The “Ethics” of Book Piracy

The "Ethics" of Book Piracy

How do you know that ebooks have hit the mainstream? Check out the New York Times “The Ethicist” column this week. In it, a letter was received from someone inquiring about the ethics of downloading an illegal copy of an ebook if the downloader already owned the paper copy.

Specifically, the inquirer needed to know:

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.?

Before I share with you what Randy Cohen (the eponymous Ethicist) thought of this, I’ll share my view. Unlike CDs, you can’t easily turn a paper book into an ebook. Technically you can, but in the case of a Stephen King novel it’s going to take some serious page turning and scanning for the average reader. While I don’t condone going on bit torrent and stocking your library, this falls into a gray area. The thing is, on an individual level, you own the book; if you owned the ebook and took the time to print it out it would be acceptable. On the other hand, downloading a pirated ebook doesn’t come with a checkbox to indicate “It’s ok, I own the book!”.  It just contributes to piracy, even if the individual downloader is well-intentioned.

It’s been suggested that “bundling” ebooks and paper books would solve some of this problem (Barnes and Noble has been rumored to be considering it). I think this would be a nice touch, even if some people didn’t take advantage of the offer. In addition, delaying ebook releases to juice hardcover sales just makes this issue worse. Ordinary people who want to pay for their books shouldn’t be reduced to trolling the internet because of short-sighted publishers.

In any case, you’re probably more curious about what the Ethicist had to say:

An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. 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.

Did the Ethicist give good advice? What’s your take on piracy and ebooks?

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

9 Comments on "The “Ethics” of Book Piracy"

  1. I actually have mixed feelings on the advice – but not on the core principal. It reminds me of games released on the PC and ported to Mac, compared to games released as a hybrid Mac / PC disc.

    I believe that if a single publisher is responsible for making the raw book files used to then create both the physical and ebook, then there is only a single revenue stream and you are not hurting anyone. In that case I liken it to a hybrid Mac / PC release.

    But if raw files from making a physical book are sent to a different company who is then responsible for reformatting, reworking, setting up contents and index, covers, and so on and then publishing the ebook, then by buying a physical book and pirating the ebook you have cut out a revenue stream and are actually doing harm. In that case it is like a game released on PC and ported by Aspyr or Feral to Mac, since then only the PC publisher would get the revenue.

    Make sense?

    Of course, a concern about the hybrid physical / digital release is the potential misuse of digital versions. As usual, that is just fear and backwards thinking.

    I think the publishing industry could learn something from video games here – by treating the ebook like a ‘single use DLC’, and forcing people to set up an account somewhere and having the ebook attached to that account, you could give actual customers the ebook without the added concerns of piracy.

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  4. Haesslich | April 6, 2010 at 9:04 pm |

    Mobipocket tried that a few years back with their DRM scheme for PRC/MOBI files; you bought books which had to have the reader’s ID registered to a MobiPocket account in order to read them on said devices. This meant you didn’t have to have always-on access (like Ubisoft, which would be death on ebook readers which don’t have always-on access, or where you aren’t ALLOWED to have Internet-capable devices hooked up to the outside world active on your person – like anyplace with sensitive data), but still linked them to one account while letting you read your books on more than one particular device (which is what’s killing DSiWare, as far as I’m concerned, and was a problem with SecureROM and similar DRM methods).

    Their results? I’m not so sure it worked out for them, given that everyone’s moved onto ePub or other less-restrictive formats (LIT literally could lock you to one device, IIRC) which were more universal. If you’re talking about a DRM method similar to FairPlay as run by iTunes, I’m not so sure that works either… but at the same time, I suspect book publishers are regretting that paper books are as ‘free’ as they are (they’re able to be exchanged easily, can be sold second-hand, etc) and are compensating for it with their current DRM initiatives (like the version of ePub that B&N’s using with its ‘loan a book out once… EVER – if the publisher lets you’ locks).

    At the end of the day, the people who won’t buy a book, won’t… ever. That’s one thing the computer game world has discovered – there will always be people who will break DRM, and sometimes the DRM punishes the legitimate buyer more than the hacker (SecureROM screwing around with computers, Starforce causing system issues, Sony’s rootkit causing vulnerabilities which allowed systems to be taken over, Ubisoft’s ‘always-on’ system causing legitimate users not to be able to play their bought games while cracked versions ran without problems). The ‘incentives for buying new’ method seem to work best with regards to consumers, at least for the time being; how this translates to books, I can’t really say.

  5. Physical books are designed to be sold, lent, re-sold, bought again and so on. Is buying a copy of a book at a yard sale for a dime, or at the local thrift store for a quarter taking money wrong too? Sorry – I’m on the side that if you own it, you own it regardless of the format.

    There are always points and counter points, and Michael makes a good point about having potentially different companies creating the physical book and the ebook, but somewhere in there, it becomes not MY problem that they can’t get their act together and figure out that gouging the public by holding out for hardcover sales isn’t going to create loyalty any more. In the days where they only released hardcovers (and paperbacks were like a year later) and you couldn’t afford to buy the hardcover, but you couldn’t wait to read the book, you headed down the the library to get on the waiting list for the popular book and then read it, returned it, and waited to add it to your library until it came out in paperback or you could buy it used.

    That model didn’t hurt the publishers – it built up the market for paperbacks. People read the books for free, sometimes hundreds of them from a single purchased copy. Many would then want to own a series, so they would buy the paperbacks of the books they couldn’t afford in hardcover.

    I don’t feel sorry for publishing houses or authors honestly. I do feel badly for the guy in the bindery who can’t get a raise, or the woman who drives the delivery truck who may lose her job because of the shift to electronic content. But that’s going on all over America and is part of the price of progress.

    My bottom line – unless and until I can be guaranteed that my electronic format books will be “future proof” and will be able to carry over from device to device, I’m not committing to a format and I’ll download them where I can. I’ll still work to make sure my physical library matches my electronic content as well, but from the same sources I’ve always bought books – yard sales, thrift stores and use book stores.

  6. go4thetop | April 7, 2010 at 5:02 am |

    For many years I have purchased my e-books almost exclusively from Baen Books. This publisher and their authors have a very enlightened view of how the digital world of books should work. Namely, they give away free copies of their books for people to try and when you buy a book you buy it DRM free and they are quite happy for you to give a copy to a friend.

    Have a read of their into at and also read through some of the Prime Palaver pieces.

    I have bought many ebooks over the last few years and while I initially purchased from a number of ebook retailers I found that it was becoming more and more complex to manage these ebooks. Each one had a different book format, a different DRM scheme and a different e-book reader app. I had to try and maintain each of these readers on each device that I used and upgrade/reinstall everything as I upgraded my devices (laptop, phone, e-book reader, etc). Eventually I gave up and have only been buying DRM ree books. Luckily I like Sci-Fi/Fantasy so Baen has been a great source of books for me!

    It bothers me that the new digital format of books, while nice and portable, will prevent me from easily going to a bookshelf, picking any hardcopy or softcopy book and start reading it immediately. If someone comes over to my house they can flip through my books, borrow one, lend me one, etc. This is how they and I find new books and new authors. And one of my big issues is that, with proprietary formats and DRM methods, the e-books I buy now may not be accessible in the future as technology changes. I’ll always be able to go back to my paper books and read them, but this is not necessarily true for the electronic equivalent.

    I am an avid reader and believe strongly in supporting authors in order to keep them writing books for me to read. Even though Baen books are DRM free and I know there are free copies of many of the books avaialble in many places, I still buy my e-books to support the authors so I’ll have an ongoing supply. If, however, I want to lend/give a friend a copy of a book from a series I especially like I don’t have a problem giving them the epub file so that they too can read it and Baen are happy for me to do this as they know from their experience that it will generate them MORE sales, not less.

    I recently wrote to Zinio to ask them about their DRM. I’d love to subscribe to National Geographic, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines. These are all magazines that I used to buy as paper versions. The problem is that I am concerned about the DRM and the applications required to read them. I still have paper issues of these magazines in my bookshelves and will occasionally go back and read one or an article in one. I am really concerned that I will loose this capability if I switch to the digital version and end up locked out of the magazines at some point.

    I truly think that publishers have not grasped the fact that DRM free content can help their sales rather than hinder it. Did libraries and other borrowing of paper based books and magazines prevent them from selling their content. No. It didn’t and it won’t for the digital versions either. They need to realise this and get rid of DRM and stop hurting the people who are trying to do the right thing!

  7. go4thetop | April 7, 2010 at 5:05 am |

    PS. Prime Palaver is accessed from the Library section at

  8. Some very, very good points by all …

    @Haesslich … if you’ve read my stuff on games here about DRM, etc … you know I completely agree with you …

  9. Haesslich | April 7, 2010 at 8:51 pm |

    @Michael: I know. Also, I recommend Baen to people who want ebooks due to their stance on ebooks.. which means they buy them, and I buy them, without fear that one day, their DRM servers fold up (here’s looking at you, Microsoft) and leave me without the library I spent money on. People who bought music from Virgin, Wal-Mart, and other online vendors have discovered this issue…

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