Is It Okay To Download A Pirated Copy Of A Book You Already Own?

Yesterday we wrote about someone who downloaded a pirated copy of a game after he couldn’t gain access to the copy he’d already paid for. In that case, which most of our commenters supported, it was clear that the consumer was trying to resolve a problem created by the DRM. But what about if you own a printed copy of a book and you simply want to read the ebook version? Should you have to pay for a second copy? Randy Cohen, who writes the The Ethicist column for the New York Times, says downloading a copy you find online is ethical.

Here’s his argument:

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.

Cohen asked a publishing exec to weigh in, and hey guess what, she wasn’t so cool with the idea: “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.”

The NYT doesn’t have a comments section for The Ethicist, but the commenters over on TechDirt had fun arguing about it yesterday.

One of them points out that the CD-ripping analogy isn’t quite right unless you’re scanning the book yourself, but he thinks that doesn’t negate Cohen’s point.

Another TechDirt reader says that you have to pay to watch a movie at the theater or attend a concert, and then again to own that movie/concert on DVD or CD, so you should pay for both print and digital versions. But another reader says the issue here is one of media formats, not unique events, so it’s more like owning a CD and then downloading MP3 files that someone else has already ripped.

“E-Book Dodge” [New York Times via TechDirt]

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