top of page

Freedom Isn’t Free: An Essay on Digital Content

A Reflection on the Cost of Digital Content, with 10 Suggestions to Fellow Christians

“ ‘Information wants to be free.’  So goes the saying. . . I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.”  — Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget

Jaron Lanier is one of the foremost computer scientists in the world, and the man who coined the term “virtual reality.”  He has spent more time reflecting on the implications of the internet than most anyone else on earth.  In his recent manifesto, You are Not a Gadget, he argues persuasively that the movement towards free information on the internet has choked creativity, dumbed down innovation, and led to a popular culture of nostalgic malaise.  In order to make his point, he looks at most modern music and its apparent inability to do much more than rehash, mashup, and remix the songs and styles of previous generations.

Lanier points out that the economics of free information were supposed to unleash a generation of new artists, writers, musicians and craftspeople who would be unfettered by the need to seek corporate sponsorship or wealthy supporters.  Unfortunately, I believe we have seen a morass of inadequate and amateurish products and a deficit of excellence in the artistic fields. Of course, there are also excellent artists doing excellent work, but these brave souls find themselves in an environment in which it is increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to support themselves on the proceeds of their art. Further, the economics of the internet have led to the bankruptcy of many journalistic institutions and the severe degradation of the free press.  While there are untold numbers of celebrity-hunting bloggers, there are fewer and fewer credible journalists with the backing to go after the most important stories.  Democracy needs a substantial press, Edmond Burke’s “fourth estate;” we are in grave danger of losing ours.

I believe we have done enormous damage by refusing to pay for content simply because it is in digital form.  By stealing music, we have prevented musicians from operating creatively; and hindered music business people from encouraging and producing new talent.  By pirating photography, we have cut the legs out from under artists.  By refusing to pay for journalism, we have devastated newspapers and network news.  Those of us who consume free internet content have made it increasingly difficult to produce high quality movies, television, journalism, fiction, poetry, art, music, travel guides, cookbooks–the list is endless.  Yes, there are more videos to watch than ever before.  But the best of these are still being produced by the movie studios and cable networks of the old economy.  These studios and networks are being financially starved to death.

“Who cares?” some say.  After all, NBC and EMI and HBO are just big corporations.  Fight the power, screw the Man!  They deserve to burn.  The problem is that they are burning, but there is no one to replace them.  Will rich bankers rise up to sponsor the next Sopranos?  Will the Church take contributions to bankroll the next U2?  Is it Bill Gates or the Pope or the Sultan of Brunei who will save us from an endless stream of cat videos and 80s remixes?  I am amused by basketball tricks on YouTube, but I fear that I will never see another Godfather.

All of these concerns are pragmatic, and ultimately selfish.  I want to be well informed and well entertained.  But I have other concerns as well.  I am a Christian, the pastor of a church, and a priest of the Anglican Communion.  It is my duty to speak to my fellow Believers, especially those in my care, about the moral cost of free internet content.  I do not intend to moralize to those outside of my faith; but I would like to speak to those inside of it.

On one hand there is the moral principle against theft.  A great deal of digital content is stolen simply because it is digital.  Most people in the Church would not break into someone’s house to steal a DVD from a shelf or a picture from the wall.  However, many of us might pass along movies or pictures which we have illegally copied.  In so doing, we are violating one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou Shall Not Steal.” (Exodus 20:15)  We have also violated Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) Stealing from another person is not loving.  Further, in many cases we may be going against Christ’s final commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) When we steal from Christian artists, many of whom we worship with on Sunday morning, we ignore the instructions that Jesus said would set us apart from the rest of the world–“by this will all know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” (John 13:35)

I am speaking to myself.  I have personally stolen digital content.  While I have never illegally downloaded music, I have ripped CDs and passed them on to others, and I have received digital music that other people did not have the legal right to give me. I have no idea how many times I may have misused digitized art to spice up powerpoint presentations at church functions.

It is easy to steal digital content, as it is easy to view digital pornography or gamble illegally online or send anonymous messages of hate to those who differ from us.  It is all done so privately, so effortlessly.  There is little or no danger of being reprimanded by any outside source.  However, these behaviors are deadly to our souls; and God is always present.  There is no moral difference between sinning with a computer and sinning without one.

On the other hand, there is the more complex question of using content that is available both free and legally.  There are no laws against consuming much of what we might find on the internet.  In many cases, this content may be distributed under specific conditions, such as a Creative Commons License (as this essay is).  The site where we find the content may be trying to pay for itself through advertising, for instance, or through private investment.

The problem is that most high quality content found on the internet (music, video games, stories, illustrations, etc.) costs significantly more money to create than it is making on-line.  There is a huge gap between the cost of production and the price of consumption.  Some organizations, such as the New York Times or the makers of the game Spore, complain about this gap and seek to correct it.  When they do, they are endlessly mocked on blogs and many consumers refuse to pay up.  This results in such organizations either backing down or finding themselves with far fewer customers.  In either case, the degradation of content continues, professional people are laid off, and the public gets more and more Beyoncé mashups to feast on.

Certainly many people produce content simply for the love of it.  I am personally in that camp.  I record film reviews solely as a hobby.  But I can afford to do this.  If I wanted to set aside all other work to become a serious film critic, the current on-line economy guarantees that my family would starve.  Thousands of professionals are losing their vocations because of the high cost of “free” content.

While most Christians agree (theoretically) that stealing is wrong, I want to challenge our moral principles still further.  When St. Paul was writing to the churches, there was a question as to whether pastors should be paid.  In addressing this question Paul quoted both the Old Testament and Jesus himself when he wrote “the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” (1 Timothy 5:18)  Paul is speaking of our need to pay ministers; he is not speaking about digital content creators.  However, there is a principle here I would suggest we consider.  Notice his use of the agricultural example used by Moses. (Deuteronomy 15:4)  As an ox tread grain the Israelites were instructed to leave its mouth free.  Why?  So that the ox could eat as he worked.  Paul then associates this with Jesus saying ‘a worker deserves his wages.‘ (Luke 10:7) If a dumb animal should be allowed to make his living off his own labor, why not those who preach?  And why not those who create intellectual and creative content?  Just because their content is digitized and placed on the internet, are they less deserving than animals or pastors of reaping reward for their work?  Should we pay our pastors for their helpful words, but not our musicians and reporters and poets?

I believe that it is a Christian duty to pay laborers for the work they do on our behalf.  If we run a business, we should pay our employees.  We should pay the people who we might hire to mow our lawns or care for our animals while we are out of town.  We should pay our taxes so that the police and firefighters and teachers on whom we rely may be compensated for their efforts.  We should do our part to pay those whose digitized content we both use and value.  This seems to me to be a reasonable application of our Lord’s declaration that “a worker deserves his wages.”  This sounds like justice.

With this in mind, I offer these suggestions to my fellow Christian Believers.  They are not commandments, as I refuse to lay down any law.  Rather, these are thoughtful and godly ideas.  These are not suggested laws or market practices.  They are meant for individuals.  I would ask that my readers consider these suggestions and pray about putting them into practice.  I would also encourage others to comment on this essay, challenge my ideas, and make other suggestions.

10 Suggestions for the Christian’s Use of Digital Content

1) Do not steal, even if you can.  Do not download or share files which are being offered illegally.

2) Do not receive stolen merchandise, even if it is digital.  If content was taken illegally, or is being offered to you in violation of the law, politely refuse to accept it.

3) If you have stolen content in the past, delete it and buy it legally.

4) Do not violate the terms of use of digital material.  If a file is offered for non-commercial use, do not use it commercially.  If a picture is available for use if you attribute the artist, attribute it to her.

5) When in doubt, do your best.  Some files have been copied and re-posted so many times you may have no way of ever finding the original terms of use.  There is no perfect system; do what you can.

6) If you regularly use content and that providing site gives you the ability to contribute, do so.  For example, if you listen to the “This American Life” podcast, visit their website and give them some money.

7) If you visit a site and you see a link to interesting and legitimate advertising, don’t be afraid to click on it.  While I don’t personally like advertising on websites, it is a large source of income for many content providers.

8) If you like a site or service that does not receive contributions, write them an e-mail and ask them to give their users the opportunity to contribute.  For instance, if you read a blog three days a week and there is no way to financially support the blogger, ask her to provide a way to support her site.

9) This may be my most creative and crazy suggestion.  Pick ten of your favorite providers of free on-line content, whether large corporations or non-profits or individual artists.  Get their addresses, and send them some money with a letter (even just a couple of dollars).  Tell them that you are sending them this money because you have consumed their content for free, and you believe that they deserve to be compensated for the benefit that they have provided to you.  Yes, this is radical.  Yes, it is counter-cultural.  Remember the story of King David and Araunah in 2 Samuel 24:18-25?  David wanted to build an altar on Araunah’s land, so Araunah offered to give him the land for free.  But David replied “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24)  Paying for something even when it is offered to you for free is a principle found in this story.

10) Pass this essay on to others.  Yet, it is almost 2000 words long.  But these ideas may spark thoughtful discussion, dissent, and debate.  Even if you totally disagree with what I’m saying, consider engaging with this material.


Fr. Thomas McKenzie


bottom of page