FRIDAY
May 18, 2001
volume 12, no. 126

Stealing Property of the Mind


    I rejected the culture of “rock ’n’ roll” back in the 1950s, and I have had zero interest in modern music since then. When I was a little boy, my parents explained to me that Elvis Presley was decadent; I did not fully understand what decadent meant, but I knew that my parents were not going to steer me wrong. Thus, in the fall of 1956, I plugged my fingers into my ears when a fellow kindergartner on a school bus turned up the volume on his radio as it blared Presley’s “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.”

    By the time the Beatles rolled around in 1964, I was 13 and had come to understand by myself that rock music was from hell and that it was produced by satan. I knew the Beatles represented the glorification of immorality (relating to so-called free love and the use of hallucinogenic drugs, including marijuana) and a rejection of legitimate authority. Indeed, I wore a crew cut for ten years — from 1964 to 1974 — as my own sign of protest against the long hair then in style among teenage boys as a result of the Beatles. So I am not in the least bit conversant with contemporary music. Don’t listen to it. Have no interest in it whatsoever, except to comment on those things that make the news because of their overt hostility to the true Faith.

    One with no interest in contemporary music does not seek it out, obviously. So I had never heard of Napster — the service that until recently permitted its users to download music to their computers for free — until it became the object of news reports and court battles challenging its legal right to use the intellectual property of others without compensating the performers and the creators of that property. As it has been explained to me by several home-schooling students, Napster has thousands of selections that can be downloaded into computers, and these include classical-music selections. Therefore there are users of Napster who are not necessarily part of the culture of death that has arisen in large part as a result of contemporary music and its derivatives. Still and all, Napster was founded on the false premise that consumers should be able to get something for nothing. That is a fundamental violation of the Seventh Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” It is a sin to steal anything that does not belong to us, including the intellectual property of others. This is something that is of particular interest to those of us who create our own works, whether writers or artists or musicians or inventors.

    In September of 1987, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) was derailed in his bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when John Sasso, an aide to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, released an attack video demonstrating that Biden had stolen a speech on foreign policy given only days before by Neil Kinnock, then the hapless head of the British Labour Party (which party Kinnock led to defeats by Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in 1982 and 1987). It turned out that Biden, who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was presiding over the Robert Bork confirmation hearings, had committed plagiarism when he was at Syracuse Law School in the mid 1960s. Although he is said to be contemplating yet another run at the presidency in 2004, Biden’s credibility was forever tarnished by his record of intellectual theft.

    Sadly, such theft is more common than one might imagine. A committee appointed by the president of Boston University in the 1980s concluded decisively that Martin Luther King plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation. (However, the university did not posthumously take away his doctorate, something it would have done in any other case.) Intellectual theft is something of an epidemic in the entertainment world. Milton Berle was so notorious for stealing the jokes of other comedians that he made fun of himself during the Dean Martin Roasts in the 1970s. “Could you slow down, please? I can’t keep up with you,” Berle once deadpanned as he feigned copying a young comic’s jokes. Indeed, some of the more prominent comedians actually hire scouts to steal fresh material from young comedians trying to establish themselves. It’s a practice of long standing. (Naturally, almost all of the comedians today are crude, vulgar, and pornographic in their content. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or wit to mimic their offensive material.)

    The same is true of magicians. Many do not realize that magic is a field fraught with the occult and a mockery of the words of Consecration. “Hocus pocus” is a phrase that is meant to mock “Hoc est enim corpus meum.”) And there are professional spies in the world of computer technology who do their level best to steal programs and operating systems designed by others. Intellectual theft is everywhere — yet another sign of the de-Catholicization of the world.

    The Napster controversy, however, has seen a lot of otherwise sensible people crying foul, claiming that they have a “right” to download the material found on the Napster web site. But they do not have any such “right.” No matter how much money a particular performer or record company may have made as a result of a particular piece of music, it is nevertheless a matter of strict justice that each performer or company must receive compensation for the acquisition of that work by a consumer. There is absolutely no getting around it. It is immoral to take something from another without compensation, no matter how much enjoyment it brings the person who is engaging in the theft of another person’s intellectual property.

    Unless their just owner voluntarily gives them away, goods and services must be exchanged for something of value, whether that value is in the form of currency or bartered goods or services. One of the many victories wrought by the forces of relativism, though, is the popularization of the belief that a practice cannot be wrong if large numbers of people are engaging in it, especially if people are deriving a great deal of pleasure and convenience from the practice. If Napster is an exception to the Seventh Commandment, where does one draw the line? Can one steal term papers one has not composed and submit them to a professor for evaluation as his own work? Can one rearrange the e-mail of another and then send it out to his own friends, presenting it as his own original creative work and making points he had not thought of himself? Can one bring notes into an examination in order to surreptitiously “review” those notes as he faces questions he is not prepared to answer on his own? (That is the derivation of theft called fraud.) Where is the line to be drawn if there is not one simple standard that is in accord with the Seventh Commandment’s absolute prohibition against all forms of theft?

    As alluded to above, some in favor of the Napster service have made the Marxist argument that performers and companies make “too much money,” justifying the theft of services as a matter of personal right. Unfortunately, we live in a world of supply and demand. If there is a demand for a particular product, those who produce the product are going to make more and more money. True, a good many of the “artists” who have become wealthy in today’s world would be in the poorhouse if an authentically Catholic understanding of culture prevailed. There would be no market for their illicit and profane wares, as nobody would want to pollute his ears, which belong to Christ Himself, by listening to their filth. (And the just state would have the right in the natural law to censor those things injurious to the salvation of souls, as Pope Leo XIII noted in his encyclical letter "On Human Liberty" in 1887.) In today’s market, the purveyors of rot have become very wealthy in the midst of our secularized world. But that is no justification for stealing their “works of art” by downloading them free of charge. If people want rot, they have to pay for it.

    Part of the responsibility for producing a culture conducive to the stealing of the intellectual property of others falls on the doorstep of the modern state. As I have noted in many other commentaries in recent years, leftists and collectivists and redistributionists actually believe that there is no right to private property, that our income belongs to society as a whole, and that the government is best able to use our property in order to redistribute it as it sees fit. We are involuntary participants in that redistribution as our private property is confiscated from us by means of taxation, the levels of which are unjust — and the purposes for which are unjust and immoral. Indeed, President Bush boasted in his radio address of March 24 that under his administration the federal budget is actually increasing to the tune of $100 billion. Bush believes that is worthy of a boast! It is actually quite a sad thing, as the so-called conservative participates in the expansion of the size and power of the federal government while giving us a parsimonious reduction in taxes to keep us happy. When the government steals from them all the time, it is little wonder that people believe they have the right to steal from others.

    The violations of the Ten Commandments all proceed one from the other. If we make false gods out of the idols of this world, it is easy to profane God’s Holy Name and all sacred things, to profane the Lord’s Day, to dishonor our parents, to kill innocent human beings, to engage in wanton acts in violation of the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, to steal the property of others, to bear false witness, and to envy the goods of others. We have the means to obey the Commandments if we cooperate with the graces won for us by the shedding of every single drop of our Lord’s Most Precious Blood on the wood of the Holy Cross, administered to us as they are in the sacraments entrusted to Holy Mother Church. It will not be until people recognize that simple truth that the violations of the Commandments, including the Seventh Commandment, will stop for love of God as befits redeemed creatures who are destined for an unending Easter Sunday of glory in Paradise if they persist until the end in states of sanctifying grace.

    Our Lady, Mother of Life, pray for us.

Thomas A. Droleskey, Ph.D.
      Editor's Note: His series "The Germ of GIRM" will be on hiatus for a short while as Dr. Droleskey continues to write we will bring installments on this to you as they become available. His regular column will continue each Friday.

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    May 18, 2001
    vol 12, no. 126
    CHRIST or chaos