I have already endeavored to examine (and dismantle) the logical foundations of the idea of Intellectual Property, but before this writing the religious justification or refutation has gone largely untouched.
For this study I will be sourcing exclusively from the KJV translation of the Bible, which you can download for free here. I will be referencing by book and chapter only, and will quote sparing context, as the full text is available and searchable.
But first, I feel it is healthy to address a few of the…
Common Scriptures Referenced in Relation to Intellectual Property
Exodus 20 is often quoted as evidence for the validity of IP. However, this argument presumes both that ideas are property and can be stolen. I would say that neither are true, but either way this passage does not enlighten us on the definition of theft. It does, however, bring up a much more interesting point which I will go into further on, as regards both dishonesty and covetousness.
Romans 13 is another common evidence offered, specifically that if the government disapproves of something, it is wrong. However, the passage clearly states things the other way around. If something is right, the government will approve. Far from justifying IP (or any other injustice), this further encourages us to determine and do what is good without fear of the government.
Ephesians 4 is commonly used as another injunction (from the New Testament this time) to not steal, and has the same shortcomings as the Exodus 20 passage, but with an added benefit. It offers an implicit definition of theft! To do good things with one’s hands is offered as the opposite of theft, which has interesting implications. If anything, this too will brace against IP, as demonstrated below.
Of these three preliminaries, two beg the questions of what the Bible says about theft and the mind… So let’s explore that.
How does the Bible Define Theft?
The scriptures do not contain what we would ordinarily recognize as a dictionary. However, the poetic form of much of the old testament is that of similar concepts. In this poetry, like ideas are paired, and dislike ideas are contrasted. Therefore, the books of Job, Psalms and Proverbs may be used to discern the association of various terms. Fortunately, there is a passage in each of these books which speaks to theft:
- Job 5 “Whose harvest the hungry eateth up, and taketh it even out of the thorns, and the robber swalloweth up their substance.”
- Psalms 62 “Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them.”
- Proverbs 21 “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a vanity tossed to and fro of them that seek death. The robbery of the wicked shall destroy them; because they refuse to do judgment.”
So we see that the scriptures mean by “robbery” the oppressive acquisition of wealth which belongs to another. If perhaps these passages alone do not convince you, peruse the below for further indications of the meaning of theft in the Bible.
- Exodus 22 “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep… If a man shall deliver unto his neighbour money or stuff to keep, and it be stolen out of the man’s house; if the thief be found, let him pay double. If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges, to see whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods.”
- Leviticus 19 “Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another… Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.”
- Ephesians 4 “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.”
- Obadiah “If thieves came to thee, if robbers by night, (how art thou cut off!) would they not have stolen till they had enough? if the grapegatherers came to thee, would they not leave some grapes?”
- Ezekiel 22 “The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully.”
- Malachi 3 “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”
- Isaiah 10 “Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!”
So much for the general passages on theft. All have to do with physical goods, and none imply copying ideas or representations are in any way associated with theft. Now for a few passages that I found particularly interesting.
The first is from the Old Testament prophets:
- Jeremiah 23 “I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that steal my words every one from his neighbour.”
This passage in Jeremiah seems to be dealing with words under the act of stealing! Very pertinent. There are three ways I can see this being interpreted. It is talking about:
- Lying. Prophets are saying their words come from God when in fact they are just repeating what they heard from their neighbors.
- Withholding information. God’s word would have come to their neighbors, had the prophets not withheld it.
- Theft. The neighbors used to have the Lord’s words, but the words are taken away by the prophets.
As interesting as these distinctions are, they mean the same thing for the purposes of our investigation. This passage says that it is stealing when a prophet takes God’s Word away from his neighbors. Put more generally, stealing is preventing ideas (“my words”) produced by party A (“the LORD”) from reaching or being held by party B (“his neighbor”). This is the exact opposite of normal IP phrasing, where “stealing” would be copying ideas from party A and distributing them to party B without compensating party A. So we see in one of the very few cases where the Bible treats ideas as a subject for theft, the example runs exactly against the practice of IP.
Now let’s move to a New Testament example, and something a bit more concrete:
- Acts 19 “Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth. Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth. And when they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians… And when the townclerk had appeased the people, he said, Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter? Seeing then that these things cannot be spoken against, ye ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rashly. For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess. Wherefore if Demetrius, and the craftsmen which are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them implead one another.”
Here we have a classic case of defamation which touches very near the heart of the issues of intellectual property. Sculptors are upset because their trade is being devalued by the doctrines of Paul. It is more a case of slander (here written “blasphemers”) than infringement, yet we see that the city official dismisses even this charge. It seems that even loss of profit does not amount to either theft or defamation. As IP concepts are so often championed on the grounds of avoiding lost profit, this seems significant.
Finally, we have three utterances by our Lord Himself, which I will attempt to explore with the proper respect:
- John 10 “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” and again, a little later in the same chapter “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy“
This is the first and only passage which I could find that indicated theft not by the outcome, but by the method of execution. The thief and robber is marked not by taking what belongs to another, but by the method whereby he approaches others possessions. Of course, in the same chapter the thief’s goals are revealed. So we see by this passage that – to the owner of the sheep at least – theft, slaughter, and destruction are all the purview of the thief. It seems that the important part is not that the thief gains possession, but rather that the original owner does not retain possession. This goes, I believe, to the heart of the matter.
- Matthew 6 “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.“
Here too Jesus, blessed be His name for His excellent righteousness and love toward us, I say our Lord stresses that decay and theft have similar outcomes, as they take away from the owner. It is better to lay stock in what can not be taken from us.
I mention too that a great many of the passages on theft which I have omitted are directions to not steal and lie. It does seem significant that lying and false witness are mentioned so often adjacent in the scriptures, but I would attribute this to their clear distinction of subjects, rather than a shared one. Stealing is lying about ownership of physical goods, and lying is stealing the understanding of truth. However, as these passages do little to enlighten our understanding of the terminology, I pass over them for now.
So it seems that the idea of “Intellectual property” is nowhere presented in the present popular conception. A proof by omission is, of course, nearly impossible, so I do not place undue weight on this. Instead I observe that the region associated with theft is wealth, and then move to an examination of the intellect itself, to see if we can find traces of ownership (and therefore the capacity for theft) in such regions.
What does the Bible say about the Mind?
This is a vast topic, and I will not attempt an exhaustive examination here. Instead I welcome you to do your own reading while I resort simply to generalities.
From my reading the mind is a place of joy and grief, plans and hopes, good and evil, memory and forgetfulness, of will and determination, of trust and suspicion, pride and humility.
The mind is most often associated with the error of lies and deceit. Nowhere did I encounter even a hint that one could own or steal an idea.
So much for the mind.
A Few Other Thoughts on IP in the Bible
To arguments in the vein of “this is how everyone does things these days” I respond with Exodus 23, a short ways after the famous Ten Commandments. IIRC there are many other passages conveying a similar sentiment, especially in writings of The Prophets.
The scriptures also explicitly call for actions which countermand applying IP attitudes to the Bible. For a major example, see Deuteronomy 6 where massive and widespread duplication is not only exonerated, but explicitly commanded. And, of course, the translation of the Bible into various languages (including the English version I used for this research) is an example of this mindset at work. The success of the Bible could be attributed (if Divine factors are set aside) in a large part to a lack of intellectual property restrictions placed on it by its Author (or, if you prefer, authors).
In a not entirely coincidental parallel, Jesus speaks on similar matters in Matthew 5 essentially saying that the spread and practice of (very specific) good ideas is the work of those “great in the kingdom of heaven“.
In contrast, Jesus indicates in Matthew 8 that the beneficiaries of a miracle should not tell anyone except a specific set of officials. While this seems a poor foundation for Intellectual Property as a whole, it is, I think, an interesting observation. It is also interesting to observe that His command is largely ignored.
The apostle Paul, who could have asked for compensation for conveying the special information he received from God, as well as the fruits of his years of meditation on the Scriptures (Galatians 1 and 2), decided not to do so (1 Corinthians 9), instead supporting himself through manual labor and encouraging others to do the same (1 Thessalonians 4). He also recommends that it doesn’t matter how ideas are spread, so long as the idea itself gets out (Philippians 1), which runs counter to the modern concept of approved distribution networks.
For things that really need to keep a secret, the scriptures demonstrate a solution at work in Revelation 10. Specifically, if you don’t want people to know about it, don’t tell anyone; Certainly don’t write it down!
What is IP then?
It is simply “a vanity tossed to and fro of them that seek death.”
As far as I can discern, IP is a justification for theft. The practice of Intellectual Property dictates that one person may demand the fruit of the labor of another under the threat of violence. According to all the examples and principles I could find in the Bible, this is oppression and robbery. Worse, it is theft masquerading as the punishment of theft. Therefore, those who uphold this idea are in danger of committing both the errors of stealing and false witness. It is a practice unjust in exercise and unfounded in principle, and thus it is our duty to always and everywhere despise it in whatever form it takes, whether that be copyright, patent, or any other name which thieves give to mask their guilt.
This brings us back to Exodus 20, which illuminates the true motives behind IP; In a word, covetousness. The entire modern idea is a lie founded on envy and used to justify robbery.
Ephesians 4 gives us the alternative, which is to do what is good with our hands. And how do we know what is good? By our own experience, or by emulating the actions of others. So we see that “IP Infringement” far from being theft is instead the solution to theft.
As always, I am interested to hear your feedback on this matter. It may be that I have overlooked a critical passage which bears examination. I doubt that any single evidence may overthrow the weight of the accumulated evidence which I have laid out, but love hopes all things!
God’s blessings on you in your search for truth and justice,
Simply stated,God has blessed us with the ability to imagine, create.
Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.
Thank you, Paul, for presenting this as it has piqued my thoughts of what God has given and how we use it.
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It’s hard to be nice when grownups really want something. That’s how robbers are made.
I like ideas, because they can’t be stolen, and you can keep your ideas in your brain.
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The standard understanding seems to be well represented by this quote from Graham Starck 2020-01-22 on stream, talking about a game idea for battle royalle prop-hunt, “I’m sorry I said it out loud. Someone’s going to make it now, and I’m going to get nothing from it.”
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