Questions From Readers
How should true Christians view the common practice of individuals’ giving to others copies of commercial software programs for computers?
Some might mistakenly try to excuse this practice by referring to Jesus’ words: “You received free, give free.” Of course, Jesus was not referring to giving away free copies of copyrighted literature or computer programs (software), the use of which material is regulated by law. He meant giving as part of the ministry. Jesus told the apostles going off to various cities and villages that they were to preach the Kingdom, cure the sick, and expel demons. Rather than charge for this, the apostles were to “give free.”—Matthew 10:7, 8.
With the soaring number of personal and business computers, many people have needed software. This usually has to be purchased. Granted, some individuals write programs that they make available free of charge and that they state can be copied and given to yet others. But most computer software is sold commercially. Whether for their personal use at home or for business use, software users are expected to buy it, to pay for it. If someone took or copied a software package without paying, that would be illegal, as would the wholesale photocopying of books, even when giving such away free.
Most computer programs (including games) are covered by a license, the owner/user being required to comply with its specific provisions and limitations. Many such licenses state that only one person may install and use the program—usually installing it on only one computer, whether a home computer or one in a business or school. Some licenses say that the user may have a backup copy for himself, but he is not to make copies for other people. If the owner wants to give away the entire program (including license and documentation), he may do so. However, he thus ends his own right to use it. Licenses vary, so a person buying a program or being offered one should find out what that particular license stipulates.
Many nations are party to copyright agreements that protect “intellectual property,” such as computer programs, and they try to enforce copyright laws. For instance, The New York Times of January 14, 2000, reported that “German and Danish police officers arrested members of what they described as a major software-piracy gang” that was duplicating and distributing computer programs and games, even selling some over the Internet.
Where does the Christian congregation stand on this? Well, Jesus said: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.” (Mark 12:17) That calls for Christians to obey laws of the land that do not conflict with God’s law. Regarding governments, the apostle Paul wrote: “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities . . . He who opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God; those who have taken a stand against it will receive judgment to themselves.”—Romans 13:1, 2.
Elders in the Christian congregation are not responsible for checking others’ computers, as if authorized to interpret and enforce copyright laws. But they believe and teach that Christians should avoid taking what does not belong to them and should strive to be law-abiding. This protects Christians from being punished as lawbreakers, and it enables them to have a good conscience before God. Paul wrote: “There is therefore compelling reason for you people to be in subjection, not only on account of that wrath but also on account of your conscience.” (Romans 13:5) Similarly, Paul expressed the desire of true Christians with the words: “We trust we have an honest conscience, as we wish to conduct ourselves honestly in all things.”—Hebrews 13:18.
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Some businesses and schools purchase multiple-user licenses that stipulate a maximum number of users allowed to use the program. In 1995, congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses discussed an article that included this counsel:
“Most companies that prepare and sell computer programs copyright these, and they provide a license outlining how the programs can legally be used. The license usually says that the owner cannot give to others copies of the program; in fact, international copyright law makes it illegal to do so. . . . Some large firms sell computers containing preinstalled and licensed programs. However, certain computer stores do not provide licenses because the programs they preinstall are illegal copies, meaning that the purchaser violates the law in using the programs. Related to this, Christians should avoid putting onto, or downloading from, electronic bulletin boards material that is copyrighted (as are the Society’s publications) and that is being copied without legal permission from the owners.”