You Wouldn’t Steal A Car…

I have a reasonable amount of sympathy for the film and record companies who want us to buy their products. I’d be delighted if, rather than reading the electronic version of my book on NetLibrary or some similar database, all those interested in my book would go buy a copy. The truth is, however, that books like mine (a revised version of my doctoral dissertation) are of specialty interest, and most people who read it will borrow it from a public library. In my field, there are other publishers such as E. J. Brill whose books are simply not meant to be bought by ordinary mortals. They publish expensive books aimed at purchase by libraries.

By increasing the cost of a DVD or a CD as they have, film and record companies have begun to move in the same direction. The truth is that most of the movies I watch I borrow from the public library. And this is where I come to the rhetoric of the “Don’t download/copy” plea that is featured at the start of many DVDs nowadays. It says “You wouldn’t steal a car…so don’t steal a movie”.

But the analogy is flawed in the case of people who would not buy the DVD or CD anyway – or, like me, might pick it up if it is on the clearance shelf at a local used book store, or borrow it from the public library, or pick it up at a library sale (I just bought a whole bunch of stuff at one today). So let’s try rewriting the rhetoric in a more appropriate manner:

You wouldn’t check a book out of the library. You wouldn’t borrow a newspaper. You wouldn’t buy a second-hand CD. So don’t borrow a movie!

The trouble is, of course, that we would borrow all these things, or purchase them in these ways that give those who made them no further revenues. And the film and music industries should be glad. Most of the CDs I own that I bought at full price (which is a very small fraction of my collection) I bought because I came to love a composer’s music listening to a copy borrowed from the library, copied onto a tape (way back when) and listened to over and over again. Take Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Arnold Bax – I would quite likely not own the many CDs by them that I do, had it not been for borrowing and copying from a public library and listening repeatedly, so that I came to love the music.

No one is losing money when someone downloads something they never would have bought if it was for sale at its usual price. Many of us would gladly take a free plane ticket, when we wouldn’t buy one because we cannot afford it. So the argument that every downloaded song is a lost revenue doesn’t work. Indeed, some of us with a pack-rat obsession have downloaded more than we have managed or are likely to ever manage to listen to.

2,000 years ago, being an author was a different sort of thing in many ways. Once one’s works began to be copied, the process could not be stopped. Works frequently circulated in the name of famous authors as well, and pseudepigraphy was rife. When New Testament scholars ask questions about which works really come from the authors they claim they do, they are asking altogether appropriate questions. Indeed, the irony is that in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 the author acknowledges that there are letters claiming to be from Paul which are inauthentic – and some scholars have suspected that one of the Thessalonian letters might itself be an example of pseudepigraphy.

As an educator who teaches (among other things) the Synoptic Gospels, dealing with matters of plagiarism can be tricky. After all, by modern standards, that is precisely what Matthew and Luke do – they use Mark and give no credit! The good news (for me – bad news for some students) is that the study of the Synoptic problem trains New Testament scholars to identify indications of copying, of literary dependence, breaks in style, and other such indications.

Read, listen, photocopy, download. My biggest concern is not how people access various media, but that many people access sources that are unreliable, and do not attempt to trace claims and rumors to their sources, much less give credit where credit is due. Being exposed to literature and music and great literature, and to learn from reading the arguments of others how to draw one’s own conclusions – those are the skills all too many are lacking. If we continue to allow mere opinion to substitute for reason, and emotional appeals to bypass rational judgment, then we will end up in a place that is frightful. For then, even the assumption made in those anti-piracy blurbs will no longer be valid. “You wouldn’t steal a car…” will be too sweeping an assumption to make in a culture in which anything goes and in which honesty loses its value.


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