Learning more about the prohibition against theft
An adult Gentile is warned about the prohibition of theft, and can be subject to capital punishment in a court of law for this transgression. This applies whether one forcefully robs or secretly steals money or any movable property, or kidnaps a person, or withholds the wages of his employee or other similar acts, or even an employed harvester who eats from his employer’s produce without permission to do so. For all such acts, a Gentile is liable for a capital sin, and one who commits any of these types of transgressions is considered as a robber. (pg 564-565, Chapter 1, The Prohibition of Theft, The Divine Code by Rabbi Moshe Weiner, edited with elucidations by Dr Michael Schulman)
Reading this in conjunction with the footnotes and with the other books on the Seven Commandments, it appears that theft has to do with the possession and ownership of property, including money, animals, people, etc. It is the removing or withholding of an item from the rightful without proper consent from the rightful owner.
However, for an action forbidden by government legislation to constitute the capital Noahide offense of theft, it must conform to the basic definition from Torah – that ownable property was physically taken from or withheld from its rightful owner. (Part 2, Section A, Stealing, Guide for the Noahide – A Complete Manual for Living by the Noahide Laws, by Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, the Kindle version)
So belongings in general are protected by this prohibition. I can’t go to your backyard, chop down a tree and take it away. And when it comes to using false weights and fraud, the prohibited act is the result of such things, i.e., the taking of someone else’s property and belongings. So that means if I use false weights, it is not the fact that I possess false weights that will make me guilty with regards to the prohibition of theft, but it is when I use those weights to fraudulently take someone else’s goods.
A question then comes to mind: can I steal an idea? The answer would be no. It’s not an object that can be physically taken from someone (unless – as a teacher of mine said – I associated the idea with the physicality of his brain and extracted that part of his brain). If I’m talking to a friend, sharing my idea, and a stranger who I’m not talking to overhears and forms the same idea and uses it, no theft has taken place. No physical removal of an object has taken place.
What about if someone writes a book and then I use my own paper and pen and write down the contents of that book for my own usage? Is that theft? According to the root understanding of theft according to the Seven Laws, no! Because I haven’t physical removed the book itself from the originator. I used my own tools and recreated the book. What if someone writes a song and plays it, and then I learn to play that song and play it at a gig somewhere else without the writer’s knowledge or consent? Is that theft according to the Seven Laws? No! Because I haven’t physical removed the song from the original writer.
This has further repercussions. For example, if I copy a file that was supposedly someone else’s, I haven’t stolen it. That person still has their file, I just used my own “material,” a memory drive, and configured it to resemble the other person’s file. Watching or using copyrighted material that has been copied onto your device or someone else’s isn’t classed as theft according to the Seven Commandments.
It’s important to remember that I’m only discussing the Seven Commandments here, the legal stuff. I’m not talking about what is right and wrong morally per se. I’m not discussing moral principles or ideals. This article does not deal with whether it is good or bad, with regards to moral ideals, to copy someone else’s material and use it for your own purposes without that person’s consent. It only deals with whether such actions would be deemed as those things that could cause a person to be liable under a possible death penalty in a righteous court according to the Seven Commandments. So if a modern human court convicted a person of infringement of copyright for watching movies that some production company has not allowed in a certain country or website, or for copying such movies and making them available for others to view on his website, then would that same act make a person guilty of theft according to the Seven Commandments? Based on the basic definition of theft given above, the answer would be “no!”
Now some may ask “well, David, doesn’t any of the Seven Commandments obligate a person to listen to whatever the government commands?” This would be asked in order to show that as the government forbids some things, like infringements of copyright, then if a person breaks government law, they are in turn breaking the Seven Commandments. With joy and relief in my heart, I would answer that there is no basic law of the Seven Commandments that commands a non-Jew to obey whatever the government commands. Although some people who teach the Seven Commandments say that the universal law of Justice includes some requirement to “observe secular law,” this is not part of the core law of Justice, especially in times like today where countries and governments do not uphold the main corpus of the Seven Commandments. If disobeying a secular law does not make one liable for a potential death penalty at the hands of a righteous Gentile court which upholds the Seven Commandments reflecting a good government (if such a thing is possible) which provides such a court, then how much more is it true when there is no such thing as a righteous Gentile court which is provided by national governments that more or less spit on much of what the Seven Commandments teaches as forbidden?
So this is just some of my gleanings on the subject of theft after discussing it with my teachers. And there is so much, so much more to learn.