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The Jewish Ethicist: Download on YouTube

The Jewish Ethicist: Download on YouTube

Don't lead the charge against copyrighted materials.


Q. A lot of copyrighted material is available on YouTube and other free sites. Is it permissible to download these clips?

A. YouTube was conceived primarily as a site where ordinary people could upload personal creations for public viewing. However, from the very beginning commercial content also made its way onto the site. This content is of a few varieties:

1. Some content is intentionally or willingly placed by content owners as a promotion. For example, CBS has a partnership program with YouTube through which some of their material appears on the site. It is obvious that there is no ethical obstacle to enjoying this material.

2. Some content is surreptitiously put up in order to circumvent copyright owners. Copyright owners have the right to protest at any time if they find their material on the site and it is promptly taken down. But realistically, there are hundreds of millions of clips and it may take time to detect and remove them. In the meantime, a viewer may find clips which he can be sure are copyright material. Here also the answer is obvious: a person shouldn't download stolen content just because he managed to squeeze in between the time it was illegally uploaded and when it was removed.

3. Some content the copyright owners have just given up on. Because of the effort involved in flagging pirated content, and the additional effort involved in removing it if the poster claims that it is legal (for example, under fair use laws), content owners are compelled to choose their battles and concentrate on their efforts on the most serious breaches. Here we have an interesting ethical question.

The Talmud discusses an interesting parallel case:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania said: In all my days, no one ever get the best of me besides one woman, one boy, and one girl. . . . What of the girl? Once I was traveling on the way and there was a path through a field, and I was walking on it. A little girl said to me: Rabbi, isn't that a field? I said to her, "No, it is a cleared path." She said to me, "Bandits like you cleared it." (1)

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania was correct. At the time he traversed the field, the way was already a cleared path and did no damage to the crops. However, the girl was also correct. There was a first person who went through the field. That first person did only slight damage to the crops. He probably didn't think of himself as a "bandit". But the next time a person wanted to take a shortcut, that person noticed that someone has already cut through this field, and there was a way that was a bit easier, and a bit less destructive, than cutting straight through the crops. The second person would probably never have dreamed of just stomping through someone's field, but after all, now there was already a passage and besides, someone else had already been through..

By the time Rabbi Yehoshua went through, there was really no benefit from refraining, yet formally speaking he was the latest in a series of trespassers who effectively stole that piece of land from the field's owner (presumably the girl's family).

I don't think that the passage is suggesting that Rabbi Yehoshua did something actually forbidden. In the other stories (the woman and the boy) he does things which are insensitive but not quite improper. But it reminds us how often we may be beneficiaries of wrongdoing, and in particular reminds us how serious the first, seemingly innocent breach is.

Once a video clip is firmly ensconced on YouTube, it is fair to assume that it is legal, and you can view and download it (if there are no notices to the contrary). However, the Talmudic sages alert us to the particular seriousness of leading the charge by pushing out the envelope of infringement, for example uploading material which previously was taken down but right now finds the owners too busy or burdened to respond.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Eiruvin 53b

January 2, 2010

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Anonymous, January 21, 2010 3:36 AM

Can you please answer #1's question?

I too would like to know the anwer to #1's question. Thanks

(3) Enid Powell, January 6, 2010 3:16 AM

I love Jewish Ethics for considering motive and consequences.

What some might call "splitting hairs" I call clarification. This piece by Rabbi Meir is a perfect example of "unintended consequences." As a writer and teacher, I prize examples that show that motive and consequences are the engines of narrative stories.

(2) Anonymous, January 5, 2010 8:45 PM

Not totally agree

G-D gave us a free will, we can choose between wrong and wright. Cheaper/free, comfortable, and convenient are not always the right choice (it is tempting though).our ethic spark inside guide us, the fact that this question arose show that there IS an ethical issue here. every click on the link for the "forbidden material", the rating is raised, WE encorage more piracy, stealing, and imoral activities, and WE normalise it, we are part of this crime. if enough people stole from a lolly stand on the street does it make it right to do so?? "a light to all the nations" I think that where we must be different. this is our constant ethic test with the allmighty, ourself and our children!! to make the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania parallel to youtube downloading, I would add next to the path a big box of stolen good, which beeing filled with goods every day, most people walk by and take something they want, we sill have 3 choices, take something we want as well, ignore this box (and dont be surprised to find something stolen from you in the not too far future), or report about this activity.

(1) Anonymous, January 5, 2010 7:08 PM

please explain more clearly

I watch many many videos on you tube, and being that I am extremely careful not to take advantage of any copyright infrigement (I buy songs legally from sites, for example) could you please explain what consititutes an "illegal or stolen download" on you tube? Just playing a video or a music video (Jewish or otherwise) could be "illegal?" please explain thank you for taking the time to answer (I hope you do) Mrs. Susan Weinberger

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