Q. A lot of copyrighted material is available on YouTube and other free sites. Is it permissible to download these clips?
A. YouTube was conceived primarily as a site where ordinary people could upload personal creations for public viewing. However, from the very beginning commercial content also made its way onto the site. This content is of a few varieties:
1. Some content is intentionally or willingly placed by content owners as a promotion. For example, CBS has a partnership program with YouTube through which some of their material appears on the site. It is obvious that there is no ethical obstacle to enjoying this material.
2. Some content is surreptitiously put up in order to circumvent copyright owners. Copyright owners have the right to protest at any time if they find their material on the site and it is promptly taken down. But realistically, there are hundreds of millions of clips and it may take time to detect and remove them. In the meantime, a viewer may find clips which he can be sure are copyright material. Here also the answer is obvious: a person shouldn't download stolen content just because he managed to squeeze in between the time it was illegally uploaded and when it was removed.
3. Some content the copyright owners have just given up on. Because of the effort involved in flagging pirated content, and the additional effort involved in removing it if the poster claims that it is legal (for example, under fair use laws), content owners are compelled to choose their battles and concentrate on their efforts on the most serious breaches. Here we have an interesting ethical question.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania said: In all my days, no one ever got the best of me besides one woman, one boy, and one girl. . . . What of the girl? Once I was traveling on the way and there was a path through a field, and I was walking on it. A little girl said to me: Rabbi, isn't that a field? I said to her, "No, it is a cleared path." She said to me, "Bandits like you cleared it." (1)