What Would Jesus Download?

I couldn’t have been much more than 10 years old when my friend and I discovered Kazaa: the follow-up to Napster and the predecessor of the Bittorrent movement. We searched giddily through the massive online music library discovering that we could find virtually any song we wanted and have it on our computer within minutes! Along with the excitement, there was also a twang of conscience. There was something a little bit sketchy, a little bit dirty about owning any song within seconds that just the day before I would have had to go to the record store or pay 99 cents for online.

Reasons to Download

I began to justify it. It’s called “file sharing”, what’s wrong with sharing? I watched documentaries like Steal This Film and I read all the patronizing letters from the Pirate Bay to copyright holders. I learned about legal grey areas in Canada that permit downloading but not uploading. The more I read, the more justified “sharing” became for me. My main arguments were as follows

• “It’s just like listening to music for free on the radio except this radio is powered by the people rather than controlled by corporations.”
• “Did you know that for every $12 album sold in America the label typically takes about $11 of it? You’re not even stealing from artists, you’re stealing from rich business men and don’t they have enough?”
• “Furthermore, it’s not even STEALING. Theft removes a physical object causing a loss of that physical product. File sharing makes a digital copy which does not amount to a physical loss. Hence, there is no loss if you download an album you weren’t already going to purchase in the first place.
• “And actually, sharing the album increases the band’s popularity, driving up t-shirt and concert ticket sales for a band you probably wouldn’t have supported at all beforehand.”

When I learned about the massive lawsuits brought about by the RIAA, suing some elderly woman for millions of dollars in damages for downloading 14 songs a fire started inside of me. This was no longer a fun hobby, I was a freedom fighter, a modern day Robin Hood, taking on the injustice of the highest order perpetrated by the cronies of the music industry. But even with all of this rationalizing and justification there was still something that didn’t sit right with me. The suppressed guilt was always lingering somewhere beneath the surface.

What’s really going on here?

As I began to take my faith more seriously, I eventually turned away from the end of my pointed finger came to see the three fingers pointing back at myself. I was using the “music industry” and “corporations” as a scapegoat for the injustice that I had buried deep inside of me. As I began to humble myself and experience grace, this die-hard pirate became less and less interested in downloading music and movies. This spiritual shift coincided well with what was happening in society. Many good artists like Radiohead had begun to share their music for free online and with affordable music services like Spotify popping up, there was less and less of a reason for me to steal it.

Make no mistake, there is still much injustice in music industry. Spotify has in no way replaced the age-old trend of big business taking advantage of musicians. I am not saying that we should be dismissive of these realities. What I am saying is that perhaps we should take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of the eye of the music industry. (Matthew 7:3-5) Perhaps God is calling us to pay our taxes to the Caesar of the music industry and just buy the album.

It is one thing to decry the problem, but Christians are called to seek to be part of the solution. For examples of creative, and legal, resistance to corporatism in music check out Creative Commons and Noisetrade.com. Go see your favourite band when they come to town and buy their T-shirt. Most bands receive 100% of the proceeds made from concert merch tables.

Photo by John Trainor