Awhile back, New York Times columnist Jeffrey Seglin posed a question that looks at a particular aspect of copyright law: is it morally (if not legally) acceptable to pirate an e-book if you own the original hardcopy edition? Although most pirates offer specious justification for their actions, this particular question warrants more thoughtful consideration.

Historically, I have engaged in similar activities: if I owned a video game, I considered it reasonable for me to acquire the soundtrack to said game, regardless of the means. Sometimes this meant connecting my PlayStation's audio output to my computer's input and making my own recording; other times, it was copying the album that had been released as a separate product. Video games have since adapted to such exploitation with copyrights that individually name the art, design, programming, and music, which would seem to deny any legal basis for my youthful actions.

Moreover, a game's soundtrack provides a unique experience within and without the context of the game, just as a book is different from an e-book. In a game, music is used to complement the on-screen action, whereas separately, it may be used without requiring gameplay to invoke its own imagery. Similarly, a book has a look, touch, and feel all its own, while an e-book is portable, markable, and potentially more transportable. To argue that buying one grants a license to a union of these benefits is dubious.

My response to Mr. Seglin's question was quoted in his follow-up:

I think it's fair to create your own translation of a product you own for personal use — such as scanning a book to put on your Kindle, or digitizing a CD to load onto your iPod.

To enjoy the fruits of someone else's translation efforts means making the investment in their version of that product. To do otherwise is still piracy.

I may not find it ethical for a consumer to steal something they already own in a different format — but to end the discussion there ignores the other party in the transaction. Is it ethical for the corporation to expect consumers to pay twice for the same content? If it were possible to provide proof of purchase, surely a discount for existing customers would be both respectful of their patronage as well as an incentive toward future business, as software developers do when offering upgrades to new versions. When dealing with more physical products, such a policy could more easily be implemented in small contexts, such as when the developer and distributor of said product are one in the same. As an example, Jason Scott's GET LAMP documentary comes with an upgrade guarantee:

What drives me absolutely nuts is buying the same film multiple times.

What I'm talking about is you buy a DVD of something, and you enjoy it. Then they come out with a special edition of the same thing and you buy it again. Then there's a downloadable version, and you buy that. And so on. And so on. It makes some people very rich, but it's just a completely disrespectful thing to do to the people who brought you success in the first place. It sucks.

So here's what I am doing.


It is the right of Mr. Scott as the copyright holder of GET LAMP to determine the availability and value of his product (which is why he chooses to release it under Creative Commons). As Mr. Scott told me in an interview for Computerworld, "You've already paid me, I've already made a profit off you — I don't want to make another profit off you!" It is a generous (and perhaps expensive) approach he has chosen that could be considered the opposite extreme of corporations that charge the full amount for content that is improved but not new. A balance between the two could prove lucrative for all parties.

Like me, Mr. Seglin is not a lawyer, and his column looks at issues from an ethical, not legal or political, perspective. It's a useful prompt for us to look beyond the law and more rigorously examine how our own philosophies concur or disagree with society's external guidelines.

One Reply to “Is e-book piracy ethical?”

  1. Bear in mind, also, that I could be called a "boutique" media creator, one who does a very specific hand-crafted job that is more expensive but you also get features and considerations that others can't match as well, or aren't incentivised to. For $40 for a DVD set, I would hope you'd expect not to have to buy the whole thing over again later – but only if your purchase was very specifically tracked with a unique code, which my sales are, thanks to the coin necessity and my controlling all distribution points.

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