The Upshot on Downloading MP3s

Q. Is there anything wrong with downloading MP3 songs from the Internet, using peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella?

A. Recorded songs are similar to other public goods like bridges or roads – they cost a lot to create, but once they’re around many people can enjoy them at low cost. Just as the government supports bridges by giving builders a concession to collect large tolls, even though your trip costs them a minimal amount, so it supports music production by granting a copyright which enables the artist to collect from listeners, even though copying a song costs almost nothing.

Copying a song from the Internet is like making a detour around the toll booth. Even if you don’t get a ticket, you’ve taken a free ride on someone else’s investment.

Our Sages viewed paying tolls as a prime example of the citizen’s duty to obey the law, and emphasized the importance of avoiding even the appearance of evading this duty.

And while it is true that if everybody copies songs eventually the copyright may be impossible to defend, it’s not ethical to join the mob storming the artist’s rights. This is comparable to the case where everybody takes a shortcut through a private field until the shortcut is treaded into a path. It may be true that staying away doesn’t help the owner once the path is already there, but we should be extra careful to avoid being among those who contribute to commandeering his land in this way.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 113a; Sukkah 30a; Eruvin 53b.

Q. I work in the video duplication room at an advertising agency. While duplicating tapes I have been exposed to “soft” pornography on some of the commercial directors reels. Is it inappropriate for me to duplicate these videos?

A. There are two distinct questions here: your own exposure to indecency, and your role in disseminating it. Let’s examine these separately.

There is no question that you must avoid exposure to these videos. Jewish tradition considers provocative material to have a very damaging effect on the human spirit. Even a married person who might think he is channeling the influence in a permissible way is bound to make unconscious and destructive comparisons between the supposed “ideal” we find in the media and his actual experience.

If you absolutely must view the videos as you duplicate them, to check light, color, focus, and the like, here’s a solution which may work for you: Try making a mask for your video monitor. A half-dozen or so narrow vertical stripes over the center half of the screen may be enough to completely neutralize any provocative effect of the movies. If this trick doesn’t allow you to do your job properly, or doesn’t eliminate the influence of these videos, consider eliminating this aspect of your work – even if it will harm your income.

The problem of disseminating these videos is more involved. It would certainly be wrong to spend your entire day copying hard-core films. However, the situation you describe is much different. It’s only a small part of your job; the material is not as offensive; and you don’t really have much influence since you’re not the boss and lots of other studios are prepared to do this work. Given that your livelihood is on the line, you don’t have to quit to avoid duplicating an occasional problematic film which would be copied anyway without your intervention.

SOURCES: Rashi, Numbers 15:39; Genesis 34:7; Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 20b; Mishna Shvi’it 5:8-9, 7:4.

Q. I just hired a programmer who previously worked for our competition. Our rivalry with this firm is so intense that informing ourselves of the strengths and weaknesses of their products is a major activity at our company. Naturally I would like to take advantage of the new hire’s intimate knowledge of our competitor’s product. May I put her in charge of “competitive intelligence”? What about asking her to review the conclusions reached by my current CI worker?

A. Law and custom are clear about the obligations of a worker to a former employer. He may take along any skills he acquired, but must leave behind any secrets. If a pitcher gets help perfecting his fastball and then gets traded, he doesn’t have to slow down his pitches but he may not reveal the old team’s signals!

Your new programmer may be very skilled at using the product sold by your competitor, but to be honest I don’t think that this is why you value her contribution to your competitive analysis, whether direct or indirect.

Modesty and discretion are paramount values in Judaism, and correspondingly Jewish law is extremely strict about the obligation to keep secrets. Information of a private nature, including business secrets, shouldn’t be revealed even if the teller did not specifically say that the information is secret. So don’t encourage your new employee to go against these moral principles.

You may still engage in competitive intelligence in order to improve your own competitive position, but stick to sifting through information revealed by publicly available sources.

Sources: Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 4b; Chafetz Chaim, Lashon Hara 2:13.