Posts Tagged ‘Jason Scott’

Is e-book piracy ethical?

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.

Wikipedia's growing pains

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about how Wikipedia is losing editors faster than it's recruiting them. There are a variety of proposed reasons for this exodus. Some are content-driven, such as many essential entries having already been written, thus requiring fewer contributors than when the site was founded. But many reasons are bureaucratic:

"Wikipedia is becoming a more hostile environment," contends Mr. Ortega, a project manager at Libresoft, a research group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. "Many people are getting burnt out when they have to debate about the contents of certain articles again and again."

Mr. Ortega is not alone in identifying the trials and tribulations inherent in Wikipedia's open source nature. Digital historian Jason Scott (based in nearby Waltham, Mass.) has often criticized Wikipedia not for the accuracy of its final product, but for the system by which that product is developed:

This is what I mean; you have a brick house that, from a distance, looks decently enough like a house that people say "see, community building works". But what isn't obvious on the surface is how many times those bricks have been pulled apart, reassembled, replaced, shifted, modified, and otherwise fiddled with for no good reason other than battling an endless army of righteous untrained bricklayers who decided to put a window there… no, there… wait, no window at all. If you declare the final brick house a "victory" while ignoring the astounding toll of human labor required to get it so, then you are not understanding why I consider Wikipedia a failure.

Scott's essay was posted in May 2005; now, in light of the Wall Street Journal's report, it seems as much diagnostic as prognostic. Wikipedia is consulted by professionals, academics, and the curious worldwide, but the value derived by its visitors may not justify the overwhelming energy and exhaustion that powers its content's formative stages.

The issue calls into question the value of crowdsourcing, which is intended to take advantage of the diversity, expertise, and sheer quantity of the masses. But to tame that plurality, Wikipedia has devised standards that could be contributing to the problem, says the WSJ:

… Wikipedia, one of the world's largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule — and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp.

Take a look at the Wikipedia editors' manual and you'll see the problem: twenty-one grueling chapters from which to learn about the database's style, format, and purpose. Such rules are typical of a professional publication whose staff have been trained and compensated for learning and applying such guidelines, but there is little incentive for a drive-by contributor to dedicate herself to memorizing the manual. Perhaps those organizations that Wikipedia set out to replace existed for a reason — one that, in the move from print media to digital, we've forgotten, leading to mass layoffs of copyeditors and other quality control staff. Wikipedia's current straits may signal a return to those more expensive but more authoritative sources.

Despite these issues, Wikipedia is still seen by many as a definitive reference, with a 20% growth in site traffic in the last twelve months. Wikipedia's founders feel they can continue to grow its content with a smaller core of contributors, and they are also rolling out a redesigned interface that they theorize will be more welcoming to newcomers.

Of course, none of these problems or solutions address the observation some have made that Wikipedia is a valuable source for nothing that matters. As the WSJ reports, "By [Wikipedia's] own internal grading standards, the article on Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology … is lower in quality than its article on James T. Kirk, the fictional Star Trek captain."