Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Matter of Ethics

Over the weekend, the New York Times "Ethicist" wrote a rather controversial post defending the ethics of illegally downloading an e-book when you own the hardcover.

The Ethicist writes:

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.

Aside from being quite surprised that Ethicists are in the habit of encouraging people to break the law, I found this to be an astounding and irresponsible response.

It's one thing for an Ethicist to remind a reader that they are within their ethical (and though I'm not a lawyer, likely legal) rights to create their own e-book by scanning their book into a computer strictly for personal and not-for-profit use. This is the proper CD-ripping analogy. It's taking something you own and converting it to another format through your own time and effort, whether that's making an electronic file or taking a book apart to wallpaper your house.

The fact is, buying a hardcover (or CD or DVD or paperback) does not grant someone the right to own a work in all platforms in perpetuity. I mean, this: "Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform" is an extraordinarily sweeping opinion. Any platform? Should we get the paperback for free when we buy the hardcover? Should we be able to get into the movie for free when we own the paperback? Those are just different platforms, right? Should I have shoplifted the DVDs when I switched over from my VHS collection? What exactly are we talking about here?

An e-book is a fundamentally different product than a hardcover - it's searchable, it's electronic, it's portable, it doesn't weigh anything. It allows you to do things that you can't do with a hardcover. Not everyone obviously thinks it's an improvement, but I think we can all agree that it's a different product. They may be the same words, but it most definitely is not the same thing.

It may seem like it's a trivial distinction to make when the resulting file from scanning yourself vs. pirating a book is potentially almost the same, but that's where the line between ethical/legal and unethical/illegal is drawn for a reason. In the first version, you're adding the value yourself through your own effort (just as taking notes in your own margins adds a form of value). By downloading a file illegally you're misappropriating that added value from the only people (the publisher and author and e-booksellers) who are legally and ethically entitled to profit from it. That's why we have copyright law. That's where we've chosen to draw the line.

This is all completely setting aside the question of whether publishers should bundle hardcovers and e-books for sale - lots of people have expressed a desire for a situation where you, say, pay $2 or $4 or however much more for a hardcover and get the e-book for free. It's a great idea! I suspect the fact that isn't yet possible for most books is because of the logistical challenges involved, but it's one that I hope publishers will continue to explore (see Joseph Selby's comment for more background, and Mayowa points out that B&N has announced they would experiment with bundling).

But the fact that it's not yet possible as a matter of course doesn't then justify theft - I mean, I personally think it's a great idea for supermarkets to sell peanut butter and jelly together for a discount, but if my local supermarket doesn't do this it doesn't mean I get to shoplift the jelly.

This is also setting aside the justifications people come up with when it comes to piracy - that people buy more when they pirate, that piracy does not necessarily equal loss of sale, that stealing a digital product is not the same thing as stealing a tangible object etc. etc. Look: we live in a society where the seller gets to determine the terms of sale. If it really is financially advantageous to allow things to be readily available for free or very cheaply or unencumbered with DRM let the sellers (the publishers and the authors and booksellers) make that decision. If it's better financially for the parties involved, let the market move in that direction. Support the companies who have policies you like with your dollars, not through illegal activity.

The electronic era is full of possibility as well as potential downfalls, and I think we need to get past the idea that an electronic format is value-less relative to print. It has value. It is a different product. You can add that value yourself by converting something you bought, or you can pay for a new file.

If you're stealing that value by downloading someone else's e-book illegally: it's copyright infringement.

It really is a matter of ethics. Oh. Also the law.


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J.J. Bennett said...

Just as I posted last night under "publishing". I think the bundle idea is the future. It makes the most sense. (Both for customers and for publishing houses.) When you buy the hardcover you are buying the rights to use the book like a computer program. They give you a code and you download the digital version you need. End of story.

Amanda P. said...

I totally agree. I'm a photographer and people seem to feel they have the right to scan and print as much as they want because they've bought a 4x6. Um, no. Wrong.

Same thing here.

So, yeah, I agree.

Jess Tudor said...

I GET where the Ethicist was coming from - that legality and ethics are not one in the same, but he definitely needed to extrapolate more because the sweeping generalization was so far off the mark, even while upholding his distinction. You're right about the added value and the manner in which one converts the property. Did this guy really think through his answer? As an Ethicist, he has to see the fallacies being pointed out all over by you and others. I took Ethics, and while I'm no PhD, it seems ridiculously obvious that legality aside, it's still unethical.

GK said...

Well put. I read the article and was doing my flail about it but was unable to articulate coherently about the reasons for my flail. You did so nicely.

Kia Abdullah said...

I'm not sure about this one.

Daryl Sedore said...

I absolutely agree. The analogy of a hardcover purchased then receive the paperback free was spot on.

Also loved the format argument about being able to see the movie free and shoplift DVD's after having bought and owned all those VHS.

You seriously owned this side of the debate. Well done.

Scott said...

This is a frustrating topic for me as a consumer. Yes, I understand copyright law and licensing but the consumer is getting lost in the middle. Yes, the solution is too bundle but until that happens people like myself who prefer buying an actual bound book to read and the only reason I would ever read an ebook is because I wasn't able to lug the 600 page hardback I bought last week onto a plane and it would have been nice to be able to read an ebook on my mac during the flight but I'm unwilling to spend $15 extra to enjoy that convenience. And don't get me started on DRM for ebooks. But that said, I really think the feature the B&N Reader has where you can lend an ebook to a friend for 14 days is a great feature.

Joseph L. Selby said...

Bundling book purchases and ebooks has actually been done by some publishers for many years. Baen springs immediately to mind. They were offering ebooks a decade ago and continue to do so.

The reason why publishers don't do it is because of security concerns and added cost. Previously, ebooks were PDFs and then mobi files. PDF piracy is still a problem. Add to that the distribution method (bundle a CD? include a flash drive? print a code in the back of the book?) and it wasn't worth the return. Many still feel the same.

As for the shoplifting the DVD thing, we talked on that yesterday. Shame on you for making that comparison a second time. It's a false comparison. DVDs are replicated, shipped, stored, and put in stores for purchase. Lots of people pay lots of money to send them to market. The pirated ebook the ethicist speaks of is a scanned copy of a book that is downloaded directly from a third-party. A case can be made for encouraging piracy, but shoplifting a DVD is not the same and you knew it before you made the post.

(As a side note, many of the features you mention on an ebook aren't available in scanned pirated copies. They're pictures that don't identify text. It's just an image to read and nothing more.)

Josin L. McQuein said...

I'm with JJ Bennett on this one.

I think all hardbacks should automatically include an e-book download the way most Disney DVD's now include a digital copy as well.

You can't draw a parallel with getting a book and the movie version. The movie version isn't just another format of the same material, nor is it owned by the same individual. It's usually a different presentation of the same idea, but not exactly true to the book. It's like having to pay for 2 bands' versions of the same song.

You can make a copy of the CD you already have, but if you want the 2nd band's version, you have to buy it because it's licensed to someone else.

Nathan Bransford said...

joseph -

I didn't make the analogy you're accusing me of making. I'm not talking about theft vs. piracy with that analogy. The Ethicist said you're entitled to all platforms when you buy a book or music (and presumably movies), so presumably we are entitled to upgrade our DVDs for all those VHS.

A Paperback Writer said...

It seems to me that you and this ethics columnist have very different definitions of the concept of "platform," and that is why you disagree. Both arguments are well-stated, but with two definitions, they cannot come to a compromise.

Nathan Bransford said...

Also, re: this quote: "It's a false comparison. DVDs are replicated, shipped, stored, and put in stores for purchase. Lots of people pay lots of money to send them to market."

PLENTY of people pay money to put an e-book on the market. E-booksellers have to create the infrastructure. Publishers have to pay conversion and they have to pay authors. You're depriving them of money they are entitled to for building this infrastructure. You're not stealing an object they can't then sell, but you're still depriving them of money for which they are legally entitled, and it's false to say there are no costs involved. Lots of people pay money to send e-books to market too.

Mercurio Cavaldi said...

What I'd like to see happen is publishers including a link to download the e-book if you buy the hardcover. Most vinyl records, for instance, include a link and special code where you can download the MP3 version of the album. This way you don't have to illegally download the album or buy it again on iTunes.

Glen Akin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margaret Yang said...

I read that NYT article yesterday and it bothered me but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Thank you for articulating the salient points.

Glen Akin said...

Lol first off, buying a product in one format does NOT give anyone the right to illegally download said product in a different format. That's like saying cos you bought a Toshiba laptop then you have the right to steal another Toshiba laptop, but this time, it's a green laptop.

And the idea that publishers will put links to ebooks in hardcovers is absurd. Why the hell would anyone do that? How is that business effective?

Tracy said...

I think in the future we'll be able to buy the e-book version as extras. Like when I bought my copy of New Moon and got the extras along with it. I paid slightly more for that version, but I got the bonuses I wanted. Maybe someday in the future they'll figure out how to do that.

Until then it is going to be a particularly tricky road.

I don't, personally, think the person in question was wrong. I'm more bothered by the fact that there was a pirated version easily accessible for him.

Anonymous said...

If we go to a model where you purchase and own lifetime cross-platform rights to intellectual property (music, books, videos), as is the model promoted by The Ethicist, then we'll have to price these products accordingly.

Hardcover fiction books for $60 anyone? Remember, it will get you the paperback, ebook, vbook (yet to be published), entrance to the movie version, and anything else that comes along.

If this becomes the model then the copyrighted material must be priced much higher -- otherwise there is no way for the artist to make a living, and without compensation we must accept the drop off in choice and quality that will inevitably be the outcome of such a model.

I'll pay for each copy of a work I read. I want my favorite authors to continue producing.

betcherjl said...

If Mr. Ethics had personally scanned his entire hard cover copy of the book so he could read it electronically, I would agree with him. That's "fair use" under copyright laws. You can make copies of stuff you own for your personal use. It's like copying CDs to your iPod. You do it yourself.

But when he chooses to buy the hard cover book to HAVE IT NOW, and then steals the digital version, which was not available for sale at the time he wanted the book NOW, and which someone else has already pirated, just so he can HAVE IT CONVENIENT, he not only encourages pirating, but violates the author's/publisher's right to be paid for making the book CONVENIENT. That's why pirating is illegal AND immoral.

He needs to pay twice.

Mayowa said...

This one is a toughie...

I'm not even sure bundling is going to work in the future. The extras you get with say a Star Wars boxset differ from an ebook as an extra to a hardcover.

You can read the ebook alone and not need the hardcover but watching the artists dress up Jabba without seeing the movies is pretty pointless.

I'm going to go with Nathan on this one. Pirates already do an excellent job of rationalizing their actions, we don't need this fella stoking the fire.

Derrick said...

I don't get why publishing in a bundle is so hard. There's a Book called Strength finder that comes with a code that you can ender into a website to get your personalized PDF file.

Now, I understand that theft may be an issue, but how hard is it to just have the code print up with the receipt or something. Then you go out and to such-and-such's website and download the book based on your code that you've been given.

Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.

J.J. Bennett said...

BTW I don't agree that it was right to download the book illegally. I just think the issue needs to be cut and dry. There seems too many problems getting the format people want with all the choices out there. To simplify the process only makes sense.

Darius McCaskey said...

Whether we agree with the NY Times article or not, there's a fact that writers and publishers must face: readers who have paid for a book feel entitled to that same text in a digital format. Many otherwise honest readers, when faced with no options, will resort to piracy to obtain the works they want to read in the format they want to read them in.

"What are we selling?" seems to be the real question. Do publishers sell wood pulp, ink, and glue? Or do they sell words, crafted into stories, poems, technical manuals, and the like?

I believe publishers sell words. Those words have happened to be printed on paper and bound into volumes for the last few hundred years or so. But we are at a time of change. No doubt Gutenberg's invention caused a similar controversy in the establishment of his time. The challenge for publishers now is to build solutions, not barriers, that bring more writers to more readers in a faster, more flexible (and yet still profitable) way.

Perhaps one way is to offer additional content in an electronic edition in the same vein as a special edition or director's cut DVD. This adds value to the eBook and makes it less "ethical" to pirate. The main problem with eBooks is that many readers don't consider them to have additional value beyond the text. To the reader, the digital copy is exactly the same as the print copy, only in a different form. Take some of that perception away, and you increase the likelihood of eBook purchases and detract from eBook piracy.

Corinne said...

I think bundling is a fab idea. It would make their product more marketable as we continue to move toward more digital means of consuming books.

I think Nathan is totally on the money with the hardcover/paperback/DVD analogy. The author states we should be entitled across all platforms...

If the DVD analogy is problematic (although I cannot see why), what about audiobooks? Unabridged audiobooks, specifically. Those are really expensive and time intensive to produce and buy and they are a verbatim copy of the text... I have yet to hear anyone crying foul because they are entitled to a free audio download too.

I think that when you walk in to a bookstore and purchase a book, you do so with the understanding that you're buying only a book. Unless it says it is a package deal, how can you demand more or justify stealing another copy in any form?

Mary McDonald said...

Amanda, my husband is a photographer too,(mostly sports) and posts the pictures on a website for sale with watermarks across the picture. He ran into the father of one of the athletes whose game he'd done, and asked the man if he had any trouble getting to the website. The guy was like, "Oh no, the pictures were great, but how do I get your logo off all of them?"

Uh, ya buy them! Duh!

As far as the bundling of hardcover and ebooks, I think that would be wonderful. I can't wait until I get a real e-reader someday.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Right now I think consumers should pay for each format.

In the future (say in a decade or so), much as book-o-philes resist it--myself among them, I think it won't matter. EBooks will be the norm like digital music is rapidly becoming the norm, and people will have to go extra lengths to buy a paper book. (Heck, you might even get a paper copy for a $10 upgrade on your electronic purchase.)

Reena Jacobs said...

I definitely think authors/artists should be paid for their work. I also understand the comparison the Ethicist made between taking a CD and transferring to different media versus print versions and transferring it to different media.

However, I think the Ethicist missed a key aspect. When transferring a CD to a Zune, iPod or whatever, the owner of the CD uses a personal CD to transfer to a personal device. They're not taking their CD and transferring it to other people's platforms. At least they shouldn't be.

Downloading illegal versions of print book is doing just that. People are taking their print version scanning it or just using their eBooks version and distributing it to others.

If an owner of a book wants to transcribe or scan a print version for their own use, that's fine. It's when they start providing it to others that things go wrong.

Likewise, individuals who illegally download digital versions of music, books, etc are in the wrong. If an individual wants to take the print version and read it on a mini-device, it's up to that individual to make his/her own private digital copy from his/her print version for personal use only.

Ashley A. said...

Intellectual property, schmintelluh... uh... whatever.


Methinks the real "ethicist" went on spring break.

Mira said...

Nathan, I absolutely agree with you, and I find the "ethicist's" argument outrageous.

Bundling, although a good idea, is beside the point. The consumer has no right to steal for the sake of convenience or price.

At heart, this is a content vs. format issue.

When a consumer buys a book, they own the format, the book. They do NOT own the content. That's made completely clear though copyright law. So, to say they are entitled to the content in another form is wrong.

There's an implied contract between the buyer and the author - an ethical one - because the buyer understands the author copyrighted their work and doesn't want it copied.

Violating that is unethical, it was part of the understanding when the book was sold.

Are all laws ethical? Not by a long shot. Is it ever ethical to steal? I believe so - in survival situations - a starving child, etc.

But stealing a book's content? No. That's never ethical.

Stealing an e-book is stealing.

Mira said...

Better way to say it:


"because the buyer understands the author copyrighted their work and doesn't want it copied."


"because the buyer understands the author copyrighted their work and still OWNS the content."

Matthew Rush said...

This is a very interesting debate. I'm not sure why but I tend to support Nathan's point of view with books even though if I already own an album on vinyl (I own thousands) I would not have a problem (theoretically) downloading it for free from the internet.

Could I record it to my computer from my turntable and create a CD though my own effort? Yes. Should I have to? I'm not sure.

I guess maybe because with the book side of things the e-book is such a different format it feels like paying again seems justifiable. Yes vinyl and CD are very different but the actual music you hear is pretty close.

With the book sure it's the same story but Nathan points out a lot of advantages to e-books, such as search-ability, links and so forth.

Just my two cents.

Amy said...

If I have purchased the hardcover, then, could I just walk in to a bookstore and leave with a free paperback of said title - just cos I already purchased it in another format? Or is he just saying that it's all right to steal electronic versions because there's no value in that?

If there's no value in it, why do people want it? Why bother?

I love the bundling ideas. Someone is bound to try it on large scale, and hopefully their sales will do well enough to encourage others to hop on board.

I do think someone needs to come up with another word besides "piracy". Engaging in "piracy" almost sounds cool. A lot of people think stealing is wrong but see no problem with piracy. Doesn't make sense to me.

Anonymous said...

"Whether we agree with the NY Times article or not, there's a fact that writers and publishers must face: readers who have paid for a book feel entitled to that same text in a digital format."

That's exactly the problem - people now have this huge sense of entitlement. It doesn't matter whether they have paid for the product - and a digital version is a product, seperate from paper - or not. They want and so they think they just have a grand right to it. What about the people who actually own those rights? They shouldn't be entitled to them simply because someone else wants what they want, free and now.

Just like one poster said, they wanted the hardcover because they like to hold an actual book, but they also wanted an e-book to read on the plane. It's two seperate products to meet two distinct desires. Whether or not stealing prevents the actual owner from being able to sell the product or not, the people doing it have stolen from the people who did the work.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Sadly, the "Ethicist" sees copyright law as anachronistic. No harm done? Really? I like your analogy and might try that the next time I go to the movies. I'll just present my receipt from the bookseller's as my license to enjoy the movie at no additional cost to me.

Malia Sutton said...

I absolutely agree. And if this were to go to court, the laws would have to be followed regardless of anyone's opinion, emotional response, or what they think they deserve when they buy a book in hard cover.

M.R.J. Le Blanc said...

Like I said elsewhere, stealing is stealing. He didn't buy an ebook version, he bought a hardcover. That doesn't entitle him under his ridiculous reasoning. I kind of like J.J. Bennett's idea of bundling though.

Stephen Prosapio said...

Oh yeah. I went to a U2 concert once; therefore any song I heard them perform, I'm entitled to own in any format I deem fit.

No wait. That's not right. Any song I think they *should* have played at that concert, I can ethically steal. Yeah. Yeah. That's the ticket.

Anonymous said...

People will pirate when it makes economic sense, not because it's right or wrong or illegal or legal.

Going after pirates won't stop them. We have seen the backlash the RIAA got when they took that approach.

Using DRM won't work. Pirates will just break it.

So it comes down to making it more economical for someone to purchase the product than to pirate it. And with the recent price increases for eBooks combined with the iPad sales over the weekend, I think we are going in the wrong direction.

We now have a larger pool of potential pirates with a 30% increase in DRM eBooks. Yeah, eBook piracy will go up.

Nathan Bransford said...


It becomes a purely economical decision when people have detached the question from ethics, right/wrong, and fairness. Some people have already talked themselves into that, but many others haven't - I could very easily pirate anything I wanted, but I choose not to because I believe in supporting artists. It's not an economic decision for me, it's an ethical one.

That's why I was so disturbed by the Ethicist's post. Stigma and personal morality and ethics should continue to be a weapon against piracy, and it's shocking to me that someone supposedly devoted to Ethics would be so cavalier about it.

Malia Sutton said...

Anon@ 11:54 said "So it comes down to making it more economical for someone to purchase the product than to pirate it. And with the recent price increases for eBooks combined with the iPad sales over the weekend, I think we are going in the wrong direction."

This sounds good, and you'd think it would work. However, the sad fact is that thousands of digital books are being pirated in all genres, not just the most popular. Some of these books are priced at 1.99 - 6.99. I've even seen romance novels priced at .99 being pirated. And you can't get cheaper than this.

These people don't care about price. They know they can get it for free and that's all they care about.

Anonymous said...

I think it all depends on whether the pirated version was a pirated e-book, i.e. a pirated version of something one should actually be able to buy, or a scanned copy of the print book, something which is not separately for sale nor ever will be. If it's a scanned copy of the print edition, I'm with The Ethicist, since the guy could have made that himself from his print copy and hence is not cheating anyone out of anything (if he didn't own the print copy, it wouldn't be ethical, though). If it's a pirated purpose-made e-book which has extra features and is a different product intended to be sold separately, then it is unethical.

Jason said...

I've always thought that this came down to DRM/Restrictions. That is, are you somehow artificially preventing me from using what I paid for in a different way? I think DVDs are the best example. If I buy a DVD, I'd like to be able to make a digital copy of it. And while I know Disney does this to an extent, it's still not perfect. If I buy a DVD for my kids, I want to be able to make a digital copy that I can play through my XBOX (via a USB drive loaded up with movies) and on the DVD player in my car (which will also play movies via USB/flash drives). I get that I can use the real DVD for this, but it's simpler just to be able to — for example — turn on my xbox and choose from 10 or 15 different movies rather than using my DVD player. I can easily make a digital copy of a CD to use on my MP3 player, why should DVDs be any different?

I think e-books are a little different. Obviously, e-books are not generally DRM free, but I guess I don't feel that they restrict my use in the same way. I don't buy a paperback with the expectation of being able to transfer it to a different format. I don't care about moving e-books around to different computers because I have a Kindle, and reading them on the Kindle is pretty much the point. I know I can't share them with friends, but to me that's part of the price you pay for e-books: you pay less for them, but you can't sell them back and you can't pass them on. That's the deal you make when buying an e-book.

I’m not sure if that's sensible, or if it's just my own personal morality. I think the big issue now is e-book pricing: for me, part of the bargain is that I'm paying less in exchange for giving up some rights. I actually think that increasing the e-book price point will increase piracy more than anything else ….

ryan field said...

I agree 100%.

Anonymous said...


I was shocked by his column given his audience. We should not be telling people it's okay to pirate.

I think the stigma stuff went away when folks started foreclosing on their homes instead of sticking it out and doing the right thing. Would we have seen all these foreclosures fifty years ago? I think we are far more economically centered than we acknowledge in polite company.


We will always have pirates. We just want to minimize the number that we have. I think the iTunes pricing of a dollar a song did a pretty good job for the record labels. I now attribute their loses to not having enough good songs per record, so instead of making $11 for a record, they might make only $4 since people don't like the other songs. But this is a non-issue for books.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Very well said. You sure you DON'T want to be a lawyer for our side? =0

M.J.B. said...

I'll soon be re-buying certain books for my Nook, because I really don't like the idea of lugging around big hardcover books anymore (think "The Stand"). As much as it sucks, it's perfectly fine that I should be re-buying eBooks for books I owned in hard copy before the Nook overtook my life. I will only be buying eBooks in the future anyway, so the question of buying a hardcover with possible links to eBook downloads is moot for me. Still, it would be very forward thinking for publishers to provide this convenience as eBooks become more and more mainstream. Otherwise, people might do what I did, once I knew I was getting a Nook for Christmas: they could hold off on buying hard copy books altogether and instead wait until they can budget for a Nook, Kindle, or iPad.

Piracy is piracy, regardless, but here is something: Disney (and I believe soon Universal) Blu Ray releases now include a DVD copy of the film. These companies know DVDs are going away, just as VHS movies did, but they are catering to both early and late adopters in one package. Smart move, and it does not make the buyer double dip, which helps bring them back. We have to look at purchasing this stuff in new ways.

Also, in response to Reena about copying a personal CD to a personal device as opposed to copying it to someone else's platform: copying a CD to an iPod is indeed copying it to another person (or company's) platform. It is Apple's iPod platform, because iPods are an extremely convenient way to experience your purchased music without having to lug around the CD. You are changing the nature of the way you listen to it by copying it, just as someone who wants a free eBook wants to change the nature of how those words appear in front of his or her eyes. Technically, if we are to hold up the "they are two separate entities" argument, we should have major problems with buying a CD and then copying it into Mp3 format for free. We can't buy the Mp3s and then expect a hard copy CD, can we? Aren't they different platforms, and shouldn't they remain completely independent of one another?

Maybe not. Times are changing!

Brian said...

I pretty much agree with you, but I have no trouble with the distinction between legal and ethical. Good ethics don't always make good law. To choose one extreme example, Rosa Parks broke the law to help make the country more ethical. We all routinely break the law. (Who among us drives the speed limit and not one mile-per-hour faster?) But I don't agree with The Ethicist's claim that breaking this law is ethical for the reasons you outline.

Josin L. McQuein said...


And the idea that publishers will put links to ebooks in hardcovers is absurd. Why the hell would anyone do that? How is that business effective?

For the same reason it works with DVD's. Those who would wait for the digital versions to come out are more likely to splurge on a physical copy if they get a digital one included in the price. They can always give the physical copy as a gift after the digital one is released.

Also, it satisfies those who would probably go in search of a file sharing site even if they bought the physical copy. They get a guilt-free download. (Those downloads would only work once; they can't be used by say 20 people on different computers, and they're DRM protected.)

Anonymous said...

@Nathan, re: the baseball bat: However, if what the guy downloaded is a scanned copy of the print version (rather than a pirated purpose-made e-book), it is not like shop-lifting a baseball bat. It's like accepting a hand-carved bat from a guy on the street-corner who is giving out free hand-carved replicas of the same baseball bat you already own.

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree with you. I read the Ethicist’s article yesterday, and spent some time wondering why ethics and morals seem to be changing radically within public forums. I think we’re living in an era in which so many people feel cheated by the big corporations, ripping off the corporations is beginning to come into vogue as morally and ethically acceptable. I discovered MAD MEN last week, and watched the first season. Set in the fifties, one of the main characters extols the virtues of Ayn Rand's philosophy, and most of the main characters practice her philosophy. I read a couple of Ayn Rand novels years ago: ATLAS SHRUGGED and THE FOUNTAINHEAD. She believes in selfishness, even writing a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. Although I don’t believe she admires theft, I think many people are beginning to see theft as OK, perhaps because they feel that big corporations have taken money away from them. I’ve seen descriptions of executives responsible for our recent economic meltdown described as MAD MEN. I’m just thinking out loud. Like you, I was rather shocked by the Ethicist’s article. I have great respect for Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development in which selfishness, or even obeying the law simply out of fear of punishment, are considered only the first stage in a child’s moral development.

Nathan Bransford said...


I know what you're getting at, but I don't accept your analogy either. I realize that pirating a digital copy is not quite the same thing as stealing a physical copy because you're theoretically not depriving someone of a tangible object that they can then no longer sell. But you're still depriving a legal vendor of a sale, and if it's coming at the expense of a hardcover sale you might as well be stealing the actual hardcover because bookstores don't always sell out and the hardcover may well be pulped.

So it's not like a guy handing out replica bats out of the goodness of his heart. I still think it's closer to theft, even if I accept that it's not exactly the same thing.

Courtney Price ~ Vintage Ginger Peaches said...

I think the bundle is a MUST. I love my DVDs that come with the digital download... and usually, that doesn't even cost more. Books could even come with a code so you could download digitally... save the CD or whatever it would go on.

However, I'm another photographer (I saw another up there) that HATES the idea that people think that if they buy one picture, they can reproduce it (in a crappy, crappy medium usually) and call it okay. It's so not the same thing!

And I think that if you have to steal the file to get it digital, then you should think, "hmm, I'm stealing" and that should be your big "DUH" moment :)

CS said...

honestly if i've paid £20 for a hardback i'm not going to have a crisis of conscience if i download a copy for my e-reader. same as if i've paid for a cd i don't think twice about downloading the same tracks. i've paid for it once, i'm not paying for it again. i think you're being pedantic by jumping on the "all platforms" part of the comment.

Rick Daley said...

I like your VHS to DVD comparison best. E-books still have costs for production and distribution, and while some of it may overlap with the print edition (general editing, etc.) some may require additional work, warranting the additional cost.

Does copy editing and page formatting for an e-book differ from formatting for print?

I should probably ask Eric at Pimp My Novel that...

Anonymous said...

@Nathan: I also see what you're saying. I don't mean to impute absolutely pure motives to the street-corner bat replica guy. I'm sure the baseball bat company doesn't like him much, either. I just meant that this is something much more subtle and indirect than shop-lifting, and depends on whether or not the guy downloaded a product which could actually be bought.

Liza Lester said...

The Ethicist does often distinguish between lawful and ethical behavior, which is valid. The question is, is it ethical to break the law if you don't agree with it? Society depends on voluntary compliance to function; it isn't possible to force everyone to behave all of the time. I figure, if I believe in my government, and want my fellow citizens to follow the laws I favor, then I don't get to pick which laws I follow based on my own ethical calculus. It's not that Civic Disobedience is never called for, but I think that to follow Thoreau, you need to be putting your ass on the line, not just excusing temptation. (I really want to copy the CD's I've checked out of the library. It would be so easy, no one would know...).

However, I'm certainly not a saint who's never copied a CD. Relying on control of distribution and consumer goodwill may become insufficient means to profit from books, when creating copies is so easy and feels so harmless. Publishers and artists will have to find new mechanisms to fund their art/product. I'm just afraid that I won't like the solution. Embedded advertisements? Product placement? Ug.

Claudia said...

To those who get the ethical dimensions but still feel frustrated by the logistics of having to lug a thick book on the plane...doesn't it seem like there's a simpler solution than piracy or even waiting for an e-book to become available?

Maybe choose *a different book* to read on the plane? Such as one that's already available in either e- or paperback format? How hard is that? Maybe that book could be Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, which is all about how delayed gratification and patience are more important indicators of success in life than IQ.

Your thick book will be waiting for you when you get home...though why you haven't read it already is strange to me.

Anonymous said...

@anon 12:57:

You bring up an interesting point. If an eBook is not available for sale, but you bought the hardcopy, is downloading a pirate copy okay?

So I know that the Harry Potter books are not available as eBooks. If I download a pirated eBook, after having bought a hardcopy, am I right or wrong?

Or to put this a different way: do creators have the right to control the medium of the content?

Amy said...

I'm with the Ethicist on this one. I don't think it's fair for publishers to force someone to buy the same novel twice if they want it in multiple formats.

Okay, I get that there are production costs associated in creating the e-book. But those are not the bulk of the e-book's cost. The bulk of the e-book's cost is paying the author, agent, editor, copyeditor, etc., and if you've bought the hardcover, you've already paid for those once. Why should you have to pay for them again?

If you've already paid for the hardcover, the e-book should be available to you at a much lower price. Which makes the bundle deal a good idea.

Customers are very sensitive about feeling like they're getting a raw deal, and they are getting a raw deal if they buy a hardcover and then have to pay full price for the e-book.

Mira said...

Nathan 11:48 - yes, very nicely said!

Marilyn, thanks for bringing up Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Very apt.

I also want to add that I'm not sure how the argument that e-book theft doesn't deprive someone of a sale is relevant. If someone steals something from me that I wasn't even interested in selling, it's still theft.

I think you're talking damages, but the act of stealing is still the same.

Anonymous said...

@anon 1:02: I think this falls in the category of things which are ethically OK (albeit slightly unsavory) and legally probably not OK. I've been in the situation of really needing a particular book when I'm away at a conference in the middle of nowhere, a book that I own at home or could check out from my university library. In this circumstance, my conclusion is that it doesn't really harm anyone if I go ahead and download the pirated scanned copy.

Mira said...

Anon 1:25 if you illegally download my book, you are stealing from me.

You have harmed me.

Anonymous said...

Continuation of my previous comment re: downloading books at conferences: As a clarification, these are books that do not correspond to any e-book I could buy

Suze said...

Here is another way to look at the situation. If you own one television set, you do not have the right to simply take other televisions and say "I just wanted another set for somewhere else in my house. Don't worry, it's ok, I already own one."

If someone wants 2 copies of a product, they need to purchase 2 copies of that product.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Exactly! To continue the music analogy: if I buy the CD, I don't get to download the MP3 for free. As you said, if I want to put the time and effort into ripping an MP3 track from my purchased CD, that's fine, and I suppose I could create my own ebook with my print copy as well. But I don't get to buy the CD and then just get the MP3 from somewhere else for free. If I want it, and don't want to make it myself, I have to go to iTunes or some similar service. I don't think you even have to go into the VHS/DVD or book/movie comparisons. Go too far, and some will accuse you of comparing apples and oranges. The CD/MP3 analogy works fine.

I'm all for the bundle packages, the same way I like the DVD/digital copy or DVD/Bluray bundles. It costs a little more but I can get both formats. I don't see why it should be any different with books.

Marilyn Peake said...

Anon @1:28 PM,

I agree with Mira. The problem is that, when you download a pirated eBook copy from an illegal site, you’re supporting a site that’s giving away authors’ work without permission. Authors and publishers work very hard to shut down these sites because they deprive the author and publisher of income every time they give away eBooks for free. J.K. Rowling has said that the main reason she doesn’t allow her books to be published in eBook format is because she then automatically knows when an illegal digital version has surfaced, since all digital versions of her books are illegal.

Gavin Brown said...

Illegal copying and shoplifting are not the same thing, for a variety of reasons that you appear to already know. The ways in which they are different are substantial and relevant to the discussion.

You actually weaken your argument when you conflate the two. You have a good point to make about the rights of creators and consumers, but if you use an improper analogy critics can focus on that without engaging the substance of your argument.

Marilyn Peake said...


I love that analogy. The first 3-D TVs are now being sold. They look very cool! I’m pretty sure stores won’t allow customers to just steal one because they already own a TV. :)

Mira said...

Gavin - arguing about whether shoplifting and copying are the same thing is not the point.

Shoplifting and downloading an e-book YOU HAVE NOT PAID FOR are exactly the same thing.

Whether you are stuffing a book under your jacket and sneaking it out of the store, or logging onto an illegal site and taking my e-book without paying me - you have stolen from me.

Suze - nice point.

Marilyn Peake said...

Good point, Mira. And I’ll take that even one step further. Writers usually receive a much larger royalty on eBooks than on paperbacks or hardcovers, so in cases where an eBook version is pirated, writers lose significantly more income than they would if a paperback or hardcover version were stolen.

Phyllis said...

I'm not sure the morals changed so much. Remember recording tapes from LP's? They weren't for backing up your collection, you gave them away to your friends.

At university, we used to xerox whole books. Classes organized mass xeroxing of literature we had had to read. There was no *wink, wink* it's really my father's copy, no bad conscience about depriving authors and publishers their hard-earned bucks.

And do you remember these CD-burners with which you could make several copies at once? Did anybody assume the copies were for personal back-ups only?

The line between all right and illegal was a different one: it was okay if you gave it away, but if you sold your copies, you'd be persecuted.

With digital copies, the change is not so much with the ethic, but with the scale and the technical ease. I do understand that hacking into amazon and downloading an actual e-book is stealing, but what about the book someone scanned and uploaded to a peer-2-peer site for free? What's the different from xeroxing it?

Obviously, scale and ease do matter, and the music industry has already suffered because of it. But I don't think moralizing can be the end of it. The film, music, and book industry will have to find an solution to the problem that the individual copy of a piece of art has been greatly devalued with digitalization. Irrevocably.

Mira said...

Marilyn - That's an excellent point!

I think what you said about people feeling cheated and powerless against big corporations was totally on target.

But it's important to remember that when you steal a book you are not just 'getting back at' the corporation, you are hurting the author.

Most of us are authors here. How would you feel if you put all of that ridiculous amount of sweat, blood and tears into writing your book, not to mention querying, finding an agent, going through editing and publishing just to find out that people were stealing your book!

I'd feel just horrible.

And with that, I think I'd better stop. I'm way over my comment quota. :)

Thanks Nathan.

Gavin Brown said...


I said that they were different in some respects. I did not say that they were both ethical actions.

You think that there's something unethical about a person reading your novel without permission. That is the core of your argument.

Here's a good way to look at it:

A. Taking someone's creative work: Unethical
B. Taking paper: Also unethical, but for different reasons
C. Taking a printed book: Doubly unethical, because it's both of the above

A and C aren't the same, and if we claim that they are, people will endlessly point out that they're not--and use that as ethical cover for doing A.

Elaine AM Smith said...

I agree with Nathan.

I'm shocked anyone would suggest the two things are the same, especially those who do eminent thinking for a living.

I did vinyl to Cassette to CD; can I get a refund?

wench1976 said...

As an e-book author I say, thank you Nathan!
My books don't come out in traditional print, just e-format, so what is my publisher supposed to do regarding bundling? There is no hardcover to stick a code or cd in. Does that make it okay for people to nick my work and deprive me of my and my publisher of our income? No, it does not! And whether you know it or not, or whether you agree with me or not, that is exactly what you are doing every time you download an e-book illegally. You want to talk ethics? Formats/platforms aside, if it is deemed by law to be illegal, you can pretty much guantee that it is also UNETHICAL!

Mira said...

Whoops - breaking my last comment rule -

Gavin, I get what you're saying. You don't want to give people an opening to distract from the point of the argument. I agree with that thought, for sure.

But I also think we are at a crucial moment of definition.

E-books are new. It's important to argue (I think) that paperless or not, a theft is a theft is a theft, and whether you stole two things (content and paper) or just one thing (content) doesn't really matter. A theft is a theft.

Not arguing it would cede the point, which is not a point that should be ceded, imho. Shoplifting is a term that I believe should be applied regardless of substance.

But that's my opinion. :)

Phyllis, ask the textbook companies how they feel about students standing around xeroing whole books.

Okay, really my last comment. Gavin, if you respond, I'll e-mail you my response.

david222 said...

I am a newbie to this sight and a novice/idiot in the technological world. Having a book in any form other than on paper does not excite nor interest me. I am probably strong enough to carry even a 2 lb. book, I don't do financial exchanges over the internet, my work is dirty and rough, in other words the technology doesn't fit. If this E-book/Kindle thing does become mainstream, I'll be one of the last to jump on the boat. A question for ya'll though, if you buy an E-book would you print it out for me and my friends and their friends so that we all can have a hard copy? From a economical stand point, which income brackets are buying books versus those who are actually buying/downloading/pirating e-books. Nobody I know owns nor has an interest in owning an E-reader. I read about 2500 pages a week, so yea $$$$ for books, and will continue this way of living. I am not against change, unless it is forced down my throat. You can take my printed copy of IN COLD BLOOD from me when you pry it from my cold dead hands. This may sound off the wall to those that are more technologically advanced than I but there is a limit to the gadgets the average American will handle. For instance, I don't text, twitter, nor Ipod. No blue tooth or black berry no palm pilot.
I guess my big question about all this hub-bub boils down to this, are electronic books actually going to push bound copies out of existence? If so, won't all those new self-publishing firms that the big publishing forms despise so badly be hurt. Which format/industry will actually prevail?
yea yea yea, I know comment was about pirating not format so here goes, pirating is bad, don't do it.

Yes, I have owned Dark Side of the Moon, on LP, 8 track, Cassette, and CD. No I have never, ever, ever thought about stealing it physically nor electronically, nor digitally. EVER.

Jen P said...

This article made me think more about what do I buy exactly, when I make a purchase on i-Tunes (or potentially on a future i-Pad). Do I only buy the right to listen to or read the product in the format purchased?

For music, I tend to think I have bought the audio right to listen to that piece of music in that specific version/recording for my own personal use for all time - I have bought it on audio format - and whether it's on my Mac, i-Pod or in my car, I am still making use of my purchased right to the audio experience of the piece I bought - unchanged of itself.

If I buy an e-book, I am buying the right to read it as an e-book, making use of my purchased right to the electronic visual experience of the piece I bought - unchanged of itself.

As soon as I change the format ie: I print it even for myself, am I not infringing on the rights I bought?

The difficulty I have compounded in this e-book ownership understanding, is how the rights I purchased are 'temporary' with Kindle for example, since they can remove books I bought remotely at a later date.

Marilyn Peake said...

Mira @2:17 PM,

Absolutely! I absolutely agree with you! I’ve had my books pirated, and it sucks. I definitely wasn’t justifying a lack of ethics against a person or corporation, even if that person or corporation is behaving unethically themselves. I was just trying to understand why there seems to be such widespread acceptance of bad behavior against certain public entities lately. When I read the Ethicist’s article yesterday that described a certain type of stealing as ethical, it started me wondering how we ever arrived at a point where an ethicist would be giving out such advice. I was rather shocked.

J.J. Bennett said...

Steeling is steeling... but the choices need to be available so this doesn't happen to all the authors and publishers out there. Ethics are needed in this matter and saying it's okay to steel is just not right. It's like saying it's okay to steal a refill at the movies because you bought a popcorn last time you were there.

Mira said...

Nathan - you're right. Gavin and I are making fruit salad and arguing about apples vs. oranges. :)

Marilyn - I thought your point about why was very well spoken. And I'm sorry your book were stolen. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

I'm literally leaving the computer now.

Fascinating discussion. Thanks.

Mayowa said...

Turns out Barnes & Nobles is going to give the whole bundling (print and ebook) thing a GO.

Lets see how this turns out eh?

J. T. SHEA said...

I wonder what NYT 'Ethicist' Randy Cohen's employers would say if we all started pirating and reselling New York Times subscription articles? Things could get messy. Like shoplifting jelly. Or wallpapering your house with the Kama Sutra.

Kat Harris said...

I'm floored that the NYT -- a newspaper, A NEWSPAPER!!! -- would support The Ethicist's stance.

I'm not a subscriber to the New York Times, but I'd be interested to see how much of its content is posted online.

Does it offer a free e-subscription to readers who subscribe to its print edition?

It should. If this is the stance that its writers are going to take on this subject, then it should allow its print subscribers to download a readable PDF or JPEG of its entire edition online.

This is your best post ever, Nathan.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, Mayowa, hadn't seen that!

Phyllis said...


I still think it's clear that when you're downloading from a stranger it is definitely not personal use.

I think this is where many pirates will disagree and where they are feeling criminalized.

As I said, scale and ease do matter, and I mean in a moral sense, too. We can't uphold the standards of the past if they don't befit the realities of the present. When mixing tapes and xeroxing books may be negligible in terms of profit loss, e-piracy isn't.

My main point is a different one though. And you are right, it's related, but slightly off topic.

The value of the individual copy of a book has diminished significantly with the digital age. The book industry will have to deal with that. Any creative ideas?

Alma said...

I am with you on this. This really bothered me. Would he say it was all right to palm a paperback version because you'd bought the hardback? I doubt it. What's the difference then? The tangibles, paper, ink, distribution by truck? Then what he's really saying is that intellectual property suspended in electrons should be free? He didn't think this one through or he reacts with his gut and not his conscience.

Nick said...

I pay for a satellite feed for tv shows I download from america. I watch them via bittorrent and pay for them via satellite. I do not consider my position ethical or otherwise. I wish to consume these tv shows and am prepared to and do pay. I am not however prepared to wait ten months. You may see me as a criminal, but an infinitely reproduceable digital file is not the same as a television or a physical book. The cost of the digital file should reflect cost of preparation and distribution - but not the cost of the paper and physical distribution of a weighty object. If a plain text book cost $10, then the digital file should cost $10 less the printing and distribution and paper and storage and disposal costs, + the bandwidth costs - ie $2-4. Everything else is horseshit

Marilyn Peake said...

So here’s another interesting way of looking at this dilemma. If Amazon retains the right to remove Kindle eBooks - that a customer has paid for - directly from their Kindle, and Apple retains the right to control what material is allowed to be downloaded into a customer’s iPad in the first place, this implies that a customer doesn’t have complete control over the eBooks or digital devices they pay for. Soooo, does this make it more likely that people will define "ownership" of eBooks in their own unique way, too? Just wondering out loud about the psychology of making digital purchases. This has been a very interesting discussion today. I realize that different people probably define digital ownership in very different ways. As for authors, I think most have no say, either to Amazon or Apple or customers, in how their digital books are sold or at what price they’re sold.

Ashley A. said...

@Kat_Harris (2:41):

Oooohh. What an interesting point you have made. NYT does offer their content online for free now. Previously, they offered a paid online subscription that allowed access to certain "premium" content, such as opinion pieces.

Then all of was made available to anyone. However, as someone who gets NYT in my driveway every morning, I do have certain privileges, such as Times Reader, which is a super cool format that I really don't use.

Very interesting point, indeed. I still say, though, at this moment, books are different. But it's a brave new world for all of publishing.

Mary McDonald said...

Ethics aside, buying a book (or music, dvd, whatever) needs to be as easy as possible. Most people want to do the right thing, I believe, but when faced with obstacles, they can justify pirating it.

For instance, I would rather go to Amazon and buy a cd in about a minute, than search for it on a torrent, download it, and have to worry about viruses.

I think that's why it's vital for some kind of universal platform get put in place pronto. If people have to download special apps every time they want to get a book from different sources, that's an obstacle and a certain percentage of people are going to take the 'easy' route.

Stephen Prosapio said...

I'm back for a serious post. I think we're all struggling to make relevant analogies (no offense but the baseball bat one was the worst), but ultimately this is a *different* industry. When I buy a book, I'm buying that product to enjoy as long as it weathers the elements. I can loan it out if I want, give it away to a friend or to charity. I can put it in my library and read it in 15 years. That was the "deal" when I purchased that product.

When I go to the library, it's a different "deal," and I do *not* get to make copies or keep the book. There's no "it's like this or it should be like that" it is what it is.

A movie is a completely different product altogether. You don't get unlimited passes for you and your friends just because you paid $10.50 to see it at the theater! It's a different product. A DVD is a different product. Music is a different product.

I'm sorry but this isn't a technology question at all, it's a cultural question. Whoever wrote that we've become the entitlement society hit the boxer in the jaw. Without getting too political here, we've become the society where if we want it/it should be provided to us (and if it's not, and at a cost we approve of, then we're justified in complaining about it and/or stealing it). Hey I want free books and downloads....hey I can get them at the library for free, so they should be free everywhere!

Wrong. Just wrong.

Nathan Bransford said...

Ha. Stephen takes the bat to my bat analogy.

Nicole L Rivera said...

I completely agree. I am astonished by how society views bootlegging as acceptable, so acceptable that parents send their students to school with bootleg DVD's! I refuse to play them in my classroom. They are teaching their children it is okay to steal as long as the likely hood of getting caught is low. Disgusting.

Susan Quinn said...

I agree with Mary that ease will determine ethics for a lot of people (not me, I'm towing the hard ethical line with Nathan and not e-pirating ever). This is why it is SO important for the industry to get the pricing right. If e-books are well priced (and not have the e-book be MORE expensive than the paper back), and there are options like bundling available, AND people like the Ethicist are not allowed to devalue the moral pressures, then the majority of people will pay for their products, so they can feel legal.

AndrewDugas said...

Mike Shatzkin took a broader and significantly more intelligent (IMHO) approach to the same Ethicist column. He said the problem wasn't ethics or even legality but the shortsightedness of the industry to foresee and manage this issue in advance (via a bundle, as has been discussed).

Ethical and legal are two different things. I'm sure this distinction has already been widely discussed.

The guy paid the licensing fee for the content, so what's the problem? How can he steal something he's already paid for?

I've resented having to rebuy music on CD that I'd previously purchased as LP.

Is it now unethical for me to illegally download a song I've already paid for twice?

Give me a break.

Anonymous said...

In your words Nathan:

"I could very easily pirate anything I wanted, but I choose not to because I believe in supporting artists."

As I understood it, the origional questioner wanted a digital copy, but the publisher delayed the release of the digital copy so as not to canibalize hardcover sales.

So they payed more for the hardcover then they would have for a digital copy, just to get it early, then downloaded a digital copy.

Didn't the writer still get payed? Didn't the publisher still get payed? The digital distributor lost a sale, but couldn't the publisher's decision to delay digital release be seen as the real culprit? Is the digital distributor the "artist" that you're trying to protect?

Now royaly rates may differ on hardcover vs digital, and the digital distributor has a right to make a living, but don't pretend you're fighting for the writer on this one.

I don't think the author is the loser here.

Marilyn Peake said...

Anon @3:50 PM,

Typically, authors receive a higher royalty on eBooks than paperbacks, but nothing at all on pirated copies. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...


Mike Shatzkin was approaching it mainly from an availability standpoint, and I agree with him and others who feel that one of the best deterrent against piracy is to make things like bundles available at a fair price. He was somewhat coy about where he was drawing the line on stealing, but he mainly focused on the same point that I made, which is that there's a distinction between someone making their own personal copy and pirating. I part ways with him when he suggests that publishers have lacked a clear digital policy when it comes to hardcovers. Do you really have to tell people you don't get a free upgrade from hardcover to e-books? (his article is here by the way)

I still believe there is a moral and ethical component to this and I don't believe that piracy should be decoupled from ethics, which again, is why I was dismayed by the Ethicist's post.

You may well resent upgrading your music and yes, the songs are the same, but when you change formats you gain value - it has steadily become more portable and there is value added there that we have paid for. How many times have you upgraded to new computers or phones over the years? Why is that different?

We have all had to deal with format changes with other products, and I don't agree that there should be a moral decoupling with the switch from print to digital. The person in question didn't steal something he'd already paid for - he didn't pay for it.

Nathan Bransford said...


I might have just missed the joke, but that sounded sinister. E-mail me if it's the former.

AndrewDugas said...

Nathan -

A lot of the controversy around digital formats in general surrounds what exactly constitutes piracy. (I do not advocate piracy, BTW.)

In a hardcover, the content and the container are integrated. When you buy an e-book, you are buying strictly content. Reselling a hardcover is considered neither illegal nor unethical, yet do that with an e-book and you are a pirate.

So, there is no real ownership of an e-book; you are only licensing the right to view the content.

Now, when I buy a hardcover, I am similarly licensing the content. As you say, it is a matter of format, but on these grounds I agree with the ethicist.

I think you have a very strong point about the advantages of different formats (portability, etc.) and the value added thereby, but that is not how these are sold.

Indeed, one could argue that industries foist different formats upon us just so they can sell us the same songs/books over and over. VHS gets sidelined by DVD which is on the way to being sidelined by Blue-Ray and so on and on. (Don't get my grandfather started about his old 78s.)

So where does that leave me?

No way should the person in the Ethicist article be required to pay full price for an e-book when he's already bought the book new. (You could make a case for used books, since the copyright holders get nothing.)

I do look forward to seeing how this will all shake out in the future.

Thanks for another debate-stirring blog post.

Anonymous said...

Video of Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist", talking about how he has no background in ethics but was chosen over people with credentials in ethics to become "The Ethicist" for the The New York Times: Video.

Nathan Bransford said...


I definitely agree that this question is really difficult to decouple from issues involving DRM and the nature of what exactly you are buying when you are buying an e-book. If, as you say, when you buy an e-book you're just buying the right to view the material and it's so locked down you can't do much with it, why should you have to pay for it when you've already bought the right to view the content with the hardcover?

I'm somewhat sympathetic to that argument, and agree that hardcovers and e-books should be bundled in such a way that acknowledges that the consumer has paid for both and discounts accordingly.

I'm just not sure about the essential argument that buying the hardcover by nature grants you the e-book as well. People may well feel that because there's not a "fair" option available it justifies coming up with a gray area solution. I wouldn't condemn for making that choice, but I wouldn't put an "ethical" stamp of approval on it either.

Stephen Prosapio said...

@ Nathan - the baseball bat analogy might work if the guy took his own wood to the Louisville Slugger plant and used all their proprietary knowledge to "make" his bats?

Sam Albion said...

... has he.. raped small children? Beaten a pensioner to death for £7.50? Nope. He's "illegally downloaded" a book, a book he already has bought and paid for... come on, people, get a grip.

Gneocide, rape, these things are crimes... downloading a book, a few tunes now and then? it's hardly on the same scale, is it?

If the people who make e-books/make money from selling you tracks online DON'T want you to "steal" their stuff, then they should have the sense or the foresight to incorporate "read-only/non-copy" type elements to their products. If they can't or won't do this, then "tough on them". It's not as if doing this is impossible.

I don't write books so I can make money- I write books because I enjoy writing books. Most people who make music, and enjoy it, and aren't part of the corporate enterprise machine, don't mind people illegally downloading their tracks if it means- these "criminals" become fans, they come to the concerts and buy the merchandise, etc...

All the whiners are whining because they think what they're seling is worth more than it actually is... suck it up!

Nathan Bransford said...


If there's one thing I think everyone here can agree upon it's that pirating is not the equivalent of genocide or rape. I wasn't aware that was up for debate, but if it was: I'm on your side, pal.

Nathan Bransford said...


Resisting making a baseball joke like foul ball or home run. Barely.

Renee Sweet said...

Whoa. Were you in my brain? I just posted very similar thoughts here:

Well said. :)

Ink said...

Lol, Sam, that's pretty odd logic. Someone punching you in the face is probably not the same as genocide either, but, you know, I doubt you'd enjoy it. Unless you're in a Fight Club or something. In which case you'll probably enjoy sucking it up.

J. T. Shea said...

Nick, the printing and distribution and paper and storage and disposal costs of a $10 plain text paper book are about $4, making the digital file about $6 plus bandwidth and digitizing costs, say $7.

Amy said...

I worked in electronic publishing for a decade (on the technical side), and though I'm no longer in the industry, I'm worried by the missteps I'm seeing.

I hope the publishing industry is looking at Steam.

It's an electronic distribution service for computer games. It has largely solved the problems associated with electronic distribution--piracy, DRM frustration, consumers feeling ripped off, etc.

Steam involves the customer owning the product forever, being able to install it on any device (and any number of devices simultaneously), and never having to re-buy it.

It also involves some highly restrictive DRM that allows you to use the product on only one device at a time.

I hate DRM, but I accept DRM on my Steam games (and prefer buying from Steam than from anywhere else, even if the Steam version is not discounted from retail) because what they offer is so compelling. I own the game forever! I can install it anywhere and on anything! I can even let a friend play it--though while my friend is playing, I can't use my Steam games myself. (This restriction is 100% fair.)

Steam has turned this DRM-hater into an eager, satisfied, and loyal customer. I wish the publishing industry would come up with something equivalent. Realistically, a Steam-for-books isn't feasible until e-readers are better and cheaper. But I hope that's the direction the industry is heading in. I don't think it will get far trying to persuade readers to buy the same book twice at full retail price.

Ink said...


Some interesting points there, but I disagree with an element of it, namely that buying an ebook is solely a purchase of content, as opposed to a hardcover (which is a containter and content). Because the people trying to sell their copy of an ebook are not actually trying to sell their book. The book is not erased off their reader and given to someone else. It's copied. They then sell that copy. Or a thousand copies. That's very different. That's a copyright violation. It's no different than me taking a copy of Harry Potter and copying it out a thousand times and selling it on the street.

I think an ebook has a container, it's simply not a solid one. It's a single copy digital container. Do with it what you want. But if you copy it... it's a copy. That's not yours to distribute.

Just my take

an author said...

I'm a midlist author, and I routinely find sites where my book has been downloaded in the tens of thousands of times. It is not only heart-breaking but nerve-wracking, as well--what if my publisher sees how many sales they're not making?

The fact is, downloading an illegal scan of a book is bad because it raises online awareness that the property is available. Woe betide the author who earns the dubious honor of being found on the "most downloaded" list.

I agree that removing the stigma from this issue is the most dangerous thing that can be done. Already, I get completely slammed by self-righteous downloaders if I dare mention in certain venues that people don't have the right to read my book without paying for it.

One of the most common arguments I hear is that "people who pirate don't buy books anyway." I find it hard to believe that out of 30,000 people who wanted to read my book, some number of them wouldn't have bought it. As for the rest of them, I'd still rather they find something else to read.

Another common argument is that piracy expands your reader base. My reply to that is that these aren't exactly the readers every author dreams of. Yay! People who are get their books by stealing have stolen my book! Maybe they'll steal the next one, too. Lucky me.

Moira Young said...

I really shouldn't read your blog right before dinner, Nathan. Now I desperately want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and we've got Easter leftovers to work through.

Perhaps this will all lead to a shift in consumerism. We were happy enough to re-buy some of our old VHS tapes in DVD, but then when Blu-Ray came along, my husband and I agreed that we'd only buy new movies in Blu-Ray. When I eventually get an e-book reader, I'll probably do the same, or at least think long and hard before replacing each book. The rapid shifts in technology are probably encouraging piracy, too — people frustrated with a new format emerging every few years decide that they still want to embrace the new and shiny, but feel ripped off at having to pay for it each time. Eventually, something has to give.

Anonymous said...

To qoute from the original question that started it all:

"Unfortunately, the electronic version was not yet available. The publisher apparently withheld it to encourage people to buy the more expensive hardcover. So I did, all 1,074 pages, more than three and a half pounds. Then I found a pirated version online, downloaded it to my e-reader."

The "Ethicist" wasn't saying that pirating was completely OK, but he did make the case that if you're paying for something, and then enjoying it in the format you want, you aren't utterly morally bankrupt.

There are several questions to answer here:

Do authors and publishers deserve compensation for their work?
The ethicist says yes.

Do they have the right to decide how that work will be enjoyed?
The ethicist says no.

You can argue with him on that second question, but for Nathan to imply that the ethicist was making the case that artist deserve no compensation is a dishonest representation of the ethicist's position.

There are a host of other issues as well.
Is the reader buying the words, or their means of transmission?
Truthfully, you're always pay for both.

Yes, royalty rates differ on hardcover and ebooks. Doesn't that mean that by delaying the release of ebooks, and keeping only hardcover books available, the publisher is to some degree stealing from the author?
Or if an author makes more on a hardcover, didn't the hardcover-buyer-ebook-pirate actually put more money in the pocket of the author?
In either case, the end result was either more favorable for the author, or less favorable because of the publishers actions, and you can't really hold either against the buyer-come-pirate.

Does this encourage piracy in general?
Well yeah, it sure does. But if you're going to blame the "pirate"-who-still-spent-money for encouraging piracy, then isn't the publisher (who wanted to exclude the author from sales in a higher royaly format and therefore "stole" from the author) also eligible for some blame?

Maybe this issue is black and white, and maybe pretending that this issue is as simple as buying a hardcover copy and then stealing a paperback copy is stupid.

And if you want my not so humble opinion, any artist--writer, painter, musician, composer, etc--only has one thing to truly fear: obscurity.

There are a lot of much easier ways to make money than to write, and if you find it "hurtful" that someone was so eager to read what you had to say that they rushed out and paid more for your words in a format that they didn't want, and hunted around for a place where those words were in a format that they did prefer, then you should have your head examined.

Anyone who believes otherwise is clearly confused as to the difference between commerce and art.

Buyer's who then get something in another format aren't totally ethically pure.

Publishers who structure their business model so as to confound the buyers wishes, and diminish the authors wallets, aren't totally ethically pure.

And "artist" more concerned with commerce than with creating art, aren't totally ethically pure either.

Anonymous said...

I usually come to Nathan's blog for a balanced, forward-thinking view of publishing. It may surprise you how shocked I was to read his response - and all of the agreements on this thread.

What are publishers selling? Are they selling paper and ink? Or are they selling content?

The reason readers don't expect to get the DVD for free is because the content is different in the movie version of a book. You see the actors' faces. You see the sets. Some of the lines are different. You hear music. This is all content, and it is all different than the text-only version you read in the book.

The reason readers think they have the right to the ebook if they own the hardcover is because the content is the same. Yes, it's the same. Preach all you want about how expensive it is to format, etc., but to the reader, it looks the same. It reads the same. The same content goes into the brain.

This is what publishing has yet to recognize. You can try to fight it, and you can argue about the author's right to be paid for his blood, sweat, and tears; but in the reader's mind the author has already been paid. What you want readers to do is to pay twice for the same content. And then you become the bad guy.

I don't think you're going to be able to convince them otherwise.

an author said...

Anon 5:01 -

And "artist" more concerned with commerce than with creating art, aren't totally ethically pure either.

Most of the greatest art in history was created on commission. So if I'm as ethically bankrupt as Mozart, Michelangelo, etc., I guess that's a cross I will learn to bear.

Writing is a profession, not a not-for-profit venture. Trust me, there is nothing so magical about being an author that one should be expected to starve in order to earn the job title.

Anonymous said...

The video of The Ethicist talking about how he received that job without any background in ethics, over people who did have credentials in ethics, is quite illuminating. He even mentions how working on the David Letterman show probably gave him important training in ethics. We’ve talked many times before on this blog about the “democratization” of literature. We do tend in this society to shy away from experts and true intellectual debate. If we’re comfortable with the publishing of dumbed-down books whenever they sell in huge quantities and make a lot of money, is it really so surprising that The New York Times hired someone who might attract more readers than a person with a Ph.D. in Ethics who might sound stuffy to readers? Ironically, this is another ethical question.

Cory said...

"Most of the greatest art in history was created on commission. So if I'm as ethically bankrupt as Mozart, Michelangelo, etc., I guess that's a cross I will learn to bear.

"Writing is a profession, not a not-for-profit venture. Trust me, there is nothing so magical about being an author that one should be expected to starve in order to earn the job title."

I didn't say you should starve, or bear crosses. If there's nothing magical about what you do, and you are a professional and not an artist, there's nothing wrong with that.

There are difference between then and now, mainly the fact that publishers are businesses motivated by profit and the patrons that supported Michelangelo were not.

But again you miss my essential point. This isn't a black or white issue. It's more complex.

Or perhaps it is black and white for you, all paycheck and no artistry.

If your books sell well, more power to you. But if you put as little passion into them as you claim to, I think I'd probably prefer to read something else.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Wow. There sure are a lot of nasty anons out and about today. I wonder if the topic hit too close to home.

Ink said...

Anon 5:07,

That's sort of funny. But good for me! I bought a hardcover the other day. So I'm just gonna waltz back and take all the paperbacks too. Same content! The words are the same! I checked! Christmas is coming early this year. For the whole family! I hope they all like the book, though.

Josin L. McQuein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Genella deGrey said...

One little ipod (after you've legitimately purchased both items) is one thing, but handing the copied CD to two and three hundred (possibly more) without them paying for it is entirely another.

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree with you that publishers are in the content delivery business. But the format of that content varies tremendously. A hardcover is not a trade paperback is not a mass market paperback is not an audiobook is not a leather bound edition is not a movie tie-in edition is not an illustrated version is not an e-book. Buying in one of those formats doesn't get you any of the others for free, and I don't see why e-books should be different.

an author said...

Cory, because someone expects to be paid for something doesn't automatically mean they do it without passion or care.

Since you brought it up, I will take the opportunity to say that I do, indeed, feel passionately about my work. So do many people in many other professions who also like to be able to pay their bills at the end of the day.

And no, it's not a black and white issue. I don't believe I said otherwise. Or that I said anything to provoke a personal attack.

I doubt you would have accused Nathan of being passionless, and it's a known fact that he works for commissions paid by large corporate publishers.

Liz said...

I agree with you, but find it fascinating to watch ethics attempt to keep pace with modern technology and science. Our world is changing faster than it ever has (in human memory, anyway.) If I were twenty, I'd go back to grad school or law school to study ethics.

kathrynjankowski said...

". . . we need to get past the idea that an electronic format is value-less relative to print."

Well said. Unfortunately, some people don't understand intangibles.

Ink said...

Okay, that probably came out snarkier than I intended, but I just thought it was funny. I'd have the most kickass garage sale if the logic of owning one gives you the right to own all the others for free. I'd be writing cardboard signs all day.

Liesl said...

This really speaks to our society's sense of entitlement. What kind of society do we have when keeping the law has nothing to do with morals or ethics? I'm NOT sorry, that's messed.

I can tolerate the point-of-view that publishers should give more for the customer's money. We all want more, more, more. But I draw the line at the idea that illegally downloading is ethical. If it were ethical then it wouldn't be illegal.


pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.
being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice, esp. the standards of a profession

What's legal is not always ethical, but what is ethical will always be legal. If we've lost sight of that, we've got bigger problems than piracy.

Marilyn Peake said...

I decided that, since the discussion of a certain popular book series comes up so often in writers’ groups, I should read those books. I bought the first two books in the series in paperback. I read them and intensely disliked those books, on so many levels, and cannot believe the huge amount of grammatical errors and repetitious wording; but I decided that I should still read the entire series as a kind of sociological study, since the books are so damn popular. I bought the next two books in the series on Kindle, and then decided that I should probably have all four books available on Kindle, in case I wanted to look up an earlier part of the story. So, as unpleasant as I found it, I paid for the Kindle version of the two books I already owned in paperback. I can’t imagine treating an author any other way. If an author offers their books for sale in multiple formats and I decide for whatever reason that I want more than one format, I feel that I should pay for all the formats. That's certainly how I'd like to be treated. Even if I hate the author’s writing and can’t believe that they were ever published, the fact is they are published and that’s how they’re earning a living.

I have, on occasion, purchased both the paperback and eBook versions of a book by an author I know, when I want the book in paperback but the author receives a larger royalty on the eBook version. I’ve also on occasion bought extra paperback copies of novels and given away all but one copy. I like supporting authors. It makes me feel good.

J. T. Shea said...

Anonymous 5.01 pm, the remedy for an author's obscurity is not piracy.

david222 said...

Does this theory work in reverse? If I buy an E-book and down load it on my Kindle can I get a hard cover for free?

Anonymous said...

I know a publisher who found a woman offering copies of his publishing company's eBooks on eBay. He told her she needed to cease and desist. She became furious, saying that she bought one copy of each title and was entitled to do whatever she wanted with it, including sell extra copies. Obviously, she was wrong, since that's actually illegal.

Marilyn Peake said...

Liesl said:
"What's legal is not always ethical, but what is ethical will always be legal."

Actually, I think that what is ethical isn’t always legal. Oftentimes history will fix its mistakes, but many times unethical treatment of others is institutionalized and made into law.

Hope I haven’t posted too many comments today. Two of my favorite topics to discuss are Ethics and Psychology.

HNK said...

As an expert in the field of ethics, I found your blog well thought out. My only additional question is, What makes something ethical in the first place? That makes a big difference in whether someone sees the quandary you've posed as ethical or not. I suspect that whatever answer people give reveals as much about what they believe to be true about life as whether you are right or not. Thanks for raising the issue - and hopefully raising the bar.

Cory said...

An Author,

I'm sure Nathan works far too hard for what little he gets paid. And most authors get paid far too little for the work that goes into their novels.

I simply wanted to point out how ridiculous it is to be "hurt" by the idea that someone might buy a hardcover copy of your book, then download a digital copy to read while on vacation.

Really? Hurt? If you only care that someone pays for a specific format, and don't care at all that they care enough to read it, then go write textbooks and technical manuals.

If a writer wants to be read, they must write something someone somewhere will pay for. So yeah, every author is a commercial author.
But hopefully money isn't the only reason you write, and I really hope it isn't the primary reason you write. (Because it simply doesn't pay that well for all but the most incredibly talented of writers.)

Everyone deserves to get paid for their work, so why aren't we discussing how to make that happen? I'm not of the defeatist opinion that these advances in technology can only impoverish writers.

Or we could attack readers for finding new ways to use all this new technology, after all it worked out so well when the music industry attacked their customer base.

More than half the people in these comments are demonizing a paying customer for downloading a book in a format in which he couldn't buy it.

If you pick this as your fight, then even if you win, you lose.

By simplifying things it becomes good guys vs bad guys, and nobody really wins. Hyperbole is unhelpful.

And, you did imply that it was black or white. You implied that you and the Mozarts, Michelangelos, and Christs bearing crosses just like you were being put upon by the evil paying customers lining your pocket in a manner not consistent with the business model by which you wish to have your pockets lined.

See how unhelpful that is?
Don't exaggerate my position and I won't exaggerate yours.

John Jack said...

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution; Congress shall have Power . . .

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

In other words, fostering creativity by giving artists exclusive rights to their creations for a limited time.

_Exclusive_ is the key word. No one has a right to decide they are the exception to the law.

"Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty." -- Henry M. Robert _Robert's Rules of Order_

However, copyright law attempts to balance the individual with the public good by fostering a competitive and as freely accessible access to intellectual property as commercial forces allow.

In other words, the public good trumps individual good in Fair Use situations. But even Fair Use has limtitations.

For example, unauthorized copying of short stories for study purposes in academic settings violates copyright law. Although not well-known by students, and in some cases faculty, course packets of copyrighted material are authorized copies hired from a copy shop that pays royalty fees to a registered copy clearinghouse.

The Ethicist seems to favor the public good over the individual good. That's wrong-way logic because it invariably diminishes the public good by taking away profit incentives for artists to surpass what's come before. The world would be a darker place if the individual good was ignored.

Anonymous said...

@Nathan 5:39. You're right - and yet nobody I know would ever dream of paying for another copy of a book they already own just to have it in another format.

I think the issue is as Liz points out: ethics trying to keep up with technology that has changed more in the past thirty years than in the previous hundred. It's an interesting time, to be sure.

Kalen Cap said...

I agree that "the Ethicist" got this wrong. The analogy of buying the hardcover and then going and taking a paperback version off the shelf is a good one for explaining why it is wrong. Plus, in some situations, the companies invested in the hardcover aren't going to match those invested in the electronic format version. So, somebody's work is likely going unpaid.

Anonymous said...

One point I've seen argued here is really bothering me. So, as a regular reader but first time commenter, here goes:

Last I checked, no one is being "forced" to buy music, books,movies or whatever the heck they think they are entitled to at whatever cost they are willing to spend. If the industry wants to keep spending the money to upgrade the technology and subsequently make my current Beta/VHS/DVD/Blue Tooth etc obsolete, it sucks for me, yes. But I still have a CHOICE not to continue with their game.

As far as I am concerned, illegal is illegal, period. Breaking the law is unethical. And convenience is NEVER an excuse.


Anonymous said...

This isn't an entitlement issue. If it were, you could flip it around:

Why does the publisher feel entitled to be paid twice for the same content?

In fact, we could rephrase the dilemma this way. Which is MORE unethical?

1. Downloading, for personal use, an e-book version of the book one paid for in hardcover?


2. Forcing a reader to pay full retail price multiple times for the same content?

The readership of this blog is mostly authors, aspiring authors, and publishing industry insiders; thus it's going to be highly skewed towards answer #1. But in other places, you're going to find that a lot of people think it's #2.

I don't think the DVD analogy flies. There was a long time lag between DVDs replacing videotapes, and BlueRay replacing DVDs. It's one thing to buy a DVD of the same movie 10 years after you bought it in VHS. It would be quite another if the publisher of the DVD required you to buy, TODAY, one version that works on your home DVD player and another that works on your portable DVD player. That's the more applicable analogy to this publishing industry situation.

The internet has given more power to consumers. In some ways it's good, in some ways it's bad. The bad part is that piracy has done serious damage to some industries (for example, in computer games it has led many game developers to develop only for consoles, not for PCs, because console games are harder to pirate. Fortunately, Steam is turning that trend around).

The good part is that consumers, with their increasing power, have forced businesses to abandon some unfair practices. Years ago, if I heard a song on the radio I loved, I would have had to buy an entire album to get that song. That would be okay if the other songs were equally good. But you guys know how it really was. There would be one or two good songs on the album, and the rest would be crap. The music industry knew it could get away with selling you those crap songs, because they were bundled with the one good song, which you couldn't buy separately.

Did the music industry change that practice out of the goodness of their hearts? No, they changed it because consumers were saying NUH-UH to their business model in droves.

In a world where consumers have increasing power to reject unfair business practices, companies are increasingly on the hook to give their customers a fair deal. Making your customers buy the same content twice is not a fair deal.

Nathan Bransford said...


The lag time between the invention of books and the invention of e-books was 650 years. I think the industry has earned a little patience and understanding with one format change per half millennium.

Nathan Bransford said...

And by the way, no one is making anyone do anything. If you like e-books you can buy just one format. If you like print books you can buy just one format. If you want both I don't think it's unreasonable to expect someone to pay for both, any more than if they wanted two print books.

an author said...

Cory, thanks for your clarification.

I think you misunderstood me. I meant that being in the art-for-pay business among the company of such men as Mozart and Michelangelo was a burden I was willing to bear. Not that I see the work itself as a cross.

Like many other published (and yet-to-be-published) writers, I did this for many years before anyone offered me a check for it. And I do quite a bit of it for its own sake (i.e., free), outside of the publishing marketplace.

What's funny is that I don't find the specific instance in question as galling as many people here do. The person presumably didn't download a rights-protected ebook without paying--he downloaded a pirated copy. So he's not stealing directly from a specific person or company. It's not like he hacked a Kindle copy without paying.

I personally believe that downloading books illegally is harmful to authors for reasons mentioned above; but if somebody is going to do it, yes, please, make it someone who bought the book already.

And yes, I stand by the comment "hurtful." The same way it hurts when somebody steals a bike out of your open garage or a Netflix envelope out of your mailbox.

Maybe if the download numbers were in the hundreds instead of the 10,000s, I wouldn't be worried so much about my allocated percentage. But 30,000 legal sales would put me in a different league as an author, and one can't help but feel the pinch at the loss of that. It's the realization that people don't know--and if they do know, they don't care.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious if the NYT article will have the same impact as the findings in the Milgram experiment:

Do people need someone to guide their morale compass? Since this NYT writer is telling people it's okay to steal content, then will people use this writer as morale compass to pirate.

Will this writer's article move people's morale compass, so that they think piracy is okay if they all ready bought a hardcopy?

Anonymous said...

If you want both I don't think it's unreasonable to expect someone to pay for both, any more than if they wanted two print books.

That's fundamentally where we disagree. I do think it's unreasonable. If I buy a song, I expect to be able to play it on my computer, in my car, and on my iPod. It would be unreasonable to expect me to buy a separate version for each device. Similarly, it is unreasonable to expect me to buy a separate copy of a novel for my iPad (if I had one) when I already bought the hardback--especially if I'm asked to pay full price both times. (A discounted rate, accounting for the fact that the author/editor/copyeditor/proofer/etc have already had their cut, would be more fair.)

Of course, the only reason this is such a problem is that the formats (print vs. ebook) are so different, and involve slightly different production costs. When e-books are more the norm and print is on its way out, this will be less of an issue.

But the freedom of the customer to put the book on any device of their choosing will always be an issue.

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree that the electronic ideal is reading your e-book wherever you want to read it, and Amazon is pretty much there. I guess I'm just having trouble understanding why buying a paper book necessarily entitles someone to read it on an electronic device.

I mean, no one likes paying to convert their libraries, whether it's movies, music, or books, but that precedent was established long, long ago. I agree that the ideal is some sort of discount or bundling, but I don't think a consumer's dislike necessarily creates an entitlement to a change in format that the consumer didn't pay for (unless of course, as I mentioned, the consumer wants to produce the conversion themselves).

Anonymous said...

Anon at 7:55 "Making your customers buy the same content twice is not a fair deal."

I must respectfully disagree, because we all do it everyday, at the grocery store, at the gas pump etc. etc.

I view it like this:

If I go to the grocery store and buy a package of oreos - I am buying the content that is CONTAINED within a PARTICULAR PACKAGE, not the exclusive right to all oreo packages put out for the next millennium. I therefore, cannot GO BACK and demand more packages of oreos -bigger, smaller, or the now more CONVENIENT to go size, whatever -just because I bought some before and it CONTAINS THE SAME CONTENT. Personally, I don't think it makes a difference whether you are selling your idea put into WORDS and packaged to be sold in hardcover, paperback, ebook etc OR your freakin' chocolate cookies packaged to be sold in boxes or plastic containers. As the consumer, you're only entitled to the content contained within the package you purchased.

BTW, I am NOT an author - purely a consumer (but of books, not oreos:)


myimaginaryblog said...

I'm a little baffled by the comments saying that because they wish publishers would bundle formats and think that would be a more fair practice, they're entitled to change the publishers' terms by stealing content. I wish you would give my your book; it seems fair to me. So I will take it.

I do have to admit to feeling sympathy for obtaining pirated content that's not in print--in fact, I did once send $18 to a woman in England for a DVD of a very old BBC show that wasn't available for sale, which she'd recorded off her TV. I would have been just as happy to send my money to the BBC instead, if they'd been selling copies. (The joke was on me when it turned out to be a lousy production.) But I wouldn't think that having already owned a copy of that show would have entitled me to another copy, free.

Also, I think legality is at best a *minimum* standard of what is ethical. I heard a really great quote on this at church recently:

"There is a great risk in justifying what we do individually and professionally on the basis of what is ‘legal’ rather than what is ‘right.’ . . . The philosophy that what is legal is also right will rob us of what is highest and best in our nature. What conduct is actually legal is, in many instances, way below the standards of a civilized society.” -James E. Faust

Here's one more: "“Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.” -Walter Williams


This is an extraordinarily well articulated essay. Thanks for posting it. I wish you'd post it on Huffington Post also, and have others read it--there is so much nonsense sometimes in the Times. (Like the mad, bad Stanley Fish, an EX-academic who left in a huff, serve as the voice of academia in the op-ed pages.) I feel like you explained exactly the difference.

Amy said...

Nathan, I think you and I are envisioning different scenarios.

The one I'm envisioning is John buys a hardback even though an e-book is available, because he love the print format. But then he has to go out of town, and he hasn't had a chance to read it. He wants to load it onto his iPhone for the trip--gotta travel light--but to do that he either has to buy a second copy of the book or illicitly download it. In that case, I don't have an objection to his downloading it. I don't think the publisher or author has in any way been ripped off. John is simply compensating for a device incompatibility problem.

I think the scenario you're envisioning is John wanting to convert his entire library of print books, which he's been amassing for 30 years, to e-books. That I would have more of a problem with. I guess I feel like after you've owned a book for 10, 20, 30 years, you've gotten your money's worth from the initial purchase--especially if you still want to read it after all that time!

I've done the VHS to Laserdisc library conversion for my movie library, and then the Laserdisc to DVD conversion. What struck me, both times, was how few movies I actually needed to re-buy. Most of them I had no interest in ever buying again. I questioned why I bought them in the first place. The small handful I bought in multiple formats were movies I loved so much that I didn't mind paying for them twice or even three times. They'd earned it.

Ironically, this story doesn't have a happy ending for the film industry. I got so tired of my movies becoming unusable due to format changes that I decided to stop buying them at all. Now I just rent anything I want off netflix. Let netflix do the library upgrading!

John said...

Tough issue, but I come out with Amy, CS and the Ethicist on this one. I accept Nathan's arguments, and yet I'd feel no guilt over downloading the e-book if I had already bought the physical version. An increasing number of people already feel this way about music. Regardless of whether we on this blog feel it is ethical, we have to come to terms with the fact that society has gradually become more accepting of the piracy of electronic media, and alternative revenue models (advertising, monthly subscription fees to online libraries, etc) need to be adopted quickly before publishing revenues collapse the same way record company revenues have.

Nathan Bransford said...


No, to me it's more than a library conversion issue. I guess I don't understand why it's okay to download an e-book because of expedience. If you love print because it's print why do you then need and are entitled to the electronic version when you want convenience? Especially when the person in this example knew about the potential device compatibility problem going in? And especially when the actual number of titles in a library you'd want to convert is so small?

I'm just not understanding these distinctions. When does it become okay to download it illegally?


See, I actually think the needle has moved from mass acceptance of piracy in the Napster era to a more niche core audience who still wants to justify it - IMHO most people now don't really see piracy as an ethically ok to do even when they still do it. I don't have any numbers to back this up and maybe it just has to do with my peers getting older and moving on, but while I agree that it's time to think of more revenue streams, I don't think people who are anti-piracy should take a c'est la vie attitude about it. I still think there's a right or wrong issue and that piracy should be stigmatized. Even if we accept it as a fact of life Ethicists shouldn't go around saying it's okay.

Anonymous said...


I do think it's an age and economic thing. My old friends who have homes and careers don't pirate. My friends who have lost their job or have low paying jobs pirate. I guess they figure they have nothing to lose if they're caught.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think there's probably something to that.

John said...


I agree that the Ethicist shouldn't condone piracy. And, like you, I don't have real numbers backing whether piracy is waxing or waning. In either case, though, piracy was accepted to the point of nearly bankrupting the traditional music industry, and I worry that the same will happen in publishing once e-books really take off. In the case of music, artists can still make a fair amount of money from concerts, but writers don't even have that to fall back on.

In any event, I hope like the rest of us here that the writers come out whole. We've got it tough enough already!

wench1976 said...

JT Shea said: "Or wallpapering your house with the Kama Sutra." As an erotic romance author you just gave me one of the best mental images ever! Thanks!

Marilyn Peake said...

I find the last few comments really interesting. I recently bought the hardcover version of a new novel by one of my favorite authors. Realizing that I was going to be attending a convention where it would be easier to bring only a Kindle rather than paperbacks or hardcovers, I purchased Kindle versions of that book and a couple of other books that I already owned in paperback or hardcover. Since they looked like exceptionally good books, I thought it a good thing that the authors would receive extra royalties from my purchase; and I felt that I was paying for the convenience, kind of like when you pay extra for the atmosphere and service in a good restaurant. From some of the comments here, it sounds like many people might not realize that authors get paid royalties for legally purchased eBook versions of their books, often 30% or more of the purchase price (compared to 10% for paperback or hardcover). In high school and college, I worked as a waitress – a tough job, and I now always tip well for good service. Maybe it’s one of those things where you have to work a certain job – waitress or struggling writer – to fully realize how much the tips or royalties mean to the person doing the hard work.

John said...

Points well taken, Marilyn. Whether we agree with Nathan or the Ethicist, though, we have to be prepared for the fact that many people will go one step farther than the Ethicist and download illegally without having paid for any hard copy. It's happened in music and likely will happen in publishing too. It's illegal, unethical - and unavoidable. I just don't want to see publishers drag their feet in coming up with alternative revenue models, hoping that people behave ethically, while meanwhile the industry and writers' livelihoods collapse around them.

Kate Evangelista said...

Technology has made the world of ethics an even more difficult slope to climb.

Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe said...

Darn you Nathan! I could've gotten in to the movie sequils of the Harry Potter, Twilight and Percy Jackson films. Not to mention Darren Shan. Of course we still don't know if Percy & Darren are getting sequils like Harry or if they'll be forgotten like Lyra, but admission would've been free cuase I own the books!

Way to go Nathan! Strong, true points!

Josin L. McQuein said...

Books aren't as easy to convert, and I'm pretty sure that's where the "it's okay if I've bought a copy" thoughts come in.

If I buy a CD, it's easy to take the tracks from the CD and convert them to mp3. It can be done on any computer or laptop.

Even if I have old VCR tapes, those can be converted to digital with a DVD burner and a cable.

But, there's not an "easy" way for John Q. Bookreader to take a novel off his shelf, plug it in and have it converted into e-book format. There's no bridge there. To do that, you'd either have to physically scan or type each page.

Going in search of an e-book download is faster and simpler and creates that missing bridge between old and new.

What really annoys me, though, are sites where someone will upload HUNDREDS of books at a time. They know it's not right, and the sites say that if someone finds copyrighted material they'll take it down, but some of these people go to extremes to camouflage their links so they don't show in searches.

If you type in something like "Harry Potter" or "Rowling", you'd get nothing, but if you know what to look for and type in "purple track shoe novel", or whatever stupid phrase the person used, you get the whole series.

I know someone who has a long running series out who discovered their books on 4shared a while back and the number of downloads totaled over $1200 in sales (had those been purchases). Did the people who downloaded those buy the physical books as well? I have no idea (but I'd bet on "no") What I do know is that that's a house payment!

Claude Forthomme said...

Nathan, I completely agree with what you said. Buying a paper version of a book doesn't give you the right to downlead an e-version for free.Like in the oreo cookie example (which really makes it quite clear), it amounts to plain stealing. And at the expense of publishers, of course, but of writers too.


This said, I regret that publishers will not consider allowing people who have bought a paper version to download an e-version AT A DISCOUNT. That would be really helpful and probably cut back on piracy temptations.

I for one regret that I bought certain books in e-version. I liked them so much that I would have loved to obtain a paper version as well because (a) paper is easier to consult and use as reference and (b) it's easier to lend to friends. But of course I hesitate to pay twice for the same product...Regardless of platform, it IS after all the same product. Can't publishers bend a little and come forward with a discount if I can prove to them I recently bought their paper book? It should be easy to keep track of purchases in this digital age...

Anonymous said...

The people who have agreed that's it's okay to download from a pirate site just because they've purchased the print book don't fully understand what authors and publishers are going through right now with piracy in a general sense. There are many people downloading entire libraries from pirate sites whether they buy the print book or not. This is not just about making an honest print book purchase and feeling entitled to a free e-book (as bad as that is), as if e-books were nothing of significance. There's a broad concept of e-books in general that people are missing and I think that's because e-books are still so new to so many people. They don't take them seriously and think of them as something less than print books. But in a few years when print books are selling less than e-books this is only going to become more serious.

And, I know for a fact that authors and publishers are concentrating on going after the pirates as well as the people who download from the pirates. We have names, we're lobbying the FBI, and we're beginning to expose the readers who have been stealing the books. In author circles, this is a huge topic and it's not going to disappear. Like it or not, this is a criminal offense.

A few years ago smokers were ordering cigarettes online at a fraction of the cost. And then there was a huge bust in NY harbor where the government confiscated an entire shipment. All the people who made internet orders were tracked and forced to pay the taxes or face criminal punishment. And I truly believe this is what's going to happen to people downloading and stealing books for free.

Rick Daley said...

If I saw AVATAR in IMAX 3-D, should I pay a lesser ticket price if I see it a second time at that same theater?

What if the second time is not IMAX, not 3-D, or at a different theater?

This is a dangerous form of consumer entitlement where people feel that they are owed products and services rather than feeling obligated to pay for products and services.

And while it does not compare to horrendous crimes like rape and genocide, or even large-scale financial crimes a la Bernie Madoff or Enron, it is still a crime.

If you steal $1 from me I probably won't make a big deal about it. But if 10,000 people each steal $1 from me, I'm going to be pretty upset.

Dan Holloway said...

First up, it is the job of ethicists not to be bound by what is or is not considered good form, and what is legal - it is their job to point out when, in their opinion, and why, the law is an ass.

I think you're bag on, though, to point out the flaw in the analogy - the plain fact of the mater is that not only is it a different product, but different people were involved in production, and they need to be reimbursed. Unless you hike hardcover prices and refuse to sell hardcovers unbundled, there is nop way to divide up the two revenue streams in order to provide suitable recompense, or work out what an appropriate per piece going rate is.

As an aside, on the question of free, I 100% agree with what you say here:
"If it really is financially advantageous to allow things to be readily available for free or very cheaply or unencumbered with DRM let the sellers (the publishers and the authors and booksellers) make that decision. If it's better financially for the parties involved, let the market move in that direction. Support the companies who have policies you like with your dollars, not through illegal activity."

As an author who gives his work away for free for business reasons, that's the case I've been making for a long time - that the publishing industry should get off my back telling me I have no right to give my own work away free, and let the market decide whether or not I've got it totally wrong.

V said...

The publisher Baen already bundles DRM-free CD's in hard backs. These CDs contain previous e-books in the series (if applicable) and other books by the same author.

In addition to that, you can buy any e-book from the Baen already formatted to fit your reading device. DRM-Free, of course.

If that wasn't enough... Baen also offers free e-books for download. These are usually the first book or three in a series so the reader doesn't have to worry if they like the series before they start investing time and money in it.

Here's the kicker though. 1)Baen only publishes Science fiction and fantasy. 2)They also trust their customers not to steal or pirate unduly. 3)The late Jim Baen (who started the company) and Toni Weisskopf (who now owns it) both realize the writer's worst enemy is lack of readership. Pirates kinda-sorta act like free-lance advertisers, using word of mouth to boost paying readership.
4) Encouraging readers to make digital copies to share with their friends has paid off. Baen's e-book driven back list is large and still selling paper books for the company.

Stephen Prosapio said...

@ anon 4/5 7:05

"This isn't an entitlement issue. If it were, you could flip it around:

Why does the publisher feel entitled to be paid twice for the same content?"

Ummmmm, yes. You need to pay twice. The same way you need to pay twice to see the same film content twice in the theater. Or a stage play. Or the DVD content if you've seen the movie in the theater.

Cory said...

Nathan, You ask "Should we be able to get into the movie for free when we own the paperback?"

I have done just that exact same thing, legally, as recently as a few weeks ago.

If I buy a copy of Hamlet, do I have the right to watch a free performance of it at the nearest park?

Yes, I do, so long as those putting on the performance are doing it for free.

I have a legal copy of the play in one format, and if it is being offered through another distribution channel free of charge, I have the right to see it there as well.

In fact, I don't need to own any sort of copy of Hamlet to go watch a free performance of it.

I saw a movie at a theater a couple weeks ago, and I happen to own the DVD for that movie, and I didn't have to pay to see the movie, and it was all legal.

That's where all of your "I have it in this format so I can steal it in this format" arguments break down.

Now, if the actors dont have the right to perform it, then they may be breaking the law, but I most certainly am not.

Downloading an illegal copy of it certainly is illegal, though, but I think you're anger at the downloader is misplaced. He at least bought a hardcover copy.

And when I went to see that movie I happened to have complementary tickets, otherwise I would have had to pay, or break the law and sneak in.

But all of your analogies fail for the simple reason that they assign all the blame to the downloader.

If you want to be berate the person offering the pirated copy, your argument has some merit. But instead you attack the paying customer and reader.

Please pick your battles with more care than the music industry did.

The website offering the pirated material for free is probably still profiting off of advertising. They are most certainly behaving unethically, and I too condemn what they do, but for the love of god, in this day and age, when there are so many different ways to spend our money and our free time, let us not attack those who still choose to read.

Let's face it, he most likely would have downloaded the book no matter what. At least he recognized the author and publisher's right to compensation enough to buy the hardcover.

Nathan Bransford said...


That was quite a display of analogical gymnastics you just put on there. But listen, I agree with you that in the order of piracy, someone who buys a new hardcover and then pirates the e-book is pretty low on the totem pole of piracy evil, and I'm not going to advocate calling the federal marshals to raid someone's house over it. Doesn't mean it's not theft, doesn't make it right.

In your free Shakespeare in the Park analogy, publishers ain't giving away e-books for free in the park. You're not partaking of something meant to be free when you pirate an e-book that's for sale. You've climbed a tree to watch a performance you should have paid for. I'm not saying someone should chop down the tree with you in it, but just because you can attend a paid performance somewhere in the country doesn't mean you get into every theater for free.

jongibbs said...

It's fascinating to me how people find ways to justify theft.

Why can't they just be honest about it?

AndrewDugas said...

@Ink - I fully agree, no one should be able to make copies and distribute them, as you say. But what if I delete my copy after sending it to my friend? Now it's no different than trading or lending a hardcover, but illegal nonethelss.

More surprisingly, it seems funny that they haven't figured out a simple technical solution to this problem. Some computer applications are "keyed" to prevent unlawful use by more than the number of licensed users.

Nathan Bransford said...


Because when you buy a hardcover you're not buying the right to e-mail it to a friend. While admittedly the e-book landscape has different systems, most Kindle books can be shared with up to (I believe six) users and Nook has the share with a friend function. Some have no DRM at all. If you want to send a book electronically to a friend buy the e-book!

Nathan Bransford said...


Oh, nevermind, I think you were referring only to e-books. Still, my point stands that there are legal ways of doing it.

Cory said...

I'm not trying to justify theft, I'm saying this should be put in perspective.

When your customer base becomes your enemy, your business model is flawed, but then again, the publishing industry's business model has been flawed since Thor Power Tools v the IRS.

Personally, I don't really care for eBooks; I like my mashed wood pulp and ink, and I like the 20 feet of wall space I have dedicated to books that I've read. I'm a bit anachronistic and a bit of a late adopter. I don't even own an iPod.

But eBooks are a reality, and I think there are lessons to be learned here. To start with, if this guy was willing to pay $24 for a hardcover book, he probably would have payed $30 for a hardcover+ebook bundle. And secondly, if legal ebooks aren't available, you can pretty much bet that illegal ones will be.

We've seen these roads traveled down before. What's the publishing equivalent of iTunes or Hulu? Can kindle or the iPad replicate those successes?

Maybe if we explain to everyone that stealing ebooks is wrong, they'll stop doing it. Though in a country where more than 15,000 people are murdered every year, I somehow doubt that our stern disapproval of intellectual property theft is going to do all that much.

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree with your post, especially that the best deterrent is making e-books readily available. On the matter of ethics, I think there's a middle ground between taking a devil-may-care attitude to piracy and going overboard and treating it with more seriousness than it deserves, particularly areas like this one that are just a tick over from what I'd call ethical, even if it's not fully blown awful.

I guess I'm more optimistic that if people are conscious that these are not big ole mean anonymous corporations who are being affected by piracy but actual real people and authors in an industry in transition. Still think there's value in drawing an ethical line in the sand, but I agree that there's a responsibility there to not go overboard.

MXF said...

The supermarket does sell peanut butter and jelly together. It's called Goober and it is the most disgusting thing you will ever put on a piece of bread.

Cory said...

So Nathan, I gotta ask: As an agent, if someone pitched you a book where the sole motivation for the characters was to operate within the bounds of what is allowed by law, do you think you'd want to agent that book?

As a writer, have your characters ever done what you wanted them to, just because you wanted them to? Or have you had to find some way to motivate them?

Shouldn't our approach to selling books be at least as realistic as our fiction is?

Nathan Bransford said...


Ha. Well, no one breaks the law in my novel, but they do break the universe. You can get into plenty of trouble without breaking the law.

I guess I'd ask you the reverse. Would you want everyone around you behaving like characters in novels?

So no, I don't think what we read should reflect our buying choices. Being ethical is boring, but that doesn't mean we should discard it.

Liesl said...

Dude, Cory, just stop with the analogies. You went overboard with that one. It didn't even make sense.

In a lot of ways you're right. I for one agree that publishers should e-books at the same time as the hardcover, and bundling sounds like a good idea too. I will never agree that illegally downloading material is ethical.

We know where you stand. Just let it go.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess said...

Excellent post, excellent points. Thanks for waving the banner for those whose livelihood is attached to the royalties for these creative works, no matter the format. I'm intrigued by the bundling idea...

Stephen Prosapio said...

"I'm not saying someone should chop down the tree with you in it..."

(but if they do, they could make a baseball bat out of it!)

Anonymous said...

The phrase I could sum the whole pro and con arguments up with is the old folks.

Penny wise and pound foolish.

People go nuts chasing nickels dimes and quarters never realizing that customer loyalty is more valuable than a mountain of gold diamonds or silver.

My example is Sony.
I bought a 600$ elaborate DVD recorder
that still records from cable television just fine. The down side is that new DVD's are now purposely not supported. When I rent a movie from Netflix it won't play on my top of the line DVD recorder.


That's the key word.
When Kindle or IPad starts deciding your book and its encryption coding is compromised "long enough" and they switch to a new format for your old Kindle or IPad to make sure that thousand of new titles are not pirated onto market before the release date.

Also authors shall have legacy books that aren't supported by subsequent editions of the encryption and presentation software codes.

So sooner or later the same writer who
promoted strict procedure in copying law and forms shall lose sales when the company doesn't update them to the same code.

I am a pirate and I have been pirated many times. It's about the ideas that are channeled through the art form called "Writing". Let the corporate writer wanna bees count the pennies and keep writing so the poor buggers have something to distract themselves form their corporate induced misery.

It isn't capitalism that sucks its unbridled greed and personal disrespect for consumers and a lack of a code of honor on both sides of the fence that makes for a toxic environment.

As example; there are many places that sell modified DVD recorder that strip all embedded code and most of them pride themselves on their Better Business Bureau rating. These places also sell transfer devices to strip code. So what it all adds up to is the real heart of defeating the various levels of the "Cult of Personality" culture we live in and delivering hard won hard fought truthfully inspired stories to any one kind enough to spend their most precious asset; their own time and energy reviewing and trying to absorb what you have postulate should be considered as art.

Most of the best books are already public property and available on project Guttenberg. I learned from getting stiffed by software makers its best to break the law test the product and then pay the slimey rats if it actually delivers as promised.

I pirate first then I pay the honest
person their honest wage as stated.

Anonymous said...


None of the above reflects on Nathan.
He runs a clean site and boards and obviously doesn't assault people with
the pornographic level of advertising
that makes many if not most sites malignant to the process of acquiring
worthwhile information that's usable and retainable.

J. T. Shea said...

Cory, William Shakespeare's works have never been copyrighted.
Nathan, you mean there's no law against breaking the universe? Great! I can't wait for the weekend!

John said...

I feel I'm entitled to any format for free and that it's the ethical obligation of society to make this special exception because Cutsauce Peckwater said I'm cool.

Anonymous said...

Copyright law exists to encourage innovation, by means of establishing intellectual property rights. It protects the creators right to be compensated for their efforts. Like all rights in society this right must be balanced against other rights. In the US copyright is not absolute, there are explicit laws covering "Fair Use" (allowing for use in journalism and educational settings) and "First Used Doctrine" (which allows things like library's and video rental stores to operate).

The creator's right to his or her work is not a moral absolute, and I'll prove it to you.

Can we agree that a human life is more important than convenience?

If that is a moral absolute, if it is always true that a human life is more important than convenience, then why, as a society, have we agreed to trade between 2,000 and 4,000 lives each year so that we can all get to work a little bit faster each day.

The number of fatalities per passenger mile increases by about 28% when you increase the speed limit from 55 to 65 MPH, and a National Academy of Sciences study found that the 55 mph limit saved between 2,000 and 4,000 lives each year.

So given that we do not live in a society of moral absolutes, what are you really worried about?

How about making sure those responsible for making the book are financially compensated.

What would you find acceptable? How about if he bought two hardcover copies and threw one away after downloading the eBook version? Is that OK? Three copies? Four?

Or should he just not buy it at all? He wants an eBook version, there's no eBook version available for legal purchase, so he's out of luck? End of story.

If he can't do it legally, he can't do it at all, no matter how hard he tries to compensate those involved in making it. Is that it?

Author loses, publisher loses, reader loses. That's your solution?

I don't believe that downloading an ebook version of a book for which you own a hardcover copy is the moral equivalent of stealing a DVD, and I don't believe driving 65 MPH is the moral equivalent of murder, and neither do you.

What is the real issue?

You've said you're standing up for artists, and their right to compensation, but if the reader's desire to read the book convinced him to go out and buy it in hardcover (because no legal eBook was available), and then download a pirate eBook copy, then didn't the author and publisher get as much compensation as possible? (The hardcover book was probably the only, and most expensive, version available.)

Didn't the publisher get exactly what they wanted, more hardcover sales?

If you truly believe in an author's absolute right to control who does what with their work, then you should be protesting the existence of libraries. Libraries not only deprive an author of potential sales, they do so at taxpayer expense. As a society we've decided libraries are a moral good, despite their potentially adverse effect on authors.

Do you really fail to see that in life there is the need to compromise between competing moral goods? Do you really want to lower the speed limit to 55 MPH? (That, at least, is a life and death issue, rather that just a matter of money.)

I'm incredibly lucky. I have many options. I can buy books whenever I want. I don't hurt for money and I don't begrudge giving the author their due coin.

I don't think people with the means to buy eBooks would bother pirating them, book consumption patterns are very different than music consumption.
(I'll make an exception for college textbooks, those publishers should be terrified of eBook versions, but that's the perfect storm of compulsory need, lack of disposable income, and technological know-how.)

If this disrespect for your intellectual property rights still offends you, as a matter of principle, go to your local library and smack around those ingrate five-year-olds with their government funded library cards of pure evil.

Nathan Bransford said...


A lot to respond to, so I'll just choose a couple:

You've said you're standing up for artists, and their right to compensation, but if the reader's desire to read the book convinced him to go out and buy it in hardcover (because no legal eBook was available), and then download a pirate eBook copy, then didn't the author and publisher get as much compensation as possible? (The hardcover book was probably the only, and most expensive, version available.)

This really boils down to the "all platforms" argument. Pay for it once and you should get it everywhere. What I'm saying is that if you buy a hardcover you don't then get the right to it in e-book form no more than you get the right to it in paperback or mass market. If a book is available in hardcover and the paperback edition isn't available, you don't then get to go by a pirated paperback edition off the street and call it ethical.

If you truly believe in an author's absolute right to control who does what with their work, then you should be protesting the existence of libraries

Libraries buy their books. They are an important market for the publishing industry, especially for things like literary fiction. Libraries are part of the book market, not an exception to it. I would still encourage people who truly want to support authors to buy new books when they can afford them, but it doesn't mean that someone who goes to the library is subverting the system. Your condescension on this point is unbecoming.

My opinion boils down to this: Buying a hardcover does not grant you immunity from ever having to buy the same book in another form ever again. If you want another edition you can make it yourself out of the one you bought or you should pay for it.

K. E. Richards said...

Books, movies, and media in general has moved into a bizarre pattern. Gone are the days of owning a library (or even visiting a library), and welcome to the days of quick reads and easy access. I don't believe myself to be an old-timer, at the age of 35, but my outlook on books is unique. I believe in owning and re-reading my books. I have a collection of books numbering in the thousands.

I think that naivety is to blame here. Already people can resell their books and movies without the author or publisher seeing a dime, and now people want more for free. This instant gratification is abhorrent to artists throughout the world. Years are spent in the creation of a book or a movie and the essence of it is quickly discarded as soon as the last page or credit has passed. Only other fellow artists truly understand this pain and frustration.

These loopholes are killing the artists (who make very little to begin with). I am a strong supporter of the artists themselves, and not the concept of getting as much as I can for as little as I have to spend. I also support entrepreneurs and mom and pop shops. I think that this new generation may start to get fed up with disposable ideas and merchandise soon, and start to see that quality is always better than quantity. Which ultimately leads to saving money anyways.

Anonymous said...

My opinion is buying a book does not grant you immunity from ever having to buy the same book in another form ever again, except as an ebook.

Ebook, as in a text document, containing the exact words of the version that you have purchased.

It does not entitle you to other material forms of the book, because you must pay for the material to create it, as well as transportation, marketing, etc.
It does not entitle you to a movie rendition, because it is not the same content.
It does not entitle you to a formatted ebook, unless it is the same format as the version you have purchased, and only if the version is not derived from a paid version.

The baseball bat analogy does not work, because you are not stealing the baseball bat, you are receiving a baseball bat from somebody who is willing to "carve" baseball bats for free. Whether or not he has the right to "carve", or if he even "carved" them at all, is a different matter. Carving another baseball bat yourself for yourself is an example of "fair use", and receiving one from someone who is carving them for free would still be fair use in the sense that you are paying someone a sum of $0 to copy an object for your own use.

If you are buying a ticket for a movie or play, you are buying the right to a one-time uninterrupted consumption of the material provided, at the date agreed upon. You are not purchasing the right to the consumption, but a limited right to consumption.
(Although that could be applied to books as well, as the right to the consumption of content in the media form provided, though with my baseball bat analogy, it would fall under "fair use".)

You cannot steal the DVD of something you have the VHS of, as you are stealing material, transportation, marketing, etc., as well as the cost to do the transferring, as well as possible touch ups and special features, especially with blu-ray.

You are allowed to transfer it yourself for yourself, as it falls under "fair use", which takes away all of the above criteria.

And Oreos. Great analogy.
However, when you purchase Oreos, you are purchasing the "Oreo" itself, which is a one-time enjoyment of Oreo, which may be divided into as many pieces as you wish, as long as the sum of the pieces does not exceed the initial Oreo. It does not entitle you to the unlimited consumption of the feeling that Oreos provide, but the physical medium that is consumed once the feeling is experienced.

I think the main argument is what you actually purchase when you buy a book. Do you purchase the book as a physical entity? Then you "fair use" should not apply, as you did not purchase the use of the content. I believe that purchasing the book gives you the right to consume the contents of the book, which allows you to pay people to reproduce it as long as you are the only one who will be using the reproduction.

But I still say that the ebooks should only be available to people who have purchased the books, and anyone who makes it available to people who did not purchase the book should be fined.

Nathan Bransford said...


See, while I think you make some good points, I think your comment betrays an opinion that e-books are essentially valueless. You're making one distinction for print books, in part because of infrastructure costs and physical printing, whereas an e-book is just electrons. But e-books have infrastructure costs. Not only does e-book revenue go toward paying the authors and publishing infrastructure (editors, production, etc.), but you're depriving legal e-book vendors of infrastructure costs as well. You may not be "stealing" a physical object, but that object only costs a few dollars to make. All the other costs are still there with e-books.

And I also don't believe you are paying simply for the reading experience when you buy a print book. You're buying a physical object. When you pass that print book onto someone else you don't retain the right to read the book. You aren't entitled to read it in perpetuity if the print book breaks down. If your book breaks down you have to buy another one. Nothing in buying a print book entitles you to perpetual text rights.

Ironically, when you buy e-books you are buying pretty much perpetual text rights. If you bought a Kindle book you can now read it on your iPad, and you have access to it in perpetuity. But when books evolve again and they're beamed directly to your head in a hundred years I'll bet you still have to pay to legally convert your e-book library.

Anonymous said...

Not only does e-book revenue go toward paying the authors and publishing infrastructure (editors, production, etc.), but you're depriving legal e-book vendors of infrastructure costs as well.
That's why I chose to incorporate the fact that the ebook that you download must NOT have been made by a publisher who wishes to sell the ebook. Publishers who sell ebooks pay infrastructure costs, but those who type the ebook up themselves for free do not want pay for their infrastructure.

If you're downloading a publisher's ebook, then you should still pay for the infrastructure.
(This is still assuming you have rights to the consumption of the book.)

And I also don't believe you are paying simply for the reading experience when you buy a print book.
I must say that you are right here. If you lose the book, you no longer have the right to the content. But if you have a backup, you still have the right to the content. And you are legally allowed to use third-party services to backup your book. So you are legally allowed to download the ebook (just the text, nothing else), as a third-party backup service. Ethically, I'm not so sure.

Ironically, when you buy e-books you are buying pretty much perpetual text rights.
Unless Amazon finds out that it doesn't have the rights, and deletes it from your devices.;) And when they beam it to your head, if you can find someone who's willing to convert it for free, then you're allowed to do it. But everyone will still want the leatherbound tomes anyways. Because nothing can replace them.

Anonymous said...

Libraries buy their books. They are an important market for the publishing industry, especially for things like literary fiction. Libraries are part of the book market, not an exception to it. I would still encourage people who truly want to support authors to buy new books when they can afford them, but it doesn't mean that someone who goes to the library is subverting the system. Your condescension on this point is unbecoming.

People who buy a hardcover because there is no way to buy an ebook still buy their books. They are an important market for the publishing industry, especially since no ebook is available. They are part of the book market, not an exception to it. I would still encourage people who truly want to support authors to buy the ebook versions when they become available, but it doesn't mean that someone who goes to trouble of buying the harcover in place of the ebook is subverting the system. Your condescension on this point is unbecoming.

Kelly Wittmann said...

I couldn't agree more, Nathan. I realize that we're trying to navigate our way through a lot of gray areas, but the Ethicist's advice really stunned me. It's a slippery slope.

Elizabeth Burke said...

Ethics is always a difficult concept. It requires not only knowing the current law but also what the law could be: And the law is not always, as it is established, what is best. But often it is. Against all one's ideas. The law seems often too religious. Right now, I am most concerned w/what lies outside of current custom: could I insert a passage of Chopin or Mozart etc into a novel into an e-book?????

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I think I love you.

Artists and employees: pick your battles more carefully.

Erika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frankie Anon said...

I stopped reading The Ethicist when he told an employee who found child porn on his boss's computer not to turn him in. His rationale was "Even if your boss were acquitted of criminal charges, the accusation itself imperils his job, his reputation and the company. If convicted, he faces years in prison... Since you have no reason to believe your boss has had improper contact with children, you should not subject him to such ferocious repercussions for looking at forbidden pictures."

Anyone who can make such an argument does not deserve to be in print. This only further illustrates the point.

SleepyJohn said...

Just came across this post today. I know it is a bit old but it made me think, so here is my two penn'orth. I may incorporate it in a post on my own site:

I think the current hysteria over free downloads of intellectual property is getting a little out of hand. Whatever the morality of it, as perceived by present-day standards, it is clearly quite disingenuous to equate copying intellectual property with stealing material property. If I steal your vehicle I prevent you from using it. If I copy your pop song I do not. There is a significant difference.

The argument is then presented that I am stealing from you the money that I should have paid you for it. But if I would not buy it anyway, due to greed, laziness or penury, then you are not being deprived of that theoretical sum of money.

There is increasing evidence that many who download intellectual property without paying for it then go on to buy associated merchandise - tee-shirts, higher quality recordings, live shows, other works by that author and so on. The likelihood of vicious lawsuits, disconnection from the internet and public floggings encouraging people to do this is probably fairly low. The offer of free digital downloads is more likely to create a warm, let-me-get-my-wallet glow in a prospective buyer's heart.

I recently described the attitude of the music business to free downloaders as being like a guerilla war, in which the most basic golden rule is to 'win the hearts and minds of the people'. The music moguls have failed catastrophically to observe this, and will suffer greatly for it. The book world should try to avoid doing the same.

It is beginning to seem to me that the very concept of paying for most immaterial objects is going to vanish. They will become loss leaders, adverts, tasters, encouragement to buy the associated material possessions such as tee-shirts, posters, paper books, branded MP3 players and so on. My neighbour writes and illustrates childrens' books and she tells me that most of her income derives not from her books directly but from lectures, school visits and such. I believe the same is true of successful musicians, with live shows and merchandise.

In the meantime there will be much heartache as we all try to cope with the tremendous changes going on, not only the material, practical ones, but also the immaterial, moral ones. For morality, surely, is simply about not harming others. And if a free download does not harm the author then it cannot be immoral. If it can be made to benefit the author then it will benefit everyone.

The Digital Revolution has released a magical genie from her bottle and we must not try to push her back in just because she challenges our concepts of the acceptable norm.

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