Over the weekend, the New York Times “Ethicist” wrote a rather controversial post defending the ethics of illegally downloading an e-book when you own the hardcover.
The Ethicist writes:
Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod. Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.
Aside from being quite surprised that Ethicists are in the habit of encouraging people to break the law, I found this to be an astounding and irresponsible response.
It’s one thing for an Ethicist to remind a reader that they are within their ethical (and though I’m not a lawyer, likely legal) rights to create their own e-book by scanning their book into a computer strictly for personal and not-for-profit use. This is the proper CD-ripping analogy. It’s taking something you own and converting it to another format through your own time and effort, whether that’s making an electronic file or taking a book apart to wallpaper your house.
The fact is, buying a hardcover (or CD or DVD or paperback) does not grant someone the right to own a work in all platforms in perpetuity. I mean, this: “Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform” is an extraordinarily sweeping opinion. Any platform? Should we get the paperback for free when we buy the hardcover? Should we be able to get into the movie for free when we own the paperback? Those are just different platforms, right? Should I have shoplifted the DVDs when I switched over from my VHS collection? What exactly are we talking about here?
An e-book is a fundamentally different product than a hardcover – it’s searchable, it’s electronic, it’s portable, it doesn’t weigh anything. It allows you to do things that you can’t do with a hardcover. Not everyone obviously thinks it’s an improvement, but I think we can all agree that it’s a different product. They may be the same words, but it most definitely is not the same thing.
It may seem like it’s a trivial distinction to make when the resulting file from scanning yourself vs. pirating a book is potentially almost the same, but that’s where the line between ethical/legal and unethical/illegal is drawn for a reason. In the first version, you’re adding the value yourself through your own effort (just as taking notes in your own margins adds a form of value). By downloading a file illegally you’re misappropriating that added value from the only people (the publisher and author and e-booksellers) who are legally and ethically entitled to profit from it. That’s why we have copyright law. That’s where we’ve chosen to draw the line.
This is all completely setting aside the question of whether publishers should bundle hardcovers and e-books for sale – lots of people have expressed a desire for a situation where you, say, pay $2 or $4 or however much more for a hardcover and get the e-book for free. It’s a great idea! I suspect the fact that isn’t yet possible for most books is because of the logistical challenges involved, but it’s one that I hope publishers will continue to explore (see Joseph Selby’s comment for more background, and Mayowa points out that B&N has announced they would experiment with bundling).
But the fact that it’s not yet possible as a matter of course doesn’t then justify theft – I mean, I personally think it’s a great idea for supermarkets to sell peanut butter and jelly together for a discount, but if my local supermarket doesn’t do this it doesn’t mean I get to shoplift the jelly.
This is also setting aside the justifications people come up with when it comes to piracy – that people buy more when they pirate, that piracy does not necessarily equal loss of sale, that stealing a digital product is not the same thing as stealing a tangible object etc. etc. Look: we live in a society where the seller gets to determine the terms of sale. If it really is financially advantageous to allow things to be readily available for free or very cheaply or unencumbered with DRM let the sellers (the publishers and the authors and booksellers) make that decision. If it’s better financially for the parties involved, let the market move in that direction. Support the companies who have policies you like with your dollars, not through illegal activity.
The electronic era is full of possibility as well as potential downfalls, and I think we need to get past the idea that an electronic format is value-less relative to print. It has value. It is a different product. You can add that value yourself by converting something you bought, or you can pay for a new file.
If you’re stealing that value by downloading someone else’s e-book illegally: it’s copyright infringement.
It really is a matter of ethics. Oh. Also the law.