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 (

Photo courtesy of Jon Dawson (

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.

An Ethic of Voting

Tomorrow is the day that we have midterm elections, and the political rhetoric is at a fever pitch.  The American public seems to be in an uproar over various issues (which is the BIG issue depends on political leanings) and, because the President is not up for re-election, the people will take their frustration out on members of Congress who are in his party.  Republicans smell blood in the water and have pulled out all the stops, and the bickering and slandering have reached new heights.

We need to be sure to cut through the malarkey and vote appropriately tomorrow.

George Washington wrote concerning soldiering, “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.” Likewise, though I am the pastor of a church I nevertheless have the right as a citizen to express my opinion and a duty to vote my conscience. So I thought I would explain my voting ethic to anyone who cares to read it.

The first part of that voting ethic must be the imperative that God has given every Christian to vote.  I think that a recent post in Relevant Magazine is absolutely spot-on in this regard.  Many young adult Christians are disillusioned with both major political parties, and as a result shy away from political discussion and even from voting.  That, to me, is a travesty and a shame.  God expects every Christian to live in obedience to His mandates in Romans 13:1-7, and that certainly includes voting for Americans. 

When I read the book of Nehemiah I read of the people of Israel struggling to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and then defending their homes and families with their lives.  It would have been unthinkable for those people to say that their effort didn’t matter, that they could stand by and allow others to bear the burden that they rightly shared.  Yes they sometimes were exhausted, or sick of the labor, or thought that it didn’t matter anyway.  And time and again I am reminded of the stirring speech that Nehemiah gave that day:

When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” (Nehemiah 4:14)

What a powerful and convicting reminder that we must remember the work that God has called us to and do it wholeheartedly.  I can’t help but think of the men and women who built America when I think along these lines, men like my grandpa who was wounded in the battle of Peleliu in the Pacific theater in WWII.  I know that he and others like him see our carelessness with and indifference to the amazing gift of self-governance that we have been given as the grave disrespect that it is.  As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A right delayed [i.e. not exercised] is a right denied.”

With this in mind it is clear that Christians have a mandate to vote.  This is not optional; it is not a suggestion, any more than a summons to jury duty is a suggestion.  Failure to vote is, in my opinion, a failure to live in obedience to government and therefore a failure to obey what Jesus says.  And Luke 6:46 rings in my ears as I think about it.

Okay, so we MUST vote.  But how do we vote?  What makes our ethic of voting?  How do we take our faith into the voting booth with us?  The ultimate ethic of living, which should then extend to the ultimate ethic of voting, comes from the lips of Christ in Matthew 22:37-39:

And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ “This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’”

My overriding ethic in voting is to glorify Jesus Christ with my life by loving God and loving people. Now clearly and certainly that priority will not line up with some, but like I said that is my overriding ethic of voting. You pick yours. I pick mine. I want my life to line up with the priorities of Jesus as clearly as I can. I will grow in my understanding of those priorities throughout life, but tomorrow I want to take every bit of understanding of Christ and every shred of desire to follow Him to the voting booth with me.

I am not a huge political activist and do not donate money to political causes. I donate at church and try to live for the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of man. I have no visions of transforming my society into a Christian nation; only people can be Christians.  Regardless, though, I am a follower of Christ who wants to glorify Him by voting for those people and those initiatives that best represent His desire for the people of America.  I am under no illusion that my view of issues is foolproof; I know that thinking, biblically-astute Christians will see some issues differently than I will.  That cannot lead me to indecision, however, because then my vote isn’t counted as I wait.  Instead, I must do my due diligence in every election and then make my vote count as best I can.

When there are initiatives on a ballot that are moral in nature, my first and last criterion of voting is this: which vote will glorify Christ more? Some ballot initiatives are amoral, and I vote whichever way makes best sense to me on those.  The moral ones, though, require moral distinctions and moral thoughts.  Not many initiatives focus on my ability to love God, but almost all of them deal with how I relate to people.  What is the loving decision?  How can I best love the people around me?  Not all love is gushy and lovey and nice, like Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.  But love must be my overriding ethic.

The same holds true of candidates.  Which candidate will do the best job of representing me and my desire to love God and love people?  That is where the rubber meets the road.  Again, not all candidates see issues the way I do, so aligning on some important issues tells me a lot about whether I think that candidate will do a good job.

So spend some time tonight reading through the ballot initiatives in your area.  Check in on your candidates and the issues that they believe are important.  Go to sites like votesmart to find information on candidates by assessing how like you they are in major issues.  Then get to the polls tomorrow!  And for anyone who didn’t get registered for this election, make sure this is the last election that you miss.

For the record I am not going to endorse candidates or issues on my blog; if you want to know my opinions, email me. 🙂

But Everyone is Doing It!

My son had a really difficult time at AWANA this week dealing with a boy who has been a lot of trouble for him.  This kid cheats on the rec yard incessantly and harasses James for being a goody two shoes.  His desire to win is so strong that he does whatever it takes, including breaking the rules, to make sure that he is the king of the hill.  Winning is the goal, so ethics are all geared around the best way to win!  James is very keen on doing the right thing and has a strong sense of justice, so it drives him nuts to have to deal with that kid.

I read a fascinating article on MSNBC on Tax Day titled “Why we cheat on our taxes.”  There were lots of great tidbits in the article, but the issue that stood out to me the most were the psychological reasons that people can still feel good about themselves when they cheat, labeling this “moral flexibility”:

  1. When we cheat just a little bit, so that our cheating is a small transgression and not a major one.
  2. When a lot of people around us do the same.
  3. When the act is more hidden.

I was thinking about these motivations today, and they crack me up.  Even more, the phrase “moral flexibility” is an intriguing one.  Using euphemisms to hide what is really going on just doesn’t help anyone in my opinion!  “Moral flexibility” is a nice way of saying “cheating.”  We don’t like to think of ourselves as liars (you know, Revelation 21:8 and all), so we find a term that is easier to handle than “lying on our taxes.”  Then I thought through the list and tried to remove the euphemisms in it, and it boils down to this:

  1. As long as my cheating is, in my opinion, less than most people’s then I think it is okay.  We grade on a giant bell curve in our minds, with maybe Mother Theresa on the side and Bernie Madoff on the other.  So long as we are closer to the (soon to be) saint than the sinner we feel safe, like we’re better than average so we’re okay.
  2. Ah, groupthink.  There is nothing like the idea that as long as everyone is doing it, it’s okay.  It must be fair for you to cheat because everyone is cheating.  There are the “stated” rules and then there are the “real” rules that everyone actually plays by.  Since others cheat, cheating isn’t as bad.
  3. This one is really the “can I get caught” factor.  If the probability of being caught in cheating is low, then we feel safer and better doing it.  Since money is a subject that doesn’t get discussed much, and since no one sees my taxes but the evil IRS agent, then it’s okay to cheat since the probability of being caught is low.

While the article really focused on taxes, the application of this mindset is really far broader than that.  How many guys have we seen cheat on their wives, with these three ideas behind them?  They are on a business trip, the other guys are doing it, and it’s not like they are “pulling a Tiger” right?  How many students will look at another student’s paper for help on a test because everyone else is, because it’s not likely that the professor will see, and others do a lot worse.  The attitude is contagious; it just comes up more at tax time because we all have to deal with this urge in April.

This month in our online Bible study (find it on Yahoo or join our Facebook group) we are reading Psalm 119:1-88, and time and again the Psalmist talks about this kind of issue.  This Psalm is an acrostic, with each letter in the Hebrew Alphabet being used as the first letter of eight successive lines.  Psalm 119:1-8 (all starting with the Hebrew letter Aleph) reminds us where true blessing comes from:

1 How blessed are those whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the LORD.
2 How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,
Who seek Him with all their heart.
3 They also do no unrighteousness;
They walk in His ways.
4 You have ordained Your precepts,
That we should keep them diligently.
5 Oh that my ways may be established
To keep Your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be ashamed
When I look upon all Your commandments.
7 I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart,
When I learn Your righteous judgments.
8 I shall keep Your statutes;
Do not forsake me utterly!

True happiness and joy from God comes not from financial security, but from obedience.  How blessed are those who seek God with their whole heart and are not seduced by the temptation to cheat!  Whether it be on their taxes, their spouse, or their employer, a Christian is called to remember their Lord and live for Him and not for the thrill of today.  I think that verse 6 is really important to this discussion, as the Psalmist asks God for obedience so that he doesn’t have to look at God’s commandments and be ashamed.  How often do we sin in ways like this, then either feel shame when we read Scripture or decide not to pick up our Bible because we know the shame that awaits?

Another part of this issue is the “everyone is doing it” mindset.  It’s not hard to repeat the old saw that your mom used on you whenever this mindset reared its ugly head: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”  Even more to the point, in Psalm 119:49-56 the Psalmist addresses the issue of following the crowd when they dishonor the Lord:

49 Remember the word to Your servant,
In which You have made me hope.
50 This is my comfort in my affliction,
That Your word has revived me.
51 The arrogant utterly deride me,
Yet I do not turn aside from Your law.
52 I have remembered Your ordinances from of old, O LORD,
And comfort myself.
53 Burning indignation has seized me because of the wicked,
Who forsake Your law.
54 Your statutes are my songs
In the house of my pilgrimage.
55 O LORD, I remember Your name in the night,
And keep Your law.
56 This has become mine,
That I observe Your precepts.

I love his attitude here.  Regardless of what the rest of the people are doing, he wants to honor God and obey Him.  Whether everyone else is acting wrongly or not, we need to remember that God is there to strengthen us and help us make the right decisions.  Peer pressure can be handled if we remember that the approval of God is more important than the approval of people!

Finally, I am struck in Psalm 119 about the ways that the Lord provides for His people when they follow Him and seek Him rather than the world.  Okay, cheating on taxes or pulling the wool over your bosses’ eyes might get you ahead for a moment, but in the grand scheme of things it will only cause pain.  We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), and on that day we will not be able to hide.  On that day there will be great reward for those who trusted in the faithfulness and provision of God more than their own ability to lie convincingly.

In James’ case, I told him to hang in there with that kid and keep doing things the right way.  This kid only comes to church on Wednesday nights for AWANA, and only sporadically.  He probably doesn’t know any better, but James certainly does.  So I told him this week to keep honoring God with his actions and attitude and keep showing this other kid the right thing to do, knowing that God can see his integrity and is pleased with it.

We are called to be people of integrity who follow the Lord and not our culture.  The world cheats because everyone is doing it and they won’t get caught, but for Christians we have a higher calling.  Don’t get caught in the trap of cheating, because God is bigger than your tax bill and bigger than today’s temptation.  Take Him at His word and serve Him in integrity, knowing that you will reap a harvest of righteousness and hear “well done, good and faithful servant” when your days are done.