Randy Cohen, who writes the “Ethicist” column at the New York Times, caused a minor fracas this week when he told someone who had purchased a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s Under the Dome and then also downloaded a pirated electronic copy for travel purposes, that they were ethically in the clear for the illegal download. Cohen’s reasoning is, hey, the guy paid for the thing, and because he paid for it once, he should have the right to enjoy it in whatever format he likes. Therefore the download, while illegal, was not unethical.
Personally I think Cohen is pretty much correct. Speaking for myself (and only for myself), when I put out a book and you buy it for yourself in whatever format you choose to buy it in, the transactional aspect of our relationship is, to my mind, fulfilled. You bought the book once and I got paid once; after that if you get the book in some other format for your own personal use, and I don’t get paid a second time, eh, that’s life.
So, as examples: If you bought the paperback copy of one of my books and then liked it so much that you pick up a cheap remaindered hardcover edition for archival purposes, great. If you buy a hardcover copy, lose track of it, and then pick up a used paperback copy for re-reading, groovy. If you buy a trade paperback edition of one of my books and then happen to find a free electronic version of the same book, which you then download onto your cell phone for travel purposes, that seems reasonable to me.
Now, in each case, if you decided to pay me or any author a second time, I wouldn’t complain — indeed, please do! Athena’s college fund thanks you. And it’s what I do; for example I recently paid for and downloaded an authorized electronic copy of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station because I wanted to read it again and my trade paper copy is currently in a box in my basement. I didn’t want to bother to dig it out, I didn’t want to have to troll the underside of Teh Internets for a pirate copy, I can afford the $6.39 authorized copy cost, and I like paying authors. Likewise I usually buy new editions of books I’ve lost or displaced, again because I can afford it and because philosophically I am inclined to do so.
I pay the authors more than once, because I can and I think I should. However, I also put such actions in the ethical category of “morally praiseworthy but not morally obligatory” — that is, I believe my transactional responsibility to the author was fulfilled the first time I paid her. Additional payments to the author are optional, and indeed are sometimes transactionally difficult. If a book is out of print I may have no choice but to buy a used physical copy, for which an author gets nothing, or acquire an unauthorized electronic edition, which again gives nothing to the author.
The moral issue with unauthorized/pirated electronic copies of works has to do with the fact that a) they were put out online by people who didn’t have permission to do so, and b) that it makes it easy for people who haven’t paid for the work and have no intention of paying for it to acquire it and share it with other people who also have no intention of paying for it. These are separate moral issues than the issue of whether someone who has paid full freight for an author’s work should feel bad about acquiring a second copy of the work for personal use without additional financial benefit to the author.
To be very clear, I think the person who puts an unauthorized edition of a work of mine online is ethically and legally wrong to do so; that guy is ripping me off. I don’t take kindly to it and neither do my publishers, who have lots of lawyers. Please don’t post my work online without permission, and please don’t share unauthorized copies with others. I thank you in advance for your sterling morals in this area.
But if that work is out there online, and the guy who just bought an authorized version — thus paying me and the people who worked on the book — downloads it for his personal use, am I going to be pissed at him? No, I don’t really have the time or inclination. Maybe it would have been marginally more ethical for the fellow to have, say, scanned in each individual page and OCR’d it himself, thus making the personal copy he’s allowed to make under law, rather than looking for it online. And maybe I’d ask him how it was he got so knowledgeable in the ways of the dirty, dirty undernet, where pure and innocent books are exposed to bad people, and suggest to him that he get his computer checked for viruses. But at the end of the day, he did pay me, and paid my publisher.
(That said, I do think there are limits to this. For example, I think an audio book and a text book are two separate things, because a significant part of the audio book is the performance of the reader, an aspect that is not there in the original book. Likewise buying a book doesn’t give you a free pass to torrent the movie version of the book; alternately, having bought a Halo video game doesn’t give you a moral green light to snarf down a Halo novel. Etc.)
If I had my way about these things, I’d be doing with books what movie companies are now doing with DVDs and blu-rays, which is to bundle a legal electronic copy of the work in with the hardcover release. There are distribution issues with doing something like this (unlike physical movie media, books are typically sold unsealed) but these aren’t unsolvable; I think in a later post I’ll talk about this in more detail.
But the point to make here is that these days, people are deciding that when they buy a book or a movie or a piece of music, they’re buying the content, not the format. As a writer I don’t have a philosophical problem with this, since I write content, not format, even if publishers want that content to fit a particular format. And as a consumer, I think there’s a certain point at which you get to say “you know what, I’ve paid for this already, and I’m done paying any more for it.” Both of these are why I say that if you’ve paid me once for a book I’ve written and what you’ve enjoyed, we’re good. Pay me again if you like; I won’t complain. But once is enough.