Not long ago, a New Yorker cartoon showed a woman, arms crossed and a stern look on her face, peering over her husband's shoulder at the computer. He turns to her pleadingly and says, "I swear I wasn't looking at smut. I was just stealing music."

It's easy to snicker at that cartoon, but the issue of online piracy is no laughing matter. It's been well- reported for years in the secular music industry, which has fought back by taking operations like Napster to court and even filing lawsuits against individuals who've illegally downloaded tunes.

But the problem isn't limited to the mainstream. Christian music is dealing with it too. According to at least one survey, Christians are just as likely to illegally download music as non-believers.

The Gospel Music Association has had enough. The GMA, sort of an umbrella organization that oversees much of Christian music, is fighting back—not with lawsuits and court dates, but with an awareness campaign that essentially asks consumers to examine their own habits and morals.

Adopting the slogan, "Millions of Wrong Don't Make a Right," the GMA is spreading the word in an attempt to curb the trends. They've partnered with the Christian Music Trade Association (CMTA) to develop a website to help accomplish that goal, and they waste no time getting to the point:

"Stealing music is the same as stealing anything else," the site proclaims. "It is illegal and the consequences are real—for you and for the music." Among the consequences noted are that "the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) can sue for as much as $150,000 per song illegally downloaded," many of those sued have settled out of court, for an average of $3,000.

The GMA and CMTA have decided not to pursue lawsuits, a la the RIAA. "They have their approach, and we have ours," says CMTA director Gabriel Aviles. "We're glad they're doing what they're doing, thought I don't know that I agree with their methodology. We're playing to the consumer who has more of a moral backdrop."

The GMA's push comes partly as a result of a 2004 study by The Barna Group, which found that Christian teens illegally reproduced and downloaded music with essentially the same regularity as their mainstream peers.

The Barna study indicated that only 10 percent of born-again Christian teens believe that copying CDs for friends and unauthorized downloading are morally wrong, compared to 6 percent of non-believers). Born-again Christians (77 percent) were just as likely as non-believers (81 percent) to have engaged in some form of music piracy over the previous six months.

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(Even our own readers at Christian Music Today are fessing up. In a recent poll, only 20 percent of readers said they believe that "all burning/ripping is illegal," while 34 percent said they regularly burn music for various personal reasons. In another poll, only 12 percent of readers said they'd refuse a burned copy of a CD offered by a friend; 31 percent said they'd keep the copy and not buy the music, and another 8 percent said they'd in turn burn a copy for another friend.)

"Either somebody's not teaching them very well or else this isn't on the radar screen," says GMA president John W. Styll, referring to the disregard of copyright laws surrounding an artist's recordings. "In this digital age, the concept of intellectual property needs to be better known. People don't think about it very much. They don't really think about the implications down the line."

The implications, at least for the Christian music industry, include declining sales over the last three years that "somewhat mirrored the decline in mainstream," says Styll. "Downloading and burning have been a big part. We thought surely Christian people are not breaking the law—at least not as flagrantly. But we found that not only was Christian teenage behavior not that much different (from the mainstream), but so was attitude." Indeed, only 1 in 13 teens (8 percent) view piracy as "morally wrong."

Scrambling for Solutions

Piracy has sent major record label conglomerates scrambling for solutions and trying to keep their once thriving businesses above water.

Bill Hearn, president and CEO of EMI/CMG (which includes the Sparrow and ForeFront labels), has some ideas about how to fight back.

"I've always said that the number one way to combat piracy is to create great music—culturally relevant music that people can't do without," says Hearn. "The second thing is to make sure our music is available wherever kids want to buy it, however they want to buy it, as conveniently, as affordably as possible. And that means we've got to have it at retail [and] at all the legitimate digital sites."

Though "legitimate digital sites" like Apple's iTunes—where consumers pay for legal downloads—are helping to put a dent in the problem, there's still much work to be done.

And it's not just the illegal downloads. It's also the age-old practice of simply copying an album for a friend. People used to do it with cassette tapes all the time; now they're doing it by burning CDs.

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Brandon Ebel has certainly noticed.

"Illegal downloading doesn't hurt us as much as CD burning," says Ebel, founder of independent label Tooth and Nail Records. "CD burning is way worse. It's brutal. I'll sit next to people on airplanes and some kids will have like 30 burned CDs, some of which will be my bands."

Will You Sign My Illegal CD?

Remarkably, as Ebel noticed, many of these consumers flaunt their "collections," seemingly unaware—or simply naïve—that they're showing off stolen goods.

Artists have certainly noticed. After shows, they frequently meet teens who brag about how many new songs they uploaded on their iPod, or how three of their friends each bought a different CD title, burned several copies and then distributed them amongst one another. Incredibly, fans are even sometimes asking artists to sign their burned CDs in post-concert autograph lines.

"Kids ask us to signed burned copies of stuff," says Gabe Combs of Plus One. "I don't know if these kids understand how much money it costs to make an album and how much it is worth. I think sometimes they get it free and don't think of the money that goes into it."

Also puzzling to artists is that consumers seem content with a mere disc and nothing else; a burned CD is just a silver disc, perhaps with the album title scribbled with a Sharpie. Why don't they want the whole package—liner notes, lyrics, photos, etc.—that come with a store-bought CD?

Veteran singer/songwriter/producer Charlie Peacock never imagined such a shift in consumer thinking.

"I definitely believe the whole consumer expectation about the product is changing," he says. "With the digital downloading, the song becomes the brand instead of the artist. It's kind of scary."

Stealing from the Rich?

One common misconception that could lead to piracy is the perception that musicians are living in luxury, and that the money lost from a few burned CDs really won't matter to them. But the reality is that most musicians—especially in the Christian market—are scraping to get by. Very few would qualify for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Steven Curtis Chapman, with millions of records sold, happens to be one of the rich ones, but he's just as hot and bothered by piracy as the artist who's simply hoping to pay this month's rent on time.

"The biggest issue in people's minds when they're confronted with file sharing as a form of stealing," says Chapman, "is that they see the lifestyles of the successful people live—the Michael W. Smiths and Steven Curtis Chapmans of the world. They think, They've got nice cars and big houses, they seem to be doing okay. What's one less record going to do to hurt them?

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"Well, the head guy of McDonald's probably does pretty well, but you still don't walk into a restaurant, yell 'Fire!' and grab 20 burgers. It's not only wrong, but there's a lot of other people who don't make a lot of money, flipping the burgers or driving the trucks, keeping the operations going. It affects them too, not just the CEO."

Peacock is even more to the point.

"It takes a long time for an artist to recoup the costs of making and marketing an album," he says. "It's basically a little more than eight cents a song. So if a band like Switchfoot loses more than 2 million songs to illegal downloads, that's a pretty good chunk of change—and that's not just Switchfoot's loss. Because I'm one of their co-publishers, they took money out of my pocket too, which ultimately affects my wife, my children, my neighbors, the ministries I work with. It trickles down.

"It's hard to believe that there are Christians out there that don't think this is stealing, or that they're so empty of empathy that they can't put themselves into other peoples' shoes and not see that it's affecting other people."

'Sharing' Isn't Caring

There's also the shaky logic that "sharing" music with friends is essentially a form of witnessing. After all, the thinking goes, I'm just giving my non-Christian friends a chance to hear God's Word.

Yes, but the GMA would say you're stealing to spread that word; why not just shoplift a few Bibles from your local Christian bookstores while you're at it?

Eddie DeGarmo heard enough of such rationalizing with last year's rock opera, !Hero.

"I had people e-mail us and say they were proud because they burned 20 copies of !Hero for their friends," says DeGarmo, formerly of DeGarmo & Key and now EMI/CMG's president of music publishing. "They thought they were doing a good thing, but it was the wrong thing to do.

"They call it 'file-sharing,' but that's really a soft-sell term, because you're actually file duplicating. If you were truly sharing, the other person would have to give it back. There's no difference between burning a CD, or [illegally] downloading from the Internet, than stuffing a CD down your pocket in Tower Records."

Part of the problem, notes DeGarmo, is that because music—not the discs or hard drives on which they reside, but the music itself—is so intangible, people don't really think of it as "property." And they have an even harder time getting their heads around the idea of "intellectual property"—the fact that the music, both the composition and the performance, is copyrighted and thus owned by someone.

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"Because it's intellectual property," says DeGarmo, "people have a hard time understanding that sometimes."

Start Spreadin' the News

So, what else can be done to curb the epidemic?

Among other things, the GMA is encouraging youth pastors and parents to monitor the Internet sites their teens visit, and encourage them to buy their music through legal retail means—whether it's actually purchasing CDs at music retailers (online or the traditional brick-and-mortar store), or buying legaldownloads at a variety of websites.

"If illegal reproduction is going on inside a youth group and inside of homes, then I think youth pastors and parents are obligated to deal with it," says EMI/CMG's Hearn. "At that point, it becomes an issue of character, an issue of integrity, an issue of spiritual accountability. There is no gray area here. It's wrong if you are illegally reproducing and distributing music. Youth pastors and parents have an obligation, as do we, to communicate about the right and wrong of it and what kind of impact it has on them, the consumer, and our artists."

Ebel and his fleet of artists (including Jeremy Camp, The Supertones, and Project 86) are working with youth leader resource Interlinc and youth pastors "to let kids know that it is wrong," he says.

Meanwhile, the GMA's "Millions of Wrongs Don't Make a Right" campaign is being heard on Christian radio through public service announcements from the likes of Chapman, Stacie Orrico and Shaun Groves. They've also distributed some 300,000 brochures at music festivals, concerts, retail chains and through mailings. Finally, inserts in major label-distributed CDs are including legal summaries of what can and cannot be done with copyrighted works, reminding consumers that unless they posses artistic ownership, they do not have the right for reproduction. Those leaflets also encourage legal downloading and direct purchases at the proper online locations.

The GMA's Styll says they're doing their best to get the word out, but it won't matter if people don't have a change of heart.

"There has to be a specific faith-based response," he says. "The law isn't different for Christians, but Christians are morally obligated to follow it."

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Without further research such as the Barna study—and no such research is planned at this time—it's hard to determine statistically the campaign's effectiveness. But Styll and the CMTA's Aviles say they've noticed, anecdotally, that people are taking it to heart.

Styll says many music fans responded negatively at first because they're being prodded to break past habits, but just as many are surprised at just how deep the ramifications of their behavior spread.

"No one would ever walk into Wal-Mart and steal a Bible to give it away on the street," Styll says. "People don't have the right to steal, and they don't have right to do so with digital property either."

"We're seeing some effectiveness," adds Aviles. "A lot of people are asking for more information—fans, youth leaders, parents, industry people. I feel like we're making inroads with people who are ignorant about the issue. Once they realize what they're doing is wrong, a lot of them are saying, 'I'm sorry. I didn't know it was wrong. I'll never do it again.'

"But there are plenty of people who know it's wrong, and will continue to do it anyway. We can't reach that person. We're never going to 'win' this battle per se; we just hope to make some dents in the problem. It takes a lot to change people's mindsets

"Will there be people we'll never convince? Of course. I don't want to say it's a losing battle, but it's an ongoing battle. It'll never go away, but we're educating and making an impact."