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.