a product? The seller, the buying public or someone who doesn't have a stake in the matter and doesn't recognize the value of intangible property or the free market? Doesn't supply and demand and price elasticity control when enough is enough? Why should BMW, and why can BMW, charge more for a car than Hyundai if they cost the same amount to manufacture? Because enough buyers are willing to pay for the BMW at that price, is why. File sharing is theft. There is no doubt in any of the court decisions or among any of the rights holders who spend time and money to create a work, decide to sell it and are then deprived of some portion of their potential upside by a person or persons who share it with millions of others (when at least a portion of those other people would pay for the song or movie if they could not get/steal it for free). If you were a full time free lance author of articles, and that was how you made your living, would you still think "the jury is out" if you could not sell or syndicate the article because it is on a file sharing site available for free? File sharing is not a romantic Robin Hood activity. It has cost the entertainment industry billions of dollars and resulted in tens of thousands of people (not moguls or stars) losing their jobs as those industries have contracted. Many of my friends and colleagues have lost their jobs as a result of this so it is not an abstract discussion to me. It is a clear and unambiguous violation of the 8th Commandment and children should be taught that.

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