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It is fairly common to see Exodus 20:15 ("Thou shalt not steal") cited as Biblical support for the idea that copying creative works without permission is theft, or, in other words, the claim that actions that are considered copyright infringement would be sinful even if they were not illegal.

An example of this view can be found in James Russel Lowell's poem "International Copyright":

In vain we call old notions fudge,
    And bend our conscience to our dealing;
The Ten Commandments will not budge,
    And stealing will continue stealing.

Is this Biblically accurate? Does Exodus 20:15, properly interpreted, apply to what is today called "intellectual property," or only to tangible property?

Because the Bible does not specifically address copyright or any similar concept, I would think that this would be determined by whether or not "theft" was commonly understood to include copying of creative works at the time the Ten Commandments were given.

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  • I'm afraid this is beyond the scope of this site. Commented Feb 2 at 18:52
  • Let me see whether I can rescue this question by rephrasing it, Dan.
    – Dieter
    Commented Feb 2 at 19:17
  • @DanFefferman how is it off-topic? I'm asking if a common interpretation of a Bible verse is accurate; isn't that hermeneutics? If the last paragraph is the issue, then I could just remove that; same with the Lowell quote.
    – Someone
    Commented Feb 2 at 19:21
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    @someone, I've restated the question to make it primarily a question of interpretation (hermeneutics) and I'm working on my answer to you. I like your quoted poem. It also reminds me of "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" by Kipling.
    – Dieter
    Commented Feb 2 at 19:30
  • I retracted my "close" vote. Not sure if this was because of Dieter's edits. Commented Feb 4 at 17:15

4 Answers 4

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The pertinent Hebrew verb in Ex 20:15 is גָּנַב (ganab) which has a range of meanings that include (eg, from the NASB translation):

actually stolen (1), brought to me stealthily (1), carries away (1), deceive (1), deceived (1), deceiving (1), fact kidnapped (1), kidnapping (1), kidnaps (1), steal (9), steal away (1), stealing (1), steals (3), steals him away (1), stealth (1), stole (3), stole away (1), stolen (8), stolen you away (1).

The word occurs 40 times in the OT, eg, Gen 30:33, 31:19, 20, 26, 27, 30, 32, 39, 40:15, 44:8, Ex 20:15, 21;16, 22:1, 22:7, 12, Lev 19:11, Deut 24:7, Josh 7:11, 2 Sam 15:6, 19:3, etc.

Note that, at its heart, the act of stealing something is an act of deception; by taking something that does not belong to the thief and then embarking on an act of extended deception by pretending that the "something' belongs to the thief and not true owner. That is stealing not only involves theft (8th commandment) but also deception in contravention of the 9th commandment as well.

I see no reason why stealing intellectual property should not contravene this commandment as any other physical object, whether it is legal or otherwise. After all, stealing intellectual property is also a deception because it represents oneself other than in the true light.

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  • Good answer, +1. And with that, congratulations on breaking 100k reputation! Quite the accomplishment. Commented Feb 6 at 4:49
  • @HoldToTheRod - Ha Ha - many thanks
    – Dottard
    Commented Feb 6 at 6:13
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Form the Strong's Hebrew Concordance:

  • ganab: to steal
  • Original Word: גָּנַב
  • Part of Speech: Verb
  • Transliteration: ganab
  • Phonetic Spelling: (gaw-nab')
  • Definition: to steal

NASB Translation

actually stolen (1), brought to me stealthily (1), carries away (1), deceive (1), deceived (1), deceiving (1), fact kidnapped (1), kidnapping (1), kidnaps (1), steal (9), steal away (1), stealing (1), steals (3), steals him away (1), stealth (1), stole (3), stole away (1), stolen (8), stolen you away (1).

Gen. 30:33; Gen. 31:19; Gen. 31:20; Gen. 31:26; Gen. 31:27; Gen. 31:30; Gen. 31:32; Gen. 31:39; Gen. 40:15; Gen. 44:8; Exod. 20:15; Exod. 21:16; Exod. 22:1; Exod. 22:7; Exod. 22:12; Lev. 19:11; Deut. 5:19; Deut. 24:7; Jos. 7:11; 2 Sam. 15:6; 2 Sam. 19:3; 2 Sam. 19:41; 2 Sam. 21:12; 2 Ki. 11:2; 2 Chr. 22:11; Job 4:12; Job 21:18; Job 27:20; Prov. 6:30; Prov. 9:17; Prov. 30:9; Jer. 7:9; Jer. 23:30; Hos. 4:2; Obad. 1:5; Zech. 5:3


Exodus 20:15 NKJV

15 “You shall not steal.

Steven Cole - This command acknowledges the right to own private property. It forbids all theft, robbery, extortion, embezzlement, and taking bribes. It prohibits cheating on your income taxes, as well as welfare and Medicare fraud. You violate this command if you steal intellectual property through plagiarism or copyright violations. It’s wrong to steal office supplies or equipment, or to steal time from your employer. It’s sin to incur debt that you know you are unable to pay back. While sometimes bankruptcy is unavoidable, Christians should do their best to pay creditors what is owed. (See my message [4/6/08], “To Cure a Thief.”) (Obeying The Big Ten Exodus 20:1-17)

Steal (01589)(ganab) means to carry away, to take that which belongs to another and generally signifies taking something that belongs to another secretly, without consent. Thus to steal is a nuance distinguished from the concept "to rob" in the sense that stealing is done in secret. There are other Hebrew verbs for violent aspect of theft.

According to Capitol Ministries:

“You shall not steal.”

Exodus 20:15 presumes that people own something that can be stolen. For instance, I cannot take my neighbor’s donkey because it belongs to my neighbor. Or as a modern example includes intellectual property. You cannot search through my email files and give them to whomever you choose unbeknownst to me; to do so is to steal another’s property.

According to THEOLOGY OF WORK

Stealing occurs in many forms besides robbing someone. Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft.

Likewise, profiting by taking advantage of people’s fears, vulnerabilities, powerlessness, or desperation is a form of stealing because their consent is not truly voluntary. Violating patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property laws is stealing because it deprives owners of the ability to profit from their creation under the terms of civil law.

I'll conclude with my thoughts:

I think the command, You shall not steal, includes all and any type of theft. While man may not have known yet of intellectual property theft and copyrights, God certainly did. Was copying another's work a sin? Well, it was if it in some way stole from them! That's why I like the definition: Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft. In this definition, intellectual property would be included.

It most certainly is a sin now according to Romans 13:1-2.

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  • Would what is considered copyright infringement be covered if there were no copyright laws? For example, for the millennia between the invention of writing and the development of copyright, was copying others' writings without claiming credit a sin? The idea that people own ideas that they develop and should be able to control the use, other than expecting others to give them credit, seems to be a modern concept. I am not aware of any country having a law similar to modern copyright prior to Britain's passage of the Statute of Anne in 1710.
    – Someone
    Commented Feb 2 at 21:01
  • Copyright and patent law is intended to protect for the work of creative people. Apparently, forgeries (writing in another person's name) occurred in the New Testament when Paul had to sign his letters with a distinctive signature. One could also argue that altering scriptures is creating a "derivative work," using today's legal language, which was condemned by Jesus in Revelation. The bottom line is that those who claim to follow scriptures should abide by the laws of the land (Jesus paid taxes to Rome) except where they specifically conflict with scriptures and our consciences.
    – Dieter
    Commented Feb 2 at 22:38
  • @Someone It's a good question, but one that is difficult to answer. I think the command, You shall not steal, includes all and any type of theft. While man may not have known yet of intellectual property theft and copyrights, God certainly did. Was copying another's work a sin? Well, it was if it in some way stole from them! Which is why I like the definition: "Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft." It most certainly is a sin now according to Romans 13:1-2.
    – Jason_
    Commented Feb 3 at 1:14
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To properly interpret this commandment, it's important to look at it in context with all the other places in scripture where it's used.

A long list of references can be reviewed here: https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1589.htm

From that list, we can see that the Hebrew word, ganab, as steal is applied in scriptures to

• Objects (silver, idols, etc.)

• Animals

• Humans (kidnapping/man-stealing)

• Stealth/stealthy behavior/deceit (2 Samuel 19:3, Genesis 31:20)

• Hearts/affections (2 Samuel 15:6)

Regarding interpretation, I'm also reminded of the highly rated Polish miniseries, called The Decalogue, where each of the 10 Commandments are explored in a modern setting (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092337/).

In a modern setting, many additional applications of stealing could be considered:

• Time from an employer

• Ideas from a colleague

• Plagiarism

• Personal information (selling to cyber-criminals)

• Identity as in impersonation

• Cheating on taxes

• Intellectual property such as artwork, program code, etc.

I suppose that even things such as creating and selling tools for theft such as rootkits and renting malware would fall under the general category.

But a strict interpretation of this commandment can be problematic. What if someone's work inspires you to create something similar? Musicians often run into this problem.

Deuteronomy 25:4 states, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain." Then, consider 1 Corinthians 9:8-10 ESV, where Paul writes

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.

To James Russel Lowell's poem that you quoted, "fudging" is simply rationalizing a behavior. For example, "I'm not stealing something, I'm just borrowing it for a while as long as I 'intend' to return it later."

So all this, points to hermeneutics as determining the original intent of a commandment rather than choosing a legalistic rationalization.

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The ancient world did not have a legal concept of intellectual property, so despite containing over 600 commands, the Torah unsurprisingly does not include an explicit prohibition on taking thy neighbor's IP.

However, the verb translated "steal", גָּנַב ("ganab") is a fairly broad concept. Strong's Concordance lists the following English equivalents:

carry away, indeed, secretly bring, steal away, get by stealth A primitive root; to thieve (literally or figuratively); by implication, to deceive -- carry away, X indeed, secretly bring, steal (away), get by stealth.

When Paul recites a series of commandments to the Romans (see 13:9), including the prohibition on stealing, he uses the verb κλέπτω ("klepto").

Both the Hebrew and the Greek verbs used in "thou shalt not steal" regularly convey a dimension of stealth - the idea being that one is taking something without the owner's knowledge or permission.

The manner of the taking is not particularly relevant. The focus is that the owner is being deprived of their right to decide how their possession is used.

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