Q. Is there anything wrong with downloading MP3 songs from the Internet, using peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella?
A. Recorded songs are similar to other public goods like bridges or roads – they cost a lot to create, but once they’re around many people can enjoy them at low cost. Just as the government supports bridges by giving builders a concession to collect large tolls, even though your trip costs them a minimal amount, so it supports music production by granting a copyright which enables the artist to collect from listeners, even though copying a song costs almost nothing.
Copying a song from the Internet is like making a detour around the toll booth. Even if you don’t get a ticket, you’ve taken a free ride on someone else’s investment.
Our Sages viewed paying tolls as a prime example of the citizen’s duty to obey the law, and emphasized the importance of avoiding even the appearance of evading this duty.
And while it is true that if everybody copies songs eventually the copyright may be impossible to defend, it’s not ethical to join the mob storming the artist’s rights. This is comparable to the case where everybody takes a shortcut through a private field until the shortcut is treaded into a path. It may be true that staying away doesn’t help the owner once the path is already there, but we should be extra careful to avoid being among those who contribute to commandeering his land in this way.
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 113a; Sukkah 30a; Eruvin 53b.