A Pirate’s Life For Me

The NYT’s The Ethicist created some controversy this week with an article considering the ethics of downloading pirated copies of ebooks. Specifically it responded to the question of whether it is ethical to download a pirated version of an ebook (when it is not available legally) if you purchase the hardcover edition of a book first.


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.

Under the Dome: A bloody heavy book

Needless to say, this has caused a stir in some publishing circles, and a number of other blogs and opinion pieces have responded to the question and explored many of the flaws in the argument. There’s no clear answer to this conundrum. The central premise seems compelling – people are used to only having to buy one format – you don’t have to worry about illegal downloading when you buy a CD or a DVD, you can easily rip music and movies to your computer yourself. Why should books be any different?

From personal experience, I think the reason this is even an issue is to do with the failure of the book publishing industry to understand the market and to respond to technological (and the resulting cultural) change. I don’t buy an ebook because it’s cheaper than the dead tree version. I buy it for all the other benefits an ebook gives me – I can start reading instantly, it can be searched, I can look up words in the dictionary or Wikipedia, I can carry multiple books around without hefting a load of paper, I can even read it on multiple platforms (PC, iPhone and Kindle) depending on when and where I feel like reading. The $9.99 price point that Amazon tried to set for ebooks is very nice, but more expensive ebooks are not going to turn me towards paper books, they’re just going to turn me towards other, better-priced ebooks.

The publishing industry needs to do more than re-educate consumers about the value of books. They need to respond to consumer need. Since the advent of digital piracy, consumers have a way of getting what they want, when they want it – bugger the ethics or the legality. To combat this, publishers need to make it easier to buy an ebook legitimately than it is to get it illegally. Practices like windowing and DRM are destined for failure for this reason; they punish the ethical. Publishers cannot just expect to change behaviour without meeting their readers halfway.

What do you think? Would you feel bad about downloading a pirated book if you couldn’t find the ebook anywhere else? Do you think owning the physical copy entitles you to a digital one? What can publishers do to lure you away from illegally downloading ebooks?

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

6 thoughts on “A Pirate’s Life For Me”

  1. I haven’t yet paid for an e-book. Between Project Gutenberg, Daily-Lit, and Cory Doctorow’s freebies, I’ve been well serviced. My needs as a reader are that I have limited time for reading, and the spaces my reading takes place are varied and probably most importantly – I don’t want to buy a gadget for reading books! In theory I know i could put a whole catalogue in a gadget and it would weigh the same (and my lower back would be ever so grateful) but I can only read one book at a time. I’ve played with friends’ Kindles (and been envious of the joyous light in their eyes) but I’ve also been privy to their anguished emails about bolloxed downloads and the odd software weirness. Maybe I’m being a dullard, slow-adopter. Maybe it is that the idea of needing a gadget to read a book still sticks in my caw (some vague protestant hang-over still lurking previously unknown?) and maybe it is that I’m a tightwad (although my local library is now offering ebooks, so I have no leg to stand on there). As a reader I have no ethical qualms about a ‘freebie’ digital copy of a hardcover. Heck – I’d prefer it – do you think I want to loan out my pristine first editions? No Way! But I will happily hand-sell my fav author’s newest work to you as a must read and give you a digital copy if that’s the type of copy you’re most likely to read. Some very nice hardcovers very throughtfully come with a paperback ‘reading’ edition – how nice. Is that happening with a digital reading edition yet? (oh how we love to fetishise the “object” of the book!) Anyway, my concerns in this realm are pretty ordinary – 1 Where’s the money for the author?
    2 – In most cases where I’ve accessed a digital copy, I haven’t read it digitally. That’s right, I’ve printed it out – thereby losing all the reported benefits of a digital version. The exception has been books accessed through Daily Lit (an email service that sends 2 or 3 pages worth of a book at interval specified and controlled by the reader). That is the only way I’ve been able to read Ulysses.

    The reason I mention this Joel is because I think a lot of ordinary readers are leary about the technology and the change to their reading habits. Pricing is not the issue. Trust is the issue. I’m old enough to remember the bitter pain of having a retail technology delivery platform dissolve out from under me not once (16mm film!), not twice (Beta!), not three times (33rpm records!), not four times (VHS!), five (cassettes! How I yearned to have a cool walkman!), but six, SIX times Joel (floppy disks- both the 5 and 3 inch versions!). But you know what? Every single book I’ve ever bought, I can still read. The first grown-up book I bought (from the Koala Park shopping centre newsagency) was a paperback edition of “The Name of the Rose” by Eco. I don’t have to throw it out every few years and get a new version of it, or hope that my old version can still be read by the new software, or that it hasn’t expired sitting there on my shelf in between reads, and I can loan it to you no probs if you like.

    Anyway, I agree with you. Pirating is bad when it deprives the author of income and/or where it substantially undermines the stability of the industry’s process whereby authors have the resources to create work. (BTW, I’ll tell you the pirate copies I have made – they’ve been made standing at a photocopier making a dodgy copy of an out-of-print title. This is deeply unsatisfying – I would much rather buy a proper copy – digital or otherwise – than resort to this).

    I can see that Ebooks and their gadgets are fantastic for what they can offer readers and to expand ebook users out of existing readers, publishers need to understand readers like me – unconvinced, lazy, tightfisted, and wary of being left with more expensive interesting paperweights.

    1. Hi J9, thanks for your comment. To be honest, from what you’ve said you’re more than content with your experience with dead tree books and aren’t really the market for ebooks.

      Nonetheless, your problems with ebooks are pretty major problems with the format. Some of them can be fixed if publishers take steps to sell books without DRM (which is why, incidentally, I always remove the DRM from books I buy, if I can). Your other problems, of course, are smell-of-books problems, and are inherent to ebooks – you may just not ever get used to them. Thankfully, there will always be dead trees out there for you to fill up your shelves!

  2. Once again going back to music, perhaps a similar approach to this one can be used for those who buy the dead tree version and would like the ebook too:

    1. Very true. Publishers are exploring bundling ebooks with hard copies. I think it’s a great idea – I’d definitely pay a bit extra for the physical copy to get an ebook included.

  3. This is great, Joel, this is exactly what I wanted to bring up after your last post. As a published author, I can’t help but be nervous about some aspects of e-books (I’m still using the hyphen for now). By the same token, I was encouraged by Sadhbh’s comments last time, about growing the pot. DVDs have not spelt the end of cinema; despite the capability to have a virtual cinema in your own home, people are still flocking to the multiplexes and the arthouses for the experience they provide.

    And so, what about books? I think the bundling idea is fabulous, I would be more than happy for buyers of my books to have the option to upload them onto digital devices. However, once I followed your various threads, I realised that perhaps it is reasonable to include a surcharge for that option, with a corresponding cheaper version, without the e-book extra, to be fair. All of this will require a lot of administrative and other processes which will take some time to establish, I daresay. But it is possible.

    An interesting point to consider, it’s not just the Gen Ys and their ilk who are the potential market here. I spoke to a delightful octogenarian recently at a library talk. She was keen to read my books, but wanted to know if they were available in large print. I couldn’t tell her. Well, what do you buy an octogenarian for their birthday? If they’re a reader, maybe a Kindle or (insert here whatever the device), loaded with their favourite authors. And sure, you may have to load it up for them every time, you may have to help them out with the technology, but what better gift? My father-in-law died before this technology was available, but he was computer savvy, and also suffered from macular degeneration. You should have seen the size of the font on his monitor. I can only imagine he would have loved to have some kind of e-book reader.

  4. An ebook and a dead tree book are not the same thing. There is a process that occurs to transform a paper book into an ebook and this process costs money. It isn’t as simple as just scanning the pages and uploading them onto the net (though arguable even that would take time and someone would need to be paid for the job). So I think it is unethical to illegally download an ebook.

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