“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15)
There are varieties of theft. “Thou shalt not steal” applies not only to property; many other things can be stolen — Reputation Theft, for example. This is a form of stealing as well, often depriving the owner of a most precious possession, his or her name. Talk is constantly used to steal a person’s position, his job, a friendship, or even a marriage. All of these thefts are far more serious in effect than the theft of property, yet rarely can be prosecuted and never compensated.
Idea Theft. Idea theft is often combined with deception to cover the theft, thus violating the ninth commandment as well. Researchers claim that a majority of American students cheat, and an increasing number of teachers accept the practice. At least one judge has ruled in favor of the cheater and against the “honor system” that requires students to report cheating. Plagiarism, “the appropriation or imitation of the language, ideas, and thoughts of another author, and representation of them as one’s original work,” is commonly practiced by students, but also by teachers who sometimes steal not only the grand ideas of other scholars, but also the work of their own students!
It may be difficult at times to know when the ideas of others have been so assimilated as to be one’s own, but the use of quotations from others, giving the impression that they are one’s own words, or the use of a concept that is unique to its originator clearly violates the commandments against lying and stealing.
Idea theft is not confined to schools, however, since the practice is rife in industry as well. How many technicians or junior executives have been hired away from their company in order to get at its secrets? So the theft is no longer merely private, but corporate.
A related way of stealing is to preempt the benefit due someone else. Copyright law is supposed to protect authors and artists from this kind of robbery, but all too often it is the church that steals the benefit due an author by duplicating musical scores for the choir or a “Peanuts” cartoon for the church bulletin.
There is no clear-cut principle to establish when an idea or piece of literature or art, published for the general public, becomes public domain. The limits of how long an author or artist deserves protection for additional benefit he or his descendants might get is a matter of judgment as to what is a fair return. In civilized society this judgment is corporate and established by law, though legitimately subject to change.
Laws do change, but the Christian is obligated to abide by the law as it stands, and copyright law is an honest effort to protect people from violations of the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”
Time Theft. Finally, it is possible, at least in the Western world, to steal time. The employee who comes late or fritters away time on the job is not, technically, stealing time, but the benefit contracted for and due his employer. This becomes more difficult as work returns to the home office and time becomes more fluid. Are we hired for time or task? But to carelessly or deliberately keep a person waiting for an appointment is felt by most people in Protestant nations to be a form of stealing. “Time is money,” we say, and to steal my time is to steal my money. This would apply equally to the teacher who is careless about the time of students or the physician the time of his clients, just as much as to the guest who holds up a dinner party.
But people in other cultures do not always share this view. In Latin and Eastern lands, for example, people are said to be event-oriented rather than time-oriented. People are not expected to be “on time” in starting or closing a meeting or engagement, nor even in getting the bus to the terminal on schedule. In such a culture, is tardiness an ethical matter? Or, instructed by others who are more casual about life, should Americans stop being so “hyper” about promptness?
For us the question becomes what will you and I do about these considerations? Are we careful to attribute ideas to their source? Or do we freely use others’ work thinking. “Well, it advances Kingdom ministry” so it doesn’t really matter? Do we honor copyright law? Do we steal time? Are we perpetually late, leaving others waiting? Are we taking time from our employers? How can you not be a thief in these areas?
 The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1968.