Stealing is stealing, even when it’s digital

It’s time for a little review: Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong. Even when the thing you stole is digital.

I’ve had online material copied and distributed without permission and plagiarized many times. You know: stolen. Many of my creative friends have had their work stolen, too. That doesn’t surprise me. The amazing part is how hard it is to convince people it’s wrong.

The argument seems to be: What difference could it possibly make? It’s just . . . particles of ether, or something. It’s not like stealing something real!

But whether the stolen item is physical or digital, it always makes a difference in the soul of the person doing the stealing. Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong. And more often than you may realize, it makes a difference to the creator, and to the rest of the world, too.

I’ll beat you to the punch: here’s a hilarious spoof commercial covering this very topic:

Note that “But they made a joke about it on British TV!” is not an actual moral defense.

Here are a few of the arguments defending stealing that I’ve heard from people who ought to know better:

No, I didn’t pay you when I used your stuff, but I have a huge platform! You should be grateful for the exposure.

No, people die of exposure. People are grateful for being paid for their work. (They shouldn’t be grateful; they should just accept it as just. But most creative people will tell you, it makes us all misty-eyed when someone willingly pays us what our work is actually worth.)

No one expects construction workers or IT guys or landlords to turn over their goods or services in exchange for exposure, so there’s no reason writers, photographers, graphic designers, or musicians should do it. Or maybe they will! It’s possible. But it’s their choice to decide whether it’s a good trade. Not yours. Just like the goods and services are theirs, not yours.

Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.

But I used your work to spread the word of God! Why would you even think of charging for such a thing? Isn’t that simony or something?

No, it’s the laborer being worthy of his wages. Because even Catholics doing work for Catholics have to eat. They can choose to volunteer, but they are not required to volunteer, and it may not be possible for them to volunteer (See above: Catholics have to eat).

Imagine a world where everything Catholic is done by volunteers. Good stuff, right? You want the official catechism to be written up by the nice lady who sets out the donuts at the 10:15 Mass, yes? And you’d like for your pastor’s vestments to be sewn by the third grade catechism class as their service project. Eh? These things are important, and you’d rather have them done by skilled professionals? Then you’ll want to find someone who’s devoted years and years to honing their craft. And to occasionally eating.

Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.

But it’s not an actual, physical thing. It’s not like there’s less of it in the world, once I’ve downloaded my copy.

Every time you take something that’s not yours to take, and you don’t pay for it, two things happen:

One is that you sin. I know I keep saying it, but it’s true, and important.

Second is that you make things that much harder for people who have very small businesses or who are just starting out. When we allow ourselves and our children to feel entitled to free stuff, it puts newbies straight out of business. We should be grateful if something is free, but never angry our outraged when something actually costs money. With that attitude, there really will be less of everything in the world, because the little guys won’t be able to afford to produce anything.

I had no idea it was illegal or immoral. It’s just so easy to grab things that are online.

Plausible. But now you do know, so cut it out.

It can be complicated. The laws in place are not always obvious or even consistent. When in doubt, ask. Ask the person whose work it is, ask someone who has experience using intellectual property, ask a lawyer friend. But don’t just assume that anything you can download is free.

Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.


But I took the watermark off before I used it, so. 

Are you freaking kidding me? How’s this: “But I cut the security tag off, so this leather jacket is now mine.”

Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.

But I’d never be able to afford the price she’s charging.

That is so sad! But you could say the same about a Mediterranean vacation, an ivy league education, or a lovely lobster dinner. If a thing costs money, and you don’t have the money, then you probably can’t have the thing. You can ask the seller if he’d like to donate it, or you can ask other people to give you money to buy it, or you can find some way of raising the money to buy it. But you can’t just take the thing.

Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.

I’d never steal from small business owners or artisans. But this is a huge business, and they’ll never even feel it.

When you steal from a giant corporation, it’s almost certainly true that the CEO won’t feel it. Instead, his employees earning minimum wage will feel it. And your fellow consumers will feel it. So that’s who you’re sticking it to. Classy!

Here’s the thing, especially in entertainment: If I download a pirated movie instead of renting or buying, it won’t make a difference to the CEO of Warner Bros. He doesn’t need a crumb of my $11.99, and neither does the billionaire movie star. But the gal who wrote the script, and the guy who did the walk-on part, and a bunch of other people whose names zip by in the credits? They probably don’t have 9-5 jobs, and they really do need every crumb. They may very well be getting through dry spells by living off royalties and residuals from past work. But if everyone is watching a pirated version of the movie they helped make, they can’t live.

Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.

Anyway, this company supports gay marriage, while I’m here raising a Godly family [or: Anyway, this company opposes gay marriage, while I’m here raising a tolerant family.] This is my little way of sticking it to the man.

Even if it did hurt the bigwigs to steal from their corporation, we’re still not permitted to return evil for evil, and we’re not permitted to do evil so that good may come of it. A CEO who allows his corporation to do evil is responsible for the evil he has done. An individual consumer who does evil is responsible for the evil he has done. You’re not scoring points for your side by stealing from someone you consider evil. You’re just putting more evil into the world.

Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.

It’s not really stealing to violate the terms and conditions I agreed to, because it’s just legal mumbo jumbo, and who reads that stuff? If they really wanted to restrict how I use this, they should have locked it down better.

So you really want to live in a world where your word means nothing, and only brute force is binding? Remember this next time you sign a contract to buy a car, and you make your payments on time, but the dealership owns a very big tow truck, so they go ahead and get their car back. Because if you really wanted to keep it, you should have locked it down better.

The fourth commandment requires us to abide by just laws, even if those just laws are written in teeny tiny script that you didn’t feel like reading before you agreed.

To sum up:
Stealing is stealing, and stealing is wrong.

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Image: A fellow who just wasn’t grateful for all the exposure he got. Photo By Joadl (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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10 thoughts on “Stealing is stealing, even when it’s digital”

  1. And at least offer to pay your lawyer friend for the free advice you are asking for. Because lawyers, also, have to eat. Signed, a lawyer (couldya tell?)

    1. And extend that courtesy when talking to your nurse buddy and asking for anfree wellness check for yourself and your kids -_-

      I feel you on this one!

  2. While I agree with you in principle, and can’t bear the thought of thieves, I also have to recognize that personally, I’m better off when I don’t go the “It’s not fair” dept.

    We don’t download pirated stuff, we pay for our HBO, and pay the $50 for Pandora so we don’t have to hear the Trojan commercials. But I’ve flagrantly sent links to my kids from good, morally sound blog articles.

    Thieves really get my dander up though. Whether it’s flaky relatives, whiny, entitled people people or the little grandma that used to shop at the lost and found box at our old school, I have to catch myself from judging them. I tell myself about the thief with the loaf who needs to feed his family whose guilt is nill. If they grabbed something that belongs to my family, I think one of several things:.. they needed it more than I did…their parents didn’t care enough about them…they might be a little crazy…I have to literally walk myself through a mental process to pity them in order that I not resent their m.o. At tax time my rage doubles for at least an hour before I talk myself down from filing a complaint at the It’s Not Fair Headquarters.

    We had two zingers in the gospels these past two Sundays, eh? Last Sunday my husband laughed inappropriately when the ungrateful servant who was forgiven much went to “throttle” the guy that owed him money. Yesterday’s gospel? That one fits in so nicely with counteracting my impulse to file a complaint at the “it’s not fair dept.”

    1. There is a world of difference between the “that’s not fair” department and the “that’s not JUST” department. The landowner in the Gospel is free to do what he likes with his money, and if he wants to be generous to those who came last, he is perfectly able to. He would be quite unjust if he outright refused to pay anyone for their day’s work, though.

      As a matter of fact, it’s one of the sins that cries out to heaven for judgment.

      1. Yep, I get that difference–that’s why it’s in the gospel, but it also illustrates the reality that we humans are quick to cry fowl and get hung up on how we think we might have been wronged (maybe it’s a mountain, maybe it’s a molehill) rather than moseying on over to the 7 times 77 department. The act of choosing the 7 times 77 dept. gets us closer to reflecting upon all the times that God’s generosity was lavished upon *us* when we clearly didn’t deserve it.

    2. There’s nothing wrong with sending a link to a blog post. In fact more traffic to the blog site can help the author who may be earning money through ads on the blog or links to purchase a book by the author etc. The problem would be if you copied and pasted the blog post to your own site and passed it off as something you wrote.

  3. Yes. And another thing—it feels really awful when one’s work is stolen. Somebody else is getting the credit. When somebody stole an online piece I did about a terrible period in my life, I felt violated. I was able to get the piece pulled, but it was still pretty awful.

    It’s kind of a St. Maria Goretti thing. Don’t do it! It’s a sin! And also, your victim will feel rotten about it! There’s just no upside.

  4. I’m going to sound awfully nitpicky and I’m sorry for that, but… you just illustrated an article about obeying the copyright law with an illegally uploaded YT clip of copyrighted material. It’s a bit… jarring.

    Not gonna argue about the rest of the article, though, which is pretty much spot on. And yet I’m still having trouble convincing my uber-Catholic family that illegal downloads or streaming are bad because “everyone does it and it’s fine and it’s not technically illegal and we don’t have to obey every law anyway and nobody’s perfect” :/

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