morality of software/music copying?

Fr. Bloom, I've been a frequent visitor to your site since '97 and I am very grateful to all the guidance you have provided through it. I can think of many things to thank you for, but it is sufficient to say that I include you in my prayers for priests that I've known throughout my life.

I have an ethical question for you and I know that it isn't your area of expertise, but it has to do with copyright law: especially with software. Before the question I will give some background.

Ever since I've owned a computer I've probably had some kind of "illegal" (by US laws and company policies) software. Perhaps a friend gave me a copy of his game or program. Maybe even downloading a MP3 (I think I've download very few). Or even the more tame things like having an evaluation copy beyond its evaluation period, like shareware, etc. Within the past 2 1/2 yrs. I've actually begun to think more about the ethical aspect of these practices. I started this turnaround by refusing offers to copy friends' software (most of the time I get a weird look if I refuse :) ). Then I stopped copying MP3s of the 'net. The old games that were copies I deleted off my computer (even though I've got back-ups like every other program). I still have overdue software evaluation copies and I admit that I still think this is very minor.

I've talked to different confessors about this and all said that it was a minor issue, but one said it might best to avoid stuff like that in the future. I know most priests aren't up on software copyright law and I think my parish priest has a phobia towards computers :). So, basically I'm trying to find an opinion from a priest who is at least a little computer literate.

Anyway, I've got a ton of questions about the morality of software/music copying even for small purposes. Ex: A person has two computers, but only one MS Office. MS, of course, would say it's a no-no to use that on both computers even if it was in the privacy of his own home. My opinion is mixed about the personal use issues, but I think Christian Ethics would not look favorably of copying stuff even for friends; even worse for mass copying and distribution. Anyway, enough background, now for my latest issue.

I recently bought a copy of MS Office off eBay for what I think is more than a reasonable price (especially since it is not the newest version). It is what is called an OEM version, so it must be bundled with a PC or computer hardware (I wish I knew what that meant! Could that mean a hard-drive or just a RAM SIMM? Who knows!?). The seller said that he complied with eBay and MS rules selling some hardware with the product and I accepted that at face value. I must admit that I didn't investigate as much as I should, but now after I've paid for the product I'm wondering if everything is legit. I'm not saying it isn't. I've done extensive web searching on OEM policies and I still haven't come to any conclusions.

If it is illegitimate software according to MS policy then I can't sell it back and I can't sell it to anyone else lest I be in violation. I'm not particularly worried about MS coming and arresting me, but God's judgment about what I've done. Since I'm stuck with the product is it morally permissible to use it? It may sound silly, but this circumstance bothers me very much. I just don't know what to do and I'm a little angry at myself because I've tried to avoid things like this. It would help to know how flexible the license policy is, however, if I find out it's not legit do I stop using it? The price was fair, but it wasn't exactly free either. Also, retail versions of Office as been selling for similar prices, so it isn't like I got a big break just because it was OEM.

The last two paragraphs are about a particular event, but it is an overall question I've had for a long time about the personal ethics on software copying. Is "small" things allowed, like putting a copy on another computer (personal not commercial) or eval S/W? Or is everything across the board immoral. I don't see a lot on Catholic sites about software piracy, but I figure most would be against even the moderate stuff. Even some Catholics sites sell software, so it goes to reason why.

Anyway, I hope you can provide some insight into this issue. I know you're very busy so I appreciate any feedback, even small. I think the overall issue hasn't been discussed very much from a Catholic point-of-view, but maybe that because most moral theologians think it's a pretty straightforward matter. I've re-read the Catechism's 7th commandment section, but still haven't come to any conclusions on my recent problem.



P.S.: Of all the questions I've wanted to ask you and this has to be first one! My prayers for you. I'm beginning to find out how necessary prayers are for priests.


Dear Colin,

Thank you for the kind words and the confidence in asking a rather complex question. It sounds like you have done considerable research and read things you should such as what the Catechism teaches on the Seventh Commandment. Living that commandment is a little more complex in our world because so much property today is intellectual property. (John Lukacs, by the way, has some very fine reflections on this in his book At The End Of An Age.) I don't want to pass the buck, but I do want to encourage you to continue to study the issue and to ask questions. If others have not come up with sound answers, perhaps you can make a contribution.

In the meantime, I would also encourage you to not spend an inordinate amount of time agonizing over whether and how you may have broken the commandment. At some point, all of us have to say "Against you alone have I sinned," accept Christ's forgiveness, then use what we have to serve God and help other people. I think that is probably what confessors were saying when they said this is a "minor issue." Of course, we should not brush off any sin, but each day we do need to place before God the confusion of our lives and with his help do the best we can to use the talents he has entrusted to us.

Again, thank you for writing. With your permission, I will post this in hopes that it might be an encourage others to reflect on these important questions.

God bless - and thank you for your prayers. You have mine, Colin.

Fr. Bloom

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