Honesty Tip: Avoid Pirated and Stolen Goods

A number of years ago in a distant ward, a counselor in a bishopric told me how he was approached by someone on the street selling watches. The sales pitch was straightforward: “Wanna buy a luxury watch? It’s cheap because I stole it.” I was shocked as this member of the Church then explained that he bought the watch for $40 and went to a jeweler to see what it was worth. The jeweler took one look at the watch and said, “Let me guess. You bought this from someone who said they had stolen it, right? These are worth about $7. They are shipped here in bulk from China.” Ha ha. We were all supposed to chuckle and continue our work, which at the moment involved processing tithing donations (I was a clerk at the time). But I was troubled, wondering how this man could be comfortable with having such stewardship in the Church.

The same watch scam continues all over America today, though the thieves selling the watches may not overtly state that the goods are stolen. But they are stolen, for these pirated goods violating the trademarks and patents of reputable companies represent some degree of theft of their brand and intellectual property. To profit from the illegal pirating of goods is simply wrong. To purchase counterfeit goods, or goods that were obviously produced by outright theft of intellectual property and trademarks is wrong.

Unfortunately, counterfeiting of goods has become rampant. Theft of intellectual property is rampant. And some of it is institutionalized and made to appear acceptable. When you purchase a $40 DVD player, for example, you can be sure that the foreign company that produced it has not paid the over $20 of royalties (and perhaps much more) that should be due at a minimum to the holders of the patents governing DVD technology. OK, maybe we don’t need to make WalMart’s problem in sourcing become our moral dilemma. But I would like to encourage all of us to do our best to avoid the temptation to buy goods that are stolen, or based on some form of theft.

Oh, and did I mention Ebay? When you buy a commercially available consumer product there for far less than its normal retail price – like razor blades, for example – you are probably dealing with stolen goods. A thief can walk out of Gillette warehouse carrying thousands of dollars of razor blades. Then what? Why Ebay, of course. (But this does not mean that heavily discounted goods were stolen, but certain product categories are subjects of rampant theft. And yes, there are many legitimate outlets of discounted and often discontinued goods.)

Update: One particular problem is ripped off DVDs and music. For organized crime groups, it is now more profitable to deal in pirated DVDs than illegal drugs. When you buy DVDs of hot movies from a street vendor at one-half or one-fourth the price of the actual DVD, or if you are buying it before the official release of the DVD, you are almost certainly buying a product of organized crime. And yes, it’s a stolen product. Not that the physical DVD was stolen from someone’s warehouse, but the content of the DVD was stolen from its owner and illegally reproduced and sold, without the owner receiving any compensation for his or her investment and creation. To enjoy these stolen goods (and to support organized crime) surely must be considered a sin.

“Wanna buy something cheap? It’s stolen.”


Author: Jeff Lindsay

85 thoughts on “Honesty Tip: Avoid Pirated and Stolen Goods

  1. I buy a lot of stuff on e-bay, mostly books, generally used books at prices over what Half Price Books sells them for (when they are in stock).

    I’m not sure that all purchases from ebay or wal-mart constitute theft, though it is an interesting concept.

    Of course it never occurred to me to buy razor blades on ebay.

  2. I can certainly see how certain high demand goods were likely be stolen (computers, watches, jewelry). However, I bought a Hebrew Lexicon from a Christian bookstore for 1/3 the price it cost at the BYU bookstore. Was it stolen? I’m doubting that there’s a black market out there for Hebrew lexicons…

    Could it possible that your ward leader did not take the seller seriously, thinking perhaps that the “it’s stolen” was just giving a ruse to make the supposedly high value of the watch more convincing? That would explain why the leader would have even bothered to go to a watch maker to verify the facts of the seller.

  3. As one who’s living is made by creating intellectual property, I’ve been fighting this idea for a while when it comes to music online. I seem to be the only one around, including many church members that I talk to, that has taken a firm stance that downloading non-purchased music from the ‘net is stealing. I’ve encountered a lot of rolling eyes on this one. For me, it’s more personal as I’ve had my artwork used without permission. I was lucky and was able to get the user to pay the fee, but many artist aren’t able to do that, thus losing money.

  4. As another holder of intellectual property I don’t buy the idea that copyright violations are “stealing”. Unethical yes, and it’s correct that they should be illegal, but when someone steals, the victim loses something.

    With copyright violation the only possible “loss” would be a potential fee that in many cases wouldn’t have been realized anyway.

    It just doesn’t mesh with common sense to try to equate illegal copying to physical stealing. Imagine if you had a device that could create copies of physical things. If you used such a device to copy a brand new BMW and drove away in it (leaving the original BMW undisturbed) then would that be considered stealing also? Of course not. It’d likely be considered wrong, and would probably be criminalized, but it also wouldn’t fall under the category of stealing.

  5. I think you took your argument just a bit too far. I was mostly with you until the eBay comment. You seem to be implying that people should not buy things that are heavily discounted because that discount may be an indication that the item was stolen. However, there are many other plausible explanations for why something might be for sale at a substantial discount.

    As for the comment about “copying” a BMW, I believe it misses the point. The issue is not so much the taking of the copy, but the theft of intellectual property. In the case of the copied BMW, you would not be stealing the car owner’s property (the original BMW), you would be stealing the car maker’s intellectual property (the design of that car) by making a copy.

  6. You missed my point entirely, to make it more obvious lets use a very simple object, a pencil. Now suppose I use my device to create a copy of the original pencil and go off and write my assignment. Did I steal the pencil? Is the pencil maker or the pencil owner suddenly finding themselves one pencil short?

  7. Anonymous says the owner of a copyright doesn’t necessarily lose anything because he might not have received a gain, since the future purchase might or might not have happened. But this ignores the fact that the copier is, himself, avoiding the purchase. The fact that the copyright violator has chosen to take the product for free means he does want it, and that he would have had to pay for it if he had followed the law. So there’s nothing wispy or theoretical about the lost sale.

  8. Not completely true, ltbugaf, in the heady days of Napster the First, I download oodles of stuff I had no intention of buying, ever, and then deleted them.

    However, since the advent of iTunes Music Store and others of similar vein, I purchase the few songs I am interested in. My song downloading has dropped to trickle because of that.

    The usage of Napster the First falls into social pressure, people didn’t want to pay 18+ dollars for a CD, Napster provided a free solution, so people flocked.

    The market, thankfully, responded and now you can get music on the cheap, legally.

    This in now way absolves personal sins, if any, but the social context is interesting.

  9. A pencil has no intellectual property constraints that I know of, but if it did, by copying it you would have been stealing the design of the pencil, not the pencil itself. Stealing is not defined as causing the owner to have less of something. Stealing means taking something that is not rightfully yours, and in the case of intellectual property that means ideas, designs, etc.

  10. Assuming the pencil design is in the public domain (as it probably is) and you use your own legally purchased materials and your own workmanship to make it, it’s yours. No theft has occurred. But if you then put someone else’s trademark on the pencil, you have made a counterfeit and have stolen their intellectual property (the trademark). And if you sell millions of them, your are committing a felony and an act of stupidity, since you have chosen one of the least profitable counterfeits imaginable.

    Instead of a pencil, if you make pirated DVDs, you have taken the work and intellectual property of someone else without their permission and deprived them of control of their property and of the income that should have been theirs for others to acquire those goods. It’s theft.

    And Roy, this post makes no assumptions at all about what you do or not accept. Whether you accept my car as mine, or my house, my patented technology, my registered trademarks, or my copyrighted material, is entirely irrelevant. The law has been established and those things are not yours to take without providing compensation to the owner. One’s feelings about intellectual property are irrelevant and provide no excuse for theft.

  11. Respect for intellectual property is enshrined in the Constitution and is arguably one of the key factors that took the world out of the Middle Ages. In those dark days, there was no legal protection for inventions, so they had to be kept secret to protect the investment and intellectual capital of the owner. Secrets were maintained in guilds and apprentices had to work for years to learn the secrets of a trade. This lack of protection for intellectual property kept knowledge restrained and in the dark, and hindered progress. The establishment of respect for intellectual property with legal tools such as patents provided incentives for inventors to not only invent, but to share their knowledge with the world in the form of a published patent, thus benefiting all of society in exchange for a limited monopoly on the patented invention. The US patent system arguably has been the key to Americans rapid rise to economic and technological greatness. The steady weakening of that system is not healthy, in my opinion.

    When there are no property rights, there are no incentives to create and invent.

  12. Let’s not overlook computer games and other software. That, from my experience, is one of the biggest problems in this area.

  13. “Intellectual property” doesn’t exist in the constitution any more than “separation of church and state”. Copyright and patent laws (and the DMCA) have tilted so far away from the average person that the current status mocks the original consitution.

    Just ask Lawrence Lessig or read his book “Free Culture”.

    Copyright infringement is not theft. It is illegal but it is not theft.

  14. emarkp, I’m afraid that for some, morality is defined by man’s laws (at least in part).

    Jeff, I’m all for property rights. That is why I’m against intellectual “property,” which drastically undermines them.

    As far as I know, their is no historical basis for the connection you make between IP and progress. If there is, please do enlighten me.

  15. By the way, here is a good paper detailing many of the reasons that IP is incompatible with property rights, in case anyone’s interested. It does a better job than I could of explaining my reasoning, so I’ll leave it at that and try to stay out of any further contention. 🙂

  16. In response to “At 4:48 PM, February 08, 2006, Mormanity said…”

    “The US patent system arguably has been the key to Americans rapid rise to economic and technological greatness.”

    The orginal patent legality was elegant and just: 7 years. Now isn’t it lifetime + 50 years?

    Doesn’t this perversion of the original intent stifle and weaken the system?

  17. Yes, we’re obligated to follow the law, but let’s not get that confused with the mistaken idea that people have some God-given natural right to their “intellectual property.” I wish we could just get rid of the misleading term “intellectual property” and focus on simply making a system that maintains incentives for creativity with as little stifling of the freedoms of others as possible. In my view we’re way past that point, with IP law getting more and more onerous, mostly in order to protect a few special interests.

    BTW, patents now last around 20 years, depending on the product category…it’s copyright that has been ridiculously extended to 75 years plus the lifetime. The problem with patents isn’t that they’re too long, it’s that they’ve been extended to types of inventions where they are not suited (e.g. software), rather than just applying to areas where they’re useful (e.g. pharmaceuticals.)

  18. Making copies of things that you would not have purchased anyway does steal from the inventor or artist.

    By having illegal copies out there, it dilutes, and therefore reduces, the value of legitimate copies or impressions.

    Using a Star-Trek replicator to replicate a BMW does hurt the BMW company because it just diluted the value of all other BMW’s out there.

    It would be just like how counterfeit money dilutes the value of real money.

    It would be just like how third world countries have hyper-inflation because they just print up more currency to run the government, and printing more currency with nothing to back it dilutes its value, hence inflation.

  19. My father has had musical compositions stolen from him, so I am definitely of the opinion that the creator should have rights to his creation.

  20. emarkp says, ” ‘Intellectual property” doesn’t exist in the constitution any more than ‘separation of church and state.’ “

    I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Article I Section 8 states,

    “The Congress shall have Power…
    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”

  21. “Using a Star-Trek replicator to replicate a BMW does hurt the BMW company because it just diluted the value of all other BMW’s out there.”

    Building a bunch of Mercedes also dilutes the value of the other BMWs. Would you say that the Mercedes company is “stealing” from BMW? Of course not.

    Intellectual property rights are there simply because the law grants creators/innovators a temporary *monopoly* in order to give incentives for innovation, not because making use of these ideas would be “stealing.”

  22. Thanks for your comments, Jeff.

    Admittedly, I have a bias, as I make my living from producing intellectual property. But it still amazes me how many people, even seemingly faithful LDS, have no moral problems with such theft.

    Your mention of eBay reminded me of the time that my teenage son bought an item from eBay that turned out to have been stolen (a high school student was selling items stolen from his school). My son was disappointed when he learned he’d have to return the stolen property to its legal owner (although in theory he could have sued the seller to get his money back). As it turned out, the thief made a restitution agreement with the school, so he was able to keep the item. So fortunately, he was able to learn some lessons from the experience without it costing him anything but some momentary disappointment.

  23. ltbugaf, you missed my point. The first amendment says:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. That statement has morphed into “separation of church and state” (with some help from the letters of Jefferson) and has been taken far beyond the original language of the constitution.

    By the same token “intellectual property” is a phrase invented to link natural property and the obvious rights of ownership thereof to the arbitrary rights assigned to patents, trademarks, and copyright. Yes, the constitution gives the congress the right to make those laws, but there’s no such thing as “intellectual property”.

    Oh, and I write software for a living, so I understand the problems that unlicensed copying present to me directly. However, I’m still clear-headed enough to see the difference between natural property rights and arbitrary rights granted by congress.

    Note also that since congress keeps extending the length of copyright for items already copyrighted, it can be argued that copyright is no longer being granted for a “limited time” but rather an unlimited time. That was Lessig’s argument before the Supreme Court of the US. Unfortunately the SC didn’t uphold the constitution.