Don't Copy!

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Shoftim 5770 – translated by R. Blumberg]

Don’t copy. Don’t copy discs, software, songs, “or anything else that belongs to your neighbor” (Shemot 20:13). Your neighbor worked and toiled and invested his best efforts and resources. Will you benefit without paying? Where is your integrity? Where is your morality? Even without the Torah, where is your natural morality? Have you forgotten the Mitzvah of “Do what is good and right” (Devarim 6:18), which according to Ramban is a positive Torah precept? How can you be such a scoundrel with the Torah’s license? Yet here, this is not with the Torah’s license, but against the Torah’s license. Our Sages long ago ordained patent rights (see Techumin 6-7). The Sages enact ordinances, and the public may as well (Baba Batra 9b). Open your eyes and see the warning of the sages of Italy from 500 years ago regarding the book “Ha-Bachur” by Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur HaLevi: “The wording of the opinion handed down in Rome, the capital, by its Rabbis and Sages: They passed a decree of excommunication on any person who steals his neighbor’s handiwork… And since we know that this man… wrote the above-mentioned writings with great toil, forfeiting his time over many days… and perhaps there is among you a root whose fruit is gall and wormwood (Devarim 29:17), who will have the nerve to publish even those aforementioned writings, all of them or some of them, in a more attractive format, taking the profits for himself, while the original authors will lose out.

“We have therefore demonstrably set ourselves apart, to be against the destroyers. As it says in Kiddushin 59a: “If a poor man is examining a cake, and someone else comes along and takes it from him, that person is called an evildoer.” We also say, “'Fishing nets must be kept away from the hiding-place of a fish which has been spotted by another fisherman the full length of the fish's swim, because that is called interfering with the other’s livelihood” (Baba Batra 21b)… And since printed books can move from ocean to ocean, we have not set any limit. Rather, we decree across the board: Whoever knows of our decree, having seen it or heard it, must not publish these books. And whoever publishes them, he, himself or his agents, will be classed as a trespasser and excommunicated. And whoever knowingly buys it from him after hearing our decree, will be covered by the curse and the excommunication, and may all Israel be blessed.”

Therefore, my friends, be very careful to avoid such trespassing, for “cursed is he who trespasses his neighbor’s territory” (Devarim 27:17). Don’t watch copied movies. Don’t listen to copied songs. If you’ve got a copied CD, throw it in the trash. “Keep a shovel with your weapons to cover your excrement. Let your camp remain holy” (Devarim 23:14).

One might say: I’ll do what I feel like. I’ll do what everyone else does. Everybody copies. Everybody downloads. If you say that, it’s not your wisdom talking. It’s not your integrity talking. It’s your evil impulse. Such is not what “everybody” does. It’s what thieves do. “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania said: ‘I have never been out-argued by anyone except by a woman, a young boy and a young girl… What was the case of the girl? One time I was walking down a road that passed through a field. A girl asked me, ‘Rabbi! Is that not a field?’ I replied, ‘No, it’s a beaten path’ (that does no harm to the field). She replied, ‘Thieves like you beat it down’ (One is forbidden to walk in the middle of a field, and thieves like you trod on it until they created a path’. Eruvin 53b. See first comment of Ben Ish Chai on Parashat Nitzavim).

Yet you might still argue that the owners gave up on it. They know in advance that this is what is going to happen, so it’s like a lost object swept away by the river (Baba Batra 24b).
But that isn’t so, my friend. All such things are said about natural disasters, regarding which
people are impotent, since they can do nothing, so they give up hope. In our case, however, they cry out and protest the theft, and if they can, they call the police. There have already been cases of people paying hundreds of thousands of Shekalim because they downloaded things from the Internet illegally. Moreover, Ha-Rav Moshe Isserlis wrote that with lost objects, even after the original owner loses hope of its return, we should go beyond the letter of the law and return it. According to the Mordechai, we can even force a finder to return such an object to the original owner. In our own case, however, the issue is real theft.

You might argue: Here, one party benefits and the other loses nothing (Baba Batra 20). But
don’t say that, for we only argue that retroactively, after the deed, but not a priori (Tosafot ibid.). As we already noted, the Rabbis enacted patent laws. Moreover, there are Federal laws and international laws. So, if you wouldn’t buy it in the first place, you can copy a book for personal use, for that the law allows. But you can’t copy a CD.

And when we quoted the Torah saying, “Don’t covet anything belonging to your neighbor,” the point was not to exempt theft from non-Jews, for it is well-known that stealing for non-Jews is likewise forbidden. Moreover, such theft profanes G-d’s name. Woe to us for our sins, for the State of Israel appears on the list of countries in which copyright laws are not enforced. G-d says, “You have profaned My great name amongst the nations, who say, ‘G-d
caused His Presence to rest on a nation of thieves.”

Thus you have three reasons for the mitzvah of not copying, and each suffices: 1. To be ethical and good. 2. Our Sages’ decrees regarding copyrights. 3. National and International laws, which have halachic force. We are further tempted to say: “The items are overpriced! Who can buy it?” That is irrelevant. Don’t buy it. The evil impulse further says, masquerading as the good impulse: “I only copy Torah content, so that I can learn Torah, for the sake G-d’s name.” That’s worthless. That’s a mitzvah via a sin. G-d doesn’t want that kind of Torah learning. Something else: Don’t download even one song. Don’t do even one sin. Don’t make yourself a CD with a collection of copied songs, with each song stolen from a different CD. Even one song has a price. A person can be recognized by three things, and
one of this is his relationship to money. How wonderful honesty is! How wonderful kosher
wealth is! “If you eat by the sweat of your own brow, how fortunate you will be” (Tehillim 118:2).