The ethics of pirating ebooks

Via Ars Technica, here’s a New York Times columnist reframing the pirated-ebooks debate as an ethical issue rather than a legal one, in response to a question asking whether it was wrong to download a pirated ebook version of a book already owned in hardcopy. His answer: it’s not legal, but it could be arged to be perfectly ethical. Although that ethical assessment rather hinges on one’s perspective:

Unsurprisingly, many in the book business take a harder line. My friend Jamie Raab, the publisher of Grand Central Publishing and an executive vice president of the Hachette Book Group, says: “Anyone who downloads a pirated e-book has, in effect, stolen the intellectual property of an author and publisher. To condone this is to condone theft.”

Yet it is a curious sort of theft that involves actually paying for a book. Publishers do delay the release of e-books to encourage hardcover sales — a process called “windowing” — so it is difficult to see you as piratical for actually buying the book ($35 list price, $20 from Amazon) rather than waiting for the $9.99 Kindle edition.

I tuned out a lot of the fine-detail wrangling over the Amazon/Macmillan debacle and the events that followed in its wake (simply because I didn’t have the spare time to read it all), so I’m unaware whether the notion of a blanket ownership license (e.g. where buying a hardcopy gives you rights to an electronic copy as well) was ever put forward.

It’s no cure for piracy, of course, but it’s an option that at least acknowledges some of the unaddressed issues currently surrounding content available in multiple formats. I’m somewhat heartened to see that the publishers are thinking hard about it, and publicly; hopefully, if they continue to avoid doing an ostrich impersonation, they won’t go the way of the record labels.

Further evidence that ebook piracy is a geek-o-sphere topic du jour: if Diesel Sweeties is satirising it, you know an issue has really arrived. 🙂

3 thoughts on “The ethics of pirating ebooks”

  1. I’ve often thought that publishers would be smart to let people who own books that have a digital version to download an epub-like version of that same book for a nominal price. It would be a great way of catapulting the ebook market to actual usefullness. I envision a kiosk-like set up where you take your stack of books that you want to have e copies of, you scan the bar-code and pay a nominal fee (like used paperback price, say $1-$5) and voila, you can have an ecopy of that book. I have no idea how writers might weigh in on an idea like this, but it seems to me it would be just the boost in the arm that ebooks need (think about digital music rights and the effect of free downloads of old material on sales of new material). And I know there are other issues too, like “are you borrowing that book that you just told us you bought, or are you actually honest”. And of course there are a host of other issues (delays for newly published books, which version of the cover do you get etc etc). I’ve held off in getting and ebook reader, because I already have boxes full of books (and those are just the ones I actually want to keep) and I don’t really want to pay ten bucks for a digital only copy of a great book that I already own; and the thought of building completely separate ebook and physical book libraries seems, annoying at the least. But I would simply jump at the chance of getting copies of some of those books for use on an ebook reader (i could carry my whole library around).

    [Another model would have you sending in the clipped out barcodes, ala manufacturer rebates, that way there’d be no doubling up from people borrowing books]. Anyway, what do people think is this crazy or feasible?

  2. My immunology textbook had a little scratch panel that gives me access to the online content. I see no reason why people who already bought the hardback should pay extra for the e-version. As Charles says above, a blanket ownership licence might help to promote the ebook market.

  3. 1) Textbooks are ridiculously expensive. I buy them for access to the problem sets and end up teaching myself most of the math from internet sources and one-on-one time with teachers. Compound the unethical business practices of textbook publishers (ex: regularly issuing new versions so as to keep costs up in an otherwise captive market – q: how much does Newtonian dynamics change for mechanical engineers from five-year period to five-year period? a: not enough to warrant a new text version). Having blown their part of our consumer-producer relationship (f. ex: not screwing me simply because they can), I feel no problem about using downloaded copies of their texts. There is no ethical obligation on my end if they refuse to act in good faith (and protecting fat margins in a captive market by coopting legal structures and discussions about “ethics” is teh lamezors. go be innovative, dickheads).

    2) If I were to found a band right now, I’d name us a database call designed to break things really unpleasantly all over the place. Throw in a really obvious sql term, so any query using our name would return nothing if the database interface is programmed to throw out obvious buffer overflow exploits (if what I’m describing is a buffer overflow, I wouldn’t know being a mechanically inclined person).

    Heck, this strategy might work on your local robot traffic enforcement devices.

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