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.
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?