“Ask a Priest: Am I sinning by viewing unauthorized copyright postings on the Internet?”

Q: As you know, there are a lot of things posted on the Internet. I sometimes view materials posted, such as videos for my work or for entertainment purposes, etc. My question lies in regard to those who are posting this material. At times I wonder if they are not violating copyrights when they are posting it and whether or not I am sinning by viewing material they post. Sometimes I have a reasonable suspicion that the poster does not have the rights to post it (for example, if their profile name on YouTube doesn’t sound like an authorized copyright holder), but other times I am not so sure. However, with the information I currently have, I don’t have 100% certainty if they have the right to post it or not. I was hoping you might enlighten me as to my responsibility as a person who is trying to be a faithful Catholic. -E.V.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your desire to respect the property rights of others (which is what copyrights are all about) is admirable. Your particular question deals with an area of morality known as cooperation with evil.

There are various levels of cooperation, including remote and proximate. Many of us each day, somehow, probably cooperate remotely with evil, even if we intend to go around doing good. This is not to say that we are engaging in sinful behavior, since we simply cannot know all the consequences of our actions.

Let’s take as an example the case of a lineman for a utility company who helps restore power to a neighborhood after a snowstorm. By restoring the electricity he enables a nearby hospital to resume its operations, including its abortion clinic. The lineman could be said to cooperate remotely in the abortions in that he helped restored the electricity that makes them possible. But he is not culpable (that is, blameworthy) for the abortions if he had no intention of restoring power for the sake of abortions. His intention was to do his job, to restore electricity to needy homes and customers, and to earn a paycheck that keeps his own family clothed and fed.

Now back to your situation. It sounds as if your cooperation with evil (in this case, the infringement of copyrights) is, at worst, remote. You haven’t posted copyrighted material yourself. Nor did you seek out sites that you knew to have illegally posted material. Still, there could be culpability if you help to promote the evil — by sharing links to dubious websites, for instance.

So what to do? Whenever possible, try to access things on less-dubious websites, such as those run by companies or industry trade groups. If you come across a site that seems respectable (for instance, it is run by a legitimate-sounding organization with a real mailing address), then you might be justified in viewing its material on the grounds that you are giving the site the benefit of the doubt. The presumption here is that an established group is more likely to proceed with caution before it posts something. Otherwise it might hear a complaint from a copyright owner.

By no means is this a foolproof judgment. The Internet carries billions of webpages, and no one can ensure that all of them are respecting copyrights. So, yes, there are probably more than a few webpages in violation of copyrights. Yet it seems unrealistic to demand that browsers have 100% certainty before viewing or listening to material they find on the Internet.

When in serious doubt, you might e-mail the company that produced the original material. Send a link to the material that you found and ask if it was posted with permission. You might not get an answer, but at least you would have tried to do the right thing. (For more reading on cooperation with evil, check out this EWTN article.)

Then, too, you could recall the Golden Rule. “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). If your livelihood depended on your selling a video or audio program or a piece of software, how would you want others to treat your property? Let that be a guiding principle. I’ll pray that the Holy Spirit guide you well.

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