Imagine having the ability to listen to, read, play, or watch whatever one wanted: movies, games, books, music, software; everything is for the taking. For most people this isn’t just a fantasy. It is a reality. File hosting, torrents, and other websites put all of the digital content in the world right at one’s fingertips. Despite its unlawfulness most people don’t think twice about whether or not they should download digital content. It’s simply not a big deal. However, I will argue in this paper that, to the contrary, the illegal downloading of such content is unethical and that the laws against it ought to be obeyed. I will first present four reasons why it should not be done. After this I will refute five common arguments used to justify illegal downloading. I will close with a final argument addressing the issue from a decidedly Christian perspective.
It would help get to the heart of the question by first figuring out what the problem is not. The problem is not whether there is sufficient legal justification for the downloading of digital content; it is relatively clear that there is none, at least in the U.S. Rather, the question is whether there is sufficient moral justification for illegal downloading of digital content. Hence, when I use the term “illegal downloading”, I’m properly speaking of the type of downloading which is illegal in the United States and violates copyright. It’s important to note that this question can be assessed independently of whether or not illegal downloading is equivalent in nature to stealing.  The real issue is whether the two are morally equivalent, i.e. whether they are both equally wrong.
Illegal Downloading is Morally Impermissible
A. Creativity and Incentive
Some people create art or write for pleasure. Others do it just to get a message out. For these people, the amount of money they receive for their creation is secondary to their creating it and gaining an audience. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the time or resources to create art or scholarly studies without some sort of recompense and control over what they’ve made. Because of this the government institutes copyright laws.
Copyright laws have as one of their goals the furthering of creativity by providing incentive to make new work. Making new works of art and scholarship are not simple tasks. They require time, patience, effort, financial resources, and ingenuity. An author who knows that upon completion and publication of his work it could be copied and distributed without restriction would have little incentive to make it. Most people are not going to doom their financial situation just to write a book; however, in the absence of copyright laws they would have little other choice. Those who disregard copyright laws and download the work of others without paying contribute to the financial hardship of the authors. When everyone downloads for free what authors take time and effort to make, they’re discouraging the further creation of works like the ones they’re enjoying by lessening the incentive to make them.
B. Just Rewards
Not only does illegal downloading cause a disincentive to take the time, effort, and resources to make new works, but it also fails to give an author what is his or her due. Suppose Bob were to come up with a new invention which allowed people to teleport from one place to another. Bob spent years of his life studying physics and engineering in school. He had to work under harsh conditions in order make ends meet while still creating this new teleportation device. Upon completing his work he makes the device available for use by people on the condition that they pay a fee. In this case it would clearly be wrong for anyone to push him aside and enjoy his machine without repaying him for the work he’s done.
But this is precisely analogous to what people do when illegally downloading; sure, it may not seem as bold, but in the end they’re reaping the benefits of somebody’s hard work without giving what’s due to the person in return. One might object that giving one his or her due does not translate into giving money. Maybe we can just give them their recompense in the form of honor or some other value? This won’t work—when someone works on my garden or makes a painting for me I cannot disregard their price and give them honor, or apples, or IOUs because I would find that more congenial. If anybody has the right to decide what form the payment should take, it is the author who is giving the product.
C. Entitlement and Rights of the Author
As the example of Bob implies, nobody disputes that when someone creates a new machine or product that the creator has a right to place conditions or restrictions on its usage, and that for someone to entirely disregard those conditions is clearly wrong. But we can make a perfectly analogous case for works which are copyrighted, which can be illustrated in a syllogism thus:
(1) The creator of a work (such as a book, song, movie, or similar form of content) has the primary right  to place conditions and restrictions on his or her work’s use.  Hence, (2) violating the conditions and restrictions placed by the creator on his or her work’s use is a violation of the creator’s rights. (3) Illegal downloading is a violation of the conditions and restrictions placed by the creator upon his or her work’s use. So, (4) illegal downloading is a violation of the creator’s rights. (5) Violation of someone’s rights is immoral. Therefore, (6) illegal downloading is immoral.
The main contention will be with (1). However, think about what we’d be forced to accept by the negation of (1), viz. the proposition that the creator of a book, song, movie, or similar form of content does not have the primary right to place conditions and restrictions on its use. This is far more implausible prima facie. Still, consider the implications of rejecting (1). Given the negation of (1) we can infer that either (a) somebody else has the primary rights, (b) everyone has the primary rights, or (c) nobody has the primary rights.
Upon inspection each of these is highly implausible. If (a), then whenever I create something like a book or movie, the rights to place restrictions and conditions on its use go to somebody else. It’s hard to see how this could be possible. Why should anyone other than the creator have a right to place conditions on the creator’s work?  (b) is also implausible. First of all, the notion of everyone having the right to place conditions on a certain piece of content’s use is almost flatly inconsistent. People will simply have differing ideas about what restrictions should be placed. Not only that, it’s unreasonable that absolutely everyone, even those who have nothing to do with its creation whatsoever, have some just claim on the rights to a new work’s usage. The final option for those who would deny (1) is (c), the idea that nobody has a primary right to place restrictions and conditions on a work’s use. But this is just as implausible as the idea that no inventor has the primary right to place conditions on the use of his new machine, or that the creator of a new business has no primary right to place conditions on how his company will run. Those who labor and toil are entitled to decide what happens with their content; whether their labor was physical or mental is morally irrelevant.
If all three of the inferable statements are false, that makes the negation of (1) false. With (1) successfully defended, the rest follows analytically or is self-evident, and we can conclude that illegal downloading is immoral. The bottom line is this: when someone creates a new work they are entitled to decide what happens to it, who gets it, and for what price. In order to justify illegal downloading, one has to be willing to tell the author that he or she has no such entitlement.
D. Virtue and Vice
What kind of character attributes does illegal downloading lend itself to? Is it something a truly virtuous person would pursue? Consider what motivates a person to download a book, song, or video illegally. Normally it is nothing like necessity: nobody needs books or songs or videos. Rather, they simply want them as a luxury. Taking this into consideration we can answer the original question by looking at two character traits, the vice of avarice, and the virtue of temperance.
The Greeks identified a vice called pleonexia, corresponding to our idea of covetousness or avarice. The covetous person can be described as someone with a “love of having” or an excessive want for more and more things. Speaking of pleonexia, Aristotle said, “The avarice of mankind is insatiable.”  The covetous person fulfills one desire only to find that they’re still unsatisfied, yet continues to have an inordinate desire for more and more things.
While the ancients understood pleonexia as being directly contrary to the virtues of liberality and justice, it is also incompatible with temperance. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “Covetousness denotes immoderation…”  Temperance (sophrosyne in Greek) can be defined as moderation in action, thought, feeling, or desire. The temperate person has desires which are reasonable. Moreover, the temperate person is able to control himself and his wants, thus preventing himself from descending into vice in order to satisfy his urges.
The important question to ask is this: which type of person is one more likely to become by illegal downloading, temperate or covetous? It is far more likely that one will acquire the latter trait. Illegal downloading puts everything one could conceivably want at one’s fingertips. It encourages us to withhold our money and instead live the easy life of freeloading. Moreover, it teaches us the bad habit of feeling entitled to take whatever we want. Many people who download become hoarders, taking as many books, movies, and music albums as they can get, feeling no need to control themselves. As one acquires more and more content it becomes harder to see the need for temperance; why should one hold back when it’s so easy to satisfy desires with the click of a mouse? Hence, illegal downloading makes it easy to become set in the vice of covetousness, while at the same time making the virtue of temperance appear worthless.
Common Justifications for Illegal Downloading
A. “Knowledge Should be Free”
A common reason people will give to justify their unethical downloading is the moral principle that knowledge should be free. Something that’s so good for humanity should be available to anyone, regardless of whether or not they can afford it. However, this principle doesn’t hold any real water. For one, this is contradicted by the fact that even more important things are not, and should not be, free. Food, a more basic necessity, is not free. Shelter is not free. We still have to pay money to the person who makes these things available. But if food should not be free, why should luxuries like books or videos be?
Besides, even if one granted the point that some knowledge should be free, this does not imply the further claim that all knowledge should be free. Maybe people have a right to learn in schools for a certain amount of time. While one might make an argument for this weaker claim, the idea that all knowledge should be free is far more implausible. Moreover, if any of the arguments given above show that we should not engage in illegal downloading, then the claim that all or even most knowledge should be free is simply false. When someone creates a new book or video, there are reasons why it would be unethical for me to download without paying for it.
B. “They’re Rich Enough”
Some people argue that, because the producers of music, books, videos, etc. are already wealthy, the downloading of some of their content for free does not affect their state of life very much, and hence illegally downloading their work is permissible. The error in this line of reasoning lies in the fact that the conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. The prior wealth of a person does not remove the fact that they are due a just recompense for their work and that they’re entitled to control how their work is distributed. In other words, how much money a person has prior to their creating a work is, for all moral purposes, an entirely irrelevant fact. What determines whether someone is due a reward and rights for what they do is dependent on their creation of it. How much money is in their bank account is impertinent.
C. “Author Doesn’t Lose Anything”
Downloading an e-book is not entirely the same as walking into a store and stealing a book. That much is clear. In the latter case there is an absolute loss in terms of property, whereas in the former there is not. But recall that the arguments listed earlier state nothing whatsoever about a loss of property. The problem of illegal downloading is not that it leads to a loss of property. The problem is that it fails to give the owner and his or her rights the respect they deserve.
A variation on this argument can be posed based on the fact that many times authors receive a one-time payment while most of the profits go to the publisher. Because of this the authors themselves do not make all of the money off the sales of books. Hence, illegal downloading is morally permissible. This fails on four accounts. One is that it goes on the assumption that the publisher is not due any recompense. On the contrary, the publisher puts time and resources into making the book available. Hence, the publisher acquires similar rights and entitlements insofar as they’ve helped create the product. Secondly, the author is simply exercising his or her power to determine how the book is used and distributed. In other words, the author is entitled to hand over to someone else, such as a publisher, the rights to publish and distribute his or her work, making the violation of restrictions placed by the publisher an indirect violation of the rights of the author. Also, in many cases, publishers and authors will enjoy jointly the rights to publish and place restrictions on a work’s usage, making violation of the publisher’s restrictions a direct violation of the author’s restrictions as well. Not to mention cases when the author and publisher are the same person, i.e. when the author self-publishes. Thirdly, it’s not as though the author receives nothing. Typically an author receives payments called royalties whenever a copy of a work is sold, so when we illegally download, we are still cheating them out of their due. Finally, if we did not pay publishers, they would not attract authors to produce work, taking us back to the argument that illegal downloading leads to disincentive to produce new creative works.
A final misconception should be dispelled, namely, the notion that borrowing from others somehow supports the legitimacy of illegal downloading. For instance, illegally downloading a book, it is supposed, is the same as borrowing a book from the library. But the differences become clear. First of all, when one downloads a book, more than one person (potentially thousands) enjoys the use even though the purchase of one copy only entitles one to private use. On the other hand, when borrowing from a library, the library purchases for private use, and only one person is allowed a copy at a time. 
Downloading a book from another isn’t in principle wrong or a violation of the conditions put upon private use. However, the owner sending the file would have to refrain from use until the other person is finished, just as one would when normally lending a book out.  Unfortunately, this entire process is open to much violation. In many cases we don’t have the epistemic warrant to assume that the person on the other end won’t copy it and send it to other people, thus leading to a host of violations of author’s rights, and hence it would be prudent to simply refrain.
D. “Copyright Law Should Be Changed”
Are copyright laws perfect? They probably aren’t, but as with any human institution, how could one expect them to be? Nevertheless, some people argue that because copyright laws should be improved that this is sufficient justification for disobeying them. Why should one obey an unjust law, after all?
There are two sides to attack this from. The first is the contention that copyright laws are so unreasonable as to make them unjust. Why should we accept this? For one, it’s not as though we are entitled to the works which copyright protects. So it’s not unreasonable if the law requires us to pay the author/publisher a fee for their work. So long as the law for the most part models our dues and obligations to authors the law is reasonable. Secondly, we should note that regardless of the laws there are good moral reasons why we owe the author of a work something in return, as shown above. Whether the entitlements and rights of the author are enshrined in the law appropriately is beside the point.
E.“It Doesn’t Seem Wrong”
Imagine someone reiterating these arguments against illegal downloading to a friend. How would the hypothetical listener reply? “That’s just nuts!” This is what most people think when the suggestion is made that their downloading is unethical. But many of the more common arguments given in favor of illegal downloading are easily refuted, and there are a number of strong positive reasons why we should not do it. “But it’s just common sense!” the opponent retorts. Yet is it really?
To line our moral intuitions up, imagine if someone were to download an e-book illegitimately right in front of the author. The author would be quite upset insofar as he has been cheated out of due payment. For this reason, no person would do this right before the author’s face. But why is it okay when the author is not around? The fact that nobody sees one doing the downloading doesn’t make it anymore permissible. When it really comes down to it, nobody would download an e-book right in front of its creator without paying, any more than they would steal the book from the store with the author by their side, the reason being that they know the author will (for good reason) feel violated. Because of this it is evident that upon reflection our moral intuitions actually line up with the idea of there being something wrong with illegal downloading.
A Christian Perspective
A. Theological Reasons
Up to this point all of the arguments presented could be accepted by someone coming from an entirely secular perspective. But it would be improper to leave out an account of the theological reasons against illegal downloading if it could prove useful in supporting this position. The Bible presents strong support for the various arguments presented, and thus supports the main contention that illegal downloading is wrong.
B. Rights and Dues
The point has been made in various places that illegal downloading constitutes both a failure to pay an author his or her dues and a violation of that author’s rights. The Bible decries in plain language the practice of holding back a person’s due wages: “You shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down…lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you.”  The reason we are obligated to pay someone who performs some service for us is that it is what they have earned. To do otherwise is a grave sin.
Elsewhere, the Scriptures say, “The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.”  Two points can be inferred from this. First, this passage speaks of the wages as already belonging to the servant. Hence, what they have earned is already theirs by right. Secondly, the verse gives an injunction to give them what is theirs quickly, the reason being that it is their due. St. James also gives us a grave warning, saying, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out.”  As with the first passage shown, the withholding of wages, which is equivalent to fraud, cries out to God, and is gravely sinful.
C. Obedience to the Law
In most countries refraining from downloading copyrighted content is a prerogative of law. For those who see copyright as something to be disregarded there is little motivation to obey the laws. The Christian, on the other hand, has the obligation to submit to the government put before them by God. As St. Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” 
Elsewhere, St. Peter reiterates the same command, saying, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors.”  We are to obey every legitimate human institution. This includes the law. St. Paul, speaking to Titus, says, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work.”  The Bible clearly teaches us to obey the government and the law, which sufficiently shows that, as Christians, it is our duty to follow the copyright laws which are in place and to refrain from any illegal downloading which constitutes infringement.
D. Covetousness and the Christian Life
For the Christian, the greatest possible desire is God, and not the things of the earth. St. Peter exhorts the believer to take this into account, saying, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”  But can illegal downloading lead to an excessive desire for the things of the earth? It seems so. For instance, we may want to download in order to save as much money as possible, or in order to gain as many enjoyable things as we can without having to pay.
Not only that, discontentment with what we can afford can be a true hindrance to living the Christian life. “There is great gain in godliness with contentment,” says St. Paul.  We should instead be humbly asking God, “Incline my heart to thy testimonies, and not to gain!”  Rather than worrying about how much money we can save, or how much stuff we can manage to get for free, we should be worried about our place with the Lord; being content with the blessings we have leads to holiness, while discontentment is a rejection of this means to sanctity.
E. The Christian Picture
Scripture provides ample material for reflection on how a Christian should understand the rights of workers, the law, and personal integrity. First of all, the Bible shows that when a person gives some service or product, they are due, by right, a just repayment. Failing to pay a laborer his or her due constitutes fraud, and is a grave sin before God. Another command constantly found in Scripture is that of obedience to legitimate authority. We have obligations to follow the law and render unto Caesar insofar as God, in his providence, has instituted them above us. Finally, the Bible warns us about the vice of covetousness. A constant want for more and more things is contrary to Christian virtue, and distracts us from our proper desire, which is not found in this world. All of these lessons lend support to the idea that illegal downloading is wrong.
The prospects are grim for those who wish to both continue downloading illegally and live their lives consistent with reasonable ethical principles. In order to further justify their illegal downloading, they will have to show that their infringement is consistent with four things: one, giving authors incentive to work and make a profit; two, giving authors a just reward for the use of their work; three, respecting the author’s rights to place restrictions and conditions on the use of his or work, and; four, the fact that illegal downloading is strongly conducive to vicious character traits, and is not proper for someone who wishes to practice temperance and moderation. The Christian also has good Biblical reasons to think that many of the secular arguments against illegal downloading are sound, as well independent theological reasons to obey the authority of the law. Without any good justification for their position, and with a cumulatively strong case against it, those who practice illegal downloading ought to come to terms with the fact that their actions are unethical and, on that account, cease and desist.
 In my opinion, it is. Cf. Hsiao, Timothy. “The Ethics of Illegal Downloading | Ethika Politika.” Center for Morality in Public Life.
 I say “primary right” in order to qualify this to account for the fact that, as with all other forms of exclusive rights, there are some, such as the government, who may also have some right to place restrictions and conditions on the content’s use. I also would acknowledge that author’s rights are not unlimited.
 Some might object to my argument that the first premise only applies in some cases. However, I understand this principle to apply to the same extent that an analogous principle for physical, tangible property would apply, i.e. in most normal cases. Exceptions would have to be ad hoc.
 One may bring up the fact that, when an author creates something, the people who helped deserve some of the rights. However, this isn’t a genuine counter-example; rather, the people who helped would count as co-creators. Hence, when speaking of the “creator” of a work we can understand this to mean either someone individually or a group of people working on a project collectively. One would also have to take into account whether they each help in an equal amount, as well as what sort of agreements they reach about who gets what.
 Aristotle, Politics, 2.7.
 Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, IIaIIae Q.118 a.4
 Sometimes libraries come to agreements with publishers whereby they are allowed to make an e-book available to as many students as are viewing it at a time. But this doesn’t disrespect the rights of the author or publisher to control the use of their products. The author or publisher can give consent to these arrangements, usually at a higher price for the library.
 There are, in fact, internet libraries such as OverDrive, as well as public libraries such as the Boston Public Library, which do this.
 Deuteronomy 24:15
 Leviticus 19:13
 James 5:4
 Romans 13:1-2
 1 Peter 2:13-14
 Titus 3:1
 Colossians 3:1-2
 Luke 12:15
 1 Timothy 6:6
 Psalm 119:36