Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

Posted on April 5, 2010


Usually, New York Times‘s ethicist Randy Cohen is on the ball. Like Jorge Posada last night, he’s dropped a couple and let them glide through to the backstop. In yesterday’s column, a questionner asked whether it is ethical to download a pirated copy of a Stephen King novel after having bought the hardcover edition. Cohen admitted to that act’s illegality, but asserted that while illegal that act is not unethical.

There were a number of things wrong with his reply. First, his analogy that the downloading was “akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.” A more correct analogy would be a consumer buying the hardcover and then taking the time to scan it into a PDF ebook. Mr. or Ms. C.D., from Brightwaters, NY, in the column is taking advantage of someone else scanning the copy and creating an ebook from it. (I hope at least that the person who created the pirate ebook version bought the copy legally.) A better analogy would be buying a CD and then downloading the MP3 files online from a bit torrent (and not ripping the files off the CD and onto your PC). This distinction is key to understanding the ethical implications.

Next, while there are many anachronistic conventions to bookselling and book publishing, as well as an incomplete judicial and legal understanding of the application of new technologies to copyright law, these shortcomings do not constitute a green flag to ignore ethical implications. The current long-standing practice of some large publishing houses to stagger the release of editions is a reprehensible one. It’s one where the house first releases the hardcover, then a year later releases the paperback (or sells the rights to another publisher), then later on releases an ebook version. The reasoning behind this practice is that the paperback (and other edition) sales will cut into the (far more profitable) hardcover sales. (Come to think of it I have never seen hard data from any scientific studies that would underlie the contention for this practice.) In my mind, it is hardly ethical to force consumers to pay a higher premium for a book, in effect holding it hostage (also somewhat elitist — content comes to those who can afford it). It would be equivalent to an auto manufacturer releasing only option-laden packages of a new model first, then making available the standard model months later. Or a music publisher releasing the vinyl edition first, a year later the CD version and later on down the line an MP3 version. You are seeing the publisher’s greed hard at work.

I don’t consider such a business practice ethical. However, that lapse does not entitle a consumer to breach law, and ethics, by downloading a file created by someone else. That consumer bought a hardcover edition — not a license to own all versions of that content in whatever form it might be offered for sale. Currently, as far as I know, buying a hardcover edition does not entitle you to a free copy of the paperback edition when it becomes available for sale.

But this discussion does bring up the topic of “content.” Given new technologies, and the inadequacies of copyright law to deal with new technologies, both publishers and consumers need to be on the same page on “content” and “packaging.” But that’s a topic for another post (I hope soon) down the line…