Questionable Ethics?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In the Ethicist column last week in the New York Times, Randy Cohen addressed the following question:

I bought an e-reader for travel and was eager to begin “Under the Dome,” the new Stephen King novel. Unfortunately, the electronic version was not yet available. The publisher apparently withheld it to encourage people to buy the more expensive hardcover. So I did, all 1,074 pages, more than three and a half pounds. Then I found a pirated version online, downloaded it to my e-reader and took it on my trip. I generally disapprove of illegal downloads, but wasn’t this O.K.?

Cohen’s response: “An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical.” Although the questioner violated copyright law, s/he is in the moral clear because s/he paid for the book, and “[b]uying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform.”

Oh, really? Says who? Aren’t we a little closer to ideology than to ethics here? Indeed, Cohen makes it fairly clear that his conclusion is not bias-free:

Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology…It’s true that you might have thwarted the publisher’s intent — perhaps he or she has a violent antipathy to trees, maybe a wish to slaughter acres of them and grind them into Stephen King novels. Or to clog the highways with trucks crammed with Stephen King novels. Or perhaps King himself wishes to improve America’s physique by having readers lug massive volumes.

With a little stretching, Cohen’s you-bought-it-you-can-steal-it argument can cover anyone. A friend of mine who rips copies of the CDs he gets out of the library and borrows from friends uses the same rationalization: No, he didn’t buy the CDs himself, but someone did. And what about the people who download illegal copies of books without buying them first or intending to later? Couldn’t they argue the same–that to post the book online, someone had to buy it (well, probably), so where’s the harm?

Cohen acknowledges that illegal downloads aren’t morally pristine. “Downloading a bootleg copy [of a book] could be said to encourage piracy, although only in the abstract: no potential pirate will actually realize you’ve done it.” Say what? Because a potential pirate won’t turn piratical because you, personally, illegally downloaded a book, your action is “only” bad in abstract, and therefore, by implication, not actually so bad after all? What about all the other yous out there, busily acquiring bootleg books? How abstract are they? What about the pirate whose site you used? How abstract is he?

The impact of piracy on the book business is not yet clear. Plenty of people are offering data showing that it harms, but others are arguing that it can help. Help or harm, however, there is nothing “abstract” about downloading a bootleg book, whether or not you bought it first–and I have to say I’m pretty amazed at Cohen’s finessing of this issue.

For a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a book pirate (who acknowledges that “morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing”), see this post from Richard Curtis’s E-Reads blog.

3 Responses

  1. Neil in Chicago

    If this isn’t deliberately provocative, it’s excessively disingenuous.
    The relation between law and morality is wildly uneven at best. It’s absurd to assume one can simply be a standin for the other.
    The question of “ownership” and “purchase” is not that simple. When you buy a book, what are you buying? The same quantity of blank pages and bottled ink would be much cheaper; the physical object is generally a secondary aspect of the purchase. Would you buy a book if you could only read it in one room of your house, and if you wanted to read it, or parts of it, in some other room, you had to buy another copy for each room? OK, would you buy an “e-book” which you couldn’t move to another brand of reader?
    If you’ve bought the book, you paid everyone in the production and distribution chains, and own a physical copy, but you still can’t read it on an e-book reader . . . The publishers’ morality can be brought into question as easily as a “pirate”‘s in this case.

  2. Bob in Hillsborough NJ

    Hmmm. If I subscribed to the New York Times in the 1970′s, am I ethically entitled to hack into their website archives to read articles from that time? After all, my purchase of the paper newspapers “should be regarded as a license to enjoy [them] on any platform”.

  3. James

    I seem to recall that, at least in American copyright and ownership laws, downloading an electronic copy of something you already own is at least partially protected.

    A few years ago, when my old Super Nintendo finally and completely died – the components were just too old – I was left with a pile of games that I still, from time to time, wanted to play. A friend told me about something called “emulator software” and “ROMs.” I looked into it and saw that it was, for the most part, illegal… except for one important loophole.

    I don’t remember the exact phrasing or what clause of what monolithic copyright law text it came from, but it basically said that I had a right to an electronic backup of anything I owned that could be so created. (I can’t have an electronic backup of my favorite chair, for obvious reasons.) Now my old game cartridges were no longer worthless but instead tokens that enabled me to download the emulator and accompanying ROMs – from a morally and legally sound standpoint. If the authorities came knocking, I could point at the pile of plastic and silicon and say, “I already own these things. It’s my right as an American that I don’t have to pay for what’s already been paid.”

    This isn’t the only example, though. Recently some films – including the DVD release of “I Am Legend,” which is how I found out about this – are allowing people to download an electronic copy of the movie for use on their iPod or computer or what-have-you. Sure, it’s primarily a marketing gimmick and an attempt (however vain) to curtail illegal downloading, but the reason the movie companies can do this is because of what I already mentioned: American copyright and ownership laws allow you to have your own electronic backup. It’s why you can legally copy a CD you own – not borrow, like in the article above, that’s still illegal – onto your computer and put it on your MP3 player to listen to it. You paid for it; the license to use it as you see fit is yours.

    Therefore, I put forward that not only is Cohen’s reader morally allowed to use his downloaded copy of “Under the Dome,” but also fully within his legal rights as well. That King’s publishers didn’t have an electronic copy/backup available shouldn’t hinder the reader’s right to his electronic backup.