Ethics and Intellectual Property

I have simply been overwhelmed lately with the concept of integrity in business and in life. Many of you know I run a business on the side of my pastorate focused on self-defense, and I want that business to reflect the God I serve to the greatest extent possible. Jesus says that the way that we conduct ourselves in everything we do matters as believers. We reflect His character in our behavior! I hope you’re the same way in your business or profession.

This is certainly the heart behind the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments deal with our worship of God, and the final six with our personal relationships with others in light of our worship of God. And nestled in there, coming in at number 8 in the Top Ten List, is this little gem:

You shall not steal.” -Exodus 20:15

No stealing for Christians! Paul reiterates in Romans 13:9 that this command is applicable for believers today and part of the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  It is wrapped up tight in the center of Jesus’ ethic of Christian living in Luke:

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” -Luke 6:31

We want others to protect our property…so we must protect theirs. We don’t want to be stolen from…so we act with integrity and guard others’ property. And this is a proactive command…it’s not just “don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you” but “do to them what you want others to do to you.” This isn’t rocket science or “advanced, deep, mature, crazy-over-the-top Christian discipleship;” it’s basics, right? Being forgiven by God as a Christian means you aren’t allowed to rob someone’s home or take their laptop or steal their car. No one argues about these things.

But there is an area of theft that many, many Christians I know are not only utterly uninformed about, they participate in again and again and again without the slightest qualm. They steal all the time, without compunction and without remorse. And they often think that their actions are perfectly acceptable.

I am talking about the theft of intellectual property. Stealing what belongs to someone else, in this case their original work, and using it without the proper right to use it. (using it without credit is plagiarism not theft, which is a whole different problem for another day) Taking their art work, their music, their video, or their other copyrighted work without permission is theft, plain and simple.

Photo courtesy of Jon Dawson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmd41280)

Photo courtesy of Jon Dawson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmd41280)

The biggest places I see it are these:

  • Pirated movies
  • Pirated music
  • The one that bothers me to no end: using copyrighted images found on a Google search or on a social media site of one kind or another.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, using a copyrighted image without permission is stealing. That’s not just Jesus talking, either. That’s the US Copyright Office talking. To get you started about the actual facts about copyrighted work, read this brief handout from the United States Copyright Office. The first four pages are the most important, so don’t go all tl;dr on it. Let’s get a few facts straight about copyright:

  1. Copyright exists whether the owner of the work puts a notice on it or not. There is no need to put the (c) on a work or to watermark it in some way for it to have copyright. That USED to be the case prior to 1989, but…folks…that rule changed when Ronald Reagan was in office. It’s past due for us all to know that. If you made it, you have the copyright to it.
  2. Unpublished work is still covered by copyright. Copyright begins the moment the work is created. It appears as if by magic!
  3. Page three of the handout above very clearly says that pictures are protected work. If you made the picture, it’s your intellectual property! If you didn’t, it’s not.
  4. There is no need to register with the Copyright office for your copyright to be valid. An author MAY register if they want to, but there is no need.

If you think that this is no big deal or that it is much ado about nothing, go read this story. Daniel Morel was awarded over $1.2 Million by a jury because the Associated Press used his images without his permission in several stories. Here’s the kicker: AP didn’t know they were his images and got them from a second-hand party through Twitter. they didn’t steal on purpose, but the court said that they SHOULD have researched thoroughly and found the owner before using them. And that oopsie cost them over a million bucks.

Now, you may never get sued by a copyright holder for millions of dollars because of stealing their image or music, but it’s no less wrong and no less a sin because you don’t get caught. This is a matter not just of legal liability but of ethical behavior and righteous living. We are called to be above reproach, but frankly this is an issue about which we should often be ashamed.

So…what does this mean for us? Simply, it means that we must not steal. We must not steal cars and we must not steal images! We must not use images or music or other copyrighted work that we do not have the rights to, and this extends to our online use of digital imagery. You’ve read this blog post and you now know that this behavior is wrong…so Jesus’ little brother has something to say to you.

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” -James 4:17

But how can we have integrity in this issue? As bearers of the Image of God and those who desire, then, to live in such a way that we do not steal from others, how can we make sure that we have the rights to the intellectual property that we use?

First, commit as an act of worship of Jesus to live a life of integrity in everything you do. I’m not asking you to be legalistic but to look at every use of someone’s images as an opportunity to worship God. No worship of the Lord goes overlooked by Him, and committing this to His care and His glory brings Him great joy. Jesus asks you to be careful with how you represent Him, so be a person of integrity and of utmost ethical behavior at all times. remember that you are an ambassador for Christ and act accordingly!

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” -2 Corinthians 5:20

Second, understand the doctrine of fair use. Pay attention to the last paragraph in that link especially. If you can’t be sure it’s fair use, don’t use it without permission!

Third, be careful with images. Don’t for a minute think that you can just Google search for an image and use that image in your own material. Don’t fall prey to the misconception that if you find it on Pinterest or Twitter or someone’s Facebook that it’s fair game for you to use. Simply put, it’s not. Putting an image online does not release copyright! A great resource that I have found to check for the origin of an image is a website called Tin Eye. You can enter an image (even upload one) and it’ll crawl the web looking for the origins of the image. They even have browser plugins that allow the user to right-click on an image and search its’ history easily and quickly! (I have used it many times and it’s pretty amazing, but I am not vouching that it is foolproof and I have no stake in the company)

Fourth, let go of the idea that because others are stealing images online, you can do it too. Your momma used to ask you if you’d jump off a bridge just because all your friends are doing it, right? You are responsible for you and you are accountable to God for your actions. Act accordingly.

Fifth, get permission to use copyrighted works. If you find the owner through Tin Eye or another resource, ask them to use it! They might charge you for it, or they might just let you use it and be grateful that you asked. Either way you’ve done the right thing, and that is reward in itself.

Sixth, learn to use free resources. There are SO MANY images that are licensed for use by Creative Commons or uploaded at sites like Free Digital Photos or The Morgue File among the many that are available to use. (they’re not that hard to findDreamstine has a good database of free images too. You can even find a bunch of images that are licensed for use on Flickr’s Creative Commons section, though there are a lot in there that aren’t as high quality so it takes time to find the stuff you want.

Finally, realize that ethical behavior is important to God. I’m not saying that you’re a terrible person or you’re going to hell if you’ve ever unintentionally stolen an image or used something you shouldn’t have…not at all. What I am saying is that it would be amazing if Christians were known to be above reproach in this area and known to be careful about using that which is not theirs, for obedience to the command to love their neighbor by protecting their property (whether real or intellectual). So be the change you want to see in the church. 🙂

And for the record, yes I have permission to use the images in this post. 🙂 Thanks for asking.

2 thoughts on “Ethics and Intellectual Property

  1. It would have been beautiful if such an enlightening piece could be shared on social media. I’d av loved to share on Facebook.

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