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?