On the one hand, when you download music you are merely making a copy of something. You aren't depriving someone of a physical object. You aren't really taking anything.

On the other hand, when you download music you are doing something that someone who owns the rights to it has forbidden. You are violating copyright, terms of service, and other legal bindings.

Although the concepts surrounding this issue have becoming increasingly abstract, indirect, and seemingly disconnected from reality, what about music piracy is like and unlike theft? How can we come to understand this issue in a way that is both beneficial for the consumer and productive for the producer?

  • 4
    This is an interesting way to pose the question. Is it stealing? The answer is defined by statute wherever you reside. Is it immoral? Now that's the more interesting question!
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 13:16
  • In general you should just post a new question if you have more than one that are distinct from each other. Incidentally, I already asked the question myself because I was curious about it. I'm going to roll back your edit and leave this it's own unique question for now. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 23:54
  • Only by definition. Definitions aren't facts: the are arbitrary decisions made in order to communicate (or in this case, to make social policy). Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 19:26

6 Answers 6


There is a legal notion, enshrined in law, called "theft of services" that covers this. The canonical example is sneaking into a movie theater; in this case, there is no physical item stolen, but rather, the provider of a service is deprived of the income he would normally receive for the enjoyment of said service. In the pre-internet days, this notion was most commonly applied in cases of unauthorized (and unpaid) connection to cable television service.

In addition, music and literature are protected under law by copyright, which is (as the name indicates) a temporary monopoly on the right to copy an artifact granted to the creator. By downloading music one is making an authorized copy, and thus violating copyright as well.

How can we come to understand this issue in a way that is both beneficial for the consumer and productive for the producer?

I think this is a false parallelism; the (non-paying) consumer has no particular rights in this regard, and there's no particular reason we should be concerned about their benefits. Let's turn the question around: what possible moral justification is there for taking that which is not given? If the composer/performer of a song states "I do not want you to download my music without paying for it", is there any moral imperative that would permit one to override their desire in this regard?

  • 1
    Ah, I understand how that last sentence can be a false parallelism, but what I meant by that is how the law is currently situated where a person can download 31 songs and be sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_BMG_v._Tenenbaum
    – john
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 15:35
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    @awfullyjohn: But that's not a question about morality, or about whether or not downloading is theft-- that's just a question of appropriate punishment. The fact that there are disproportionate sentences is completely orthogonal to the nature of the crime. Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:02
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    @Michael Dorfman - They might also say, "I do not want you to say anything bad about my music," to which the sensible reply is, "Society works better if free discussion and criticism is allowed." It's not a priori obvious that "not downloading" is different from "not criticizing"--in either case, the immediate action doesn't involve the composer/performer at all. The issue of how to compensate composer/performers, so that there is anything to download to begin with, is of course a major issue. I don't think one can simply assume that monetizing copying is the best solution (though it may be).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:26
  • @RexKerr: I'm sorry, I don't see how unauthorized duplication and criticism are at all analogous. The action doesn't involve the composer/performer directly, but does directly involve the work, which was released under certain conditions (i.e., a copyright.) The question remains: if A creates a work of art, what gives B the right to duplicate it against A's wishes? What is the moral principle that would justify such an act? Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:36
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    @Michael Dorfman - "Society works better if free dissemination of works of art are allowed." Not saying it's true, but if it were true it would justify it. (We seem to think it's true for older works.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:42

Whether or not it is stealing is a semantic question (or a legal one--but we know the answer there). It is an instance of one person doing something that another wishes that they had paid for, and where things are set up such that some third parties are paying. Thus, there is some inequality in benefit received for a given expenditure, and this inequality is decided by the beneficiary. In cases where equal expenditures are customary, this would be called "stealing" (even though in the case of music, "stealing" does not actually take away anything from anybody except for the potential revenue of a purchase). In cases where no expenditure is customary, those paying would be called "donors" (and the payment would be a donation or gift). Of course, those who wish to sell music are particularly keen on stressing the "stealing" part, and those who wish to consume it and do not feel particularly generous are particularly keen on stressing the opposite. I don't think the question is entirely settled; I think the music industry has done an effective job at associating the word "stealing" with not paying for music, but as far as I can tell this has in part simply diluted the meaning of the word "stealing" towards meaning "free" without meaning "wrong".

Whether or not it is wrong depends in part on your particular view of morality. If you are a consequentialist, you may note that it is not clear that creative works which have close to zero reproduction cost are optimized by a free market wherein those works can be restricted by their creator (or corporate representatives thereof). Correcting this by taking matters into your own hands and downloading a bunch of songs for free is rather dubious (given the very high likelihood that your judgment will be distorted by self-interest), but it's not clear that this is the best model as opposed to, for example, a work-for-hire model where musical artists would perform songs and those would be freely available; if they became at all popular, people could pay them to create more (schemes to do this with many small individual contributions are now feasible given the internet). Would this result in greater overall happiness (or whatever other standard one used as a consequentialist)? I don't think we know. I do think it would be very difficult to find out experimentally, since the current system leaves e.g. the recording industry with an enormous amount of revenue, which can and is used to boost popularity, which drives demand for their not-freely-available-but-zero-cost-to-replicate product.

It is wrong to benefit from something while destroying it, even as a consequentialist, unless you can somehow derive so much benefit that it offsets all the lost benefit to everyone else (and yourself) who has to live with the lack-of-whatever-it-was in the future. This almost never is the case, so to argue that copying music is not wrong (in some general case), one does have to have a plausible mechanism by which this would not destroy the industry. (Arguing that, for example, you want more indie music, which can be supported by local live performances, while downloading reams of Spears, Bieber, and Gaga, is not a very compelling argument. You cannot destroy pop music by downloading it because you hate it (since there is no cost to the artists), only if you and others would otherwise have bought it and this destroys their revenue stream.)

  • 1
    With regard to your final paragraph, there's no contradiction in only supporting music in general via live performances while treating all music files as free - the music industry in general would persist on those terms just fine, though not every part would. (I also note that having no profit whatsoever would not stop the production of music - the amount of music produced for one's closest friends and shared as an afterthought would still be significant.)
    – Brilliand
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 21:34
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    @Brilliand Very good point. Music artists usually start their career by live performances so we know this model works. Paying for downloading is very beneficial for the richest artists and the studios and has very little effect on less popular and not that rich artists. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 20:32

I think, in very simple and plain terms that although you're not stealing a physical object, you are stealing the potential worth of the file to the "rightful owner". For example, if a music file is usually sold for 75p and you take it for free, the rightful owner of the file (which is probably the artist, his agent, the publisher and a bunch of resellers, etc.) will not get 75p. Effectively, you've stolen 75p's worth of stuff from them, even though there's no physical object.

EDIT: @awfullyjohn suggests that the worth attributed to an individual file (i.e. 75p, in my example above) may not reflect its true value. However, if you take an example of a music artist who only sells his (or her) music via an online download; regardless of the price that's set for a particular music track, we can assume that each track must have some worth and to take the track without leaving any compensation for doing so would be stealing.

In essence, this is even more clear than the question of whether stealing someone's idea (Intellectual Property) is really stealing, because there's an actual price given to the music file, whereas it's often impossible to determine the true worth of an idea. However, the US patent office issues hundreds of thousands of patents per year, which business (such as Apple) rely on, heavily.

To put it in slightly different terms, you might have a bank account with £50,000 in it. However, you never actually see £50,000 because it's actually just numbers in a computer somewhere. If someone stole £25,000 from your account, they wouldn't actually be stealing a physical object, but I expect you'd be pretty upset. The context is slightly different, but the concept is the same. Stealing doesn't have to apply to a physical object.

Finally, I'm not a contract lawyer, but I believe the concept of stealing in law might involve the absence of a contract - please correct me if I'm wrong. Surely the lack of authorisation would void any contract you might have (e.g. with the supplier of the illegal downloads).

Regardless of the above points, I'm afraid unauthorised downloading of music is regarded as stealing.

The only exception I can think of is if you were to interpret the use of the word "unauthorised" in your question in a different way. For example, if you had not been authorised to use your computer at work for downloading music, but you had paid for the music itself, this wouldn't be stealing, it would just be against company policy.

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    Just because someone days its worth 75p does it mean it actually is? Say I set up a stand outside of a supermarket and marked everything at exorbitant prices. An orange for £10,000, a gallon of milk for £25,000. No one intends to buy these things because they are too expensive, but I know that this particular neighborhood is poor or full of thieves and one day someone shoplifts. Why should the thing be priced the way I say it is? In the example with music, as I mention in another comment, a person can download 30 songs and be charged $675,000. How does that factor into this equation?
    – john
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 15:41
  • (Also, I know my example above is contrived, and that the person being sued isn't being sued for the value of one copy of one song, but rather for the value of each potential copy that they were thought to have made, but do you see my point?)
    – john
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 15:45
  • 1
    You don't really want to use the patent process especially in the technology industry to try to bolster your argument, given that many tech companies admit that the patent process is damaging to their industry but that they have to play along given how dire the legal consequences can be of ignoring it.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 18:05
  • Thanks @awfullyjohn, perhaps your question of actual worth vs attributed worth is worthy of a whole question in its own right :D I have updated my response accordingly, in the hope that we can agree.
    – m-smith
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 9:04
  • "the rightful owner of the file" - if I make a copy of the file on MY disk, the rightful owner of the file (the entire disk actually) is me. Nothing has happened to your file on your disk and you still own it. Expectation of profit does not give entitlement. I may say you owe me £1 for every time you mention my name, but if you don't give me that money it doesn't mean you stole it from me. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 20:23

Though the accepted answer for this question refers to the legal position in positive law, it is worth noting that the philosophical question of whether unauthorised copying is theft is really a matter of analysis of the proper scope of property rights, and should precede the formulation of positive law. The philosophical issue at hand in this situation is whether or not "intellectual property" is a legitimate class of property (such that its violation would constitute theft).

At the outset, it is worth noting that intellectual property rights differ from rights in tangible property, insofar as the former create an artificial scarcity, whereas the latter recognise an inherent physical scarcity existing in nature. In his analysis of property and scarcity, Bouckaert (1990) recognises that assertions that the law should create an artificial scarcity bear the burden of justification:

Natural scarcity is that which follows from the relationship between man and nature. Scarcity is natural when it is possible to conceive of it before any human, institutional, contractual arrangement. Artificial scarcity, on the other hand, is the outcome of such arrangements. Artificial scarcity can hardly serve as a justification for the legal framework that causes that scarcity. Such an argument would be completely circular. On the contrary, artificial scarcity itself needs a justification. (Bouckaert 1990, p. 793)

Arguments in favour of intellectual property: Most arguments in favour of creating an artificial scarcity via intellectual property are rooted in economic arguments asserting that scarcity is needed to incentivise the creation of complex intangible goods. Under this view, it is necessary to recognise a class of property rights in ideas, processes, and other intangible goods, and thus impose artificial scarcity (at least temporarily) to ensure that there is sufficient market incentive for people to create valuable ideas and processes. The imposition of "intellectual property" rights allows the creator to (temporarily) monopolise the production of a good they have created, which means that there is a reward to creation of valuable intangible goods. Contrarily, if intellectual property is not recognised as a legitimate property right, this reduces the incentive to create valuable intangible property.

This is the main line of argument for intellectual property, but there are other related philosophical arguments, which recognise an intimate link between the creator and the idea, such that the creation (even if an intangible invention or process) is regarded as a material product owned by the creator; this argument is expounded in Rand (1967). This line of argument rejects the requirement of natural scarcity as a necessity for property rights, and argues that intellectual property is a fundamental class of property arising from the recognition of products of man's mind.

Arguments against intellectual property: There have been various published works arguing against the legitimacy of intellectual property, and thus, against the position that unauthorised copying of music constitutes a form of theft. An argument of this kind is set in the monograph Kinsella (2008), which is based on a strict view of property rights that requires natural scarcity. Kinsella argues that natural scarcity is a requirement for legitimate property rights, and since "intellectual property" fails to meet this requirement, it is thus invalid. He further argues that intellectual property is an artificially imposed form of scarcity that interferes with the legitimate property rights of owners of the materials on which matter is copied. Under this view, a person who owns a computer, disc space, etc., should be free to use their tangible property as they wish, and should thus be free to download music onto that physical property. Restriction of this practice is thus seen as an aggression against the property rights of owners of tangible property.

  • The argument for intellectual property cannot justify the current form of the law in some countries. Retroactively extending the period does not make sense (like the Mickey Mouse Protection Act did in 1998). Neither does having the period extend past the death of the author. Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 9:12

Short answer: No

The original meaning of steal implied taking something away. Some people have interest to make "unauthorized downloading" sound worse than it actually is and this is how stealing got this new meaning. I believe the two are distinct concepts in most people's intuition.

Downloading unauthorized music does not cause harm. Some may argue that this prevents the creator from making money, but the same can be argued for a very wide range of actions, including any form of competition. In any society some form of competition exists so this is not a reasonable argument.

You don't violate terms of service, unless you have agreed to them (and this is a separate issue). The only objectively questionable thing about unauthorized downloading is its legal status so it comes down to asking "Can law define what stealing is?". I believe the answer to this is "no". Language evolves naturally and as far as I know there are no cases in history when language changed due to legislation.

Legally copyright was introduced as a form of censorship and was later rebranded as a mechanism to reward creators. We can argue whether it serves this purpose, but anyway this doesn't make breaking copyright stealing.

Current laws are a mess due to poor understanding on the part of legislators. What constitutes a copyright infringement is highly subjective. Many people have been wrongly accused of copyright infringement (for example in youtube). Companies have interest in expanding copyright law. The consumer and the producer have conflicting interests so benefit for one is loss for the other.

People are used to the concept of copyright to the point that nobody is questioning it and we don't know what we're missing because of it.


First, consider this: Jesus Christ performed a miracle "so that we do not offend them". Therefore, do your best to not offend people. This is related to "so in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the prophets" including "do not steal".

Is unauthorized downloading of music stealing?

Is your acquirement of music offending a person who has reason to be offended?

On the one hand, when you download music you are merely making a copy of something. You aren't depriving someone of a physical object. You aren't really taking anything.

God's words do not apply only to physical objects...

On the other hand, when you download music you are doing something that someone who owns the rights to it has forbidden. You are violating copyright, terms of service, and other legal bindings.

If you want your "no" to be respected, then respect "no" said by another.

Although the concepts surrounding this issue have becoming increasingly abstract, indirect, and seemingly disconnected from reality, what about music piracy is like and unlike theft? How can we come to understand this issue in a way that is both beneficial for the consumer and productive for the producer?

The Internet contains information, but not all information is important. The mind was designed to remember what a person perceives as important and to forget the rest.

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