Sunday, April 25, 2010

SOUND OFF: STEAL THIS BOOK?

OK, you know what I think: Downloading copies of eBooks without paying for them is not only illegal but also unethical. Whenever I come back to the issue of burning copies of someone else's CDs or other instances of violating copyright to avoid having to pay for content, however, some readers viscerally object.

So, regardless of the law, what do you think? Is it wrong for readers to download copies of a book in one format without paying, even if they have paid for it in another format? Or, as another ethics columnist writes, should buying "a book or a piece of music be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform?"

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.


You can also respond to the poll with this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.


Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.


Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: DON'T STEAL THIS BOOK

In past columns I've made clear my stance on the ethics of downloading illegal copies of music or burning illegal copies of CDs. My verdict: Not only illegal but also unethical, since either practice means that the people who made the music, most notably the people who wrote and performed it, won't be compensated for their efforts.

I've also addressed the practice of making copies of library CDs if you own the same recording on LP or cassette. Again, no dice: Owning music in one form, whatever form it is, does not give you the right to borrow someone else's music and copy it for your own use.

William Jacobson, a reader from Cypress, Calif., alerted me to a variation on this theme. He read a piece by another ethics columnist who deems it ethical to download a pirated copy of an eBook if you already have paid for the hardbound copy. The columnist was responding to a reader who had purchased an eReader, only to find that a book he wanted was not yet available in eBook format, so he bought the hardcover and then found a pirated copy online.

The columnist believes that what his reader did was no different from someone buying a CD and then copying it to his iPod.

"Buying a book or a piece of music," he concludes, "should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform."

"I cannot agree with his rationalization," Jacobson writes. "One does not gain an open-ended license to content in whatever format they like because they buy in one format. A hardcover owner has no more right to download a pirated copy of an eBook than a VHS owner has the right to steal a DVD of the same work."

Jacobson points out, correctly, that copying one of your CDs for personal use - as opposed to burning a copy for a friend, for example - is legal only because Congress specifically made an exception for such an action under the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992.

"No similar exception exists for movies or books," he writes, "so doing so remains both illegal and unethical without permission of the copyright owner."

I agree with Jacobson. The columnist's advice is wrongheaded.

He is right in pointing out that it's inconvenient for someone wanting to read a book in electronic format if the book is available only in print, but there's a difference between wanting to do what's convenient and choosing to do what's ethical. After all, carried to a logical extreme, the columnist's advice would indicate that it's OK to steal a paperback copy of a book, assuming that you've already paid for a hardbound copy, because the paperback would be easier to carry around.

Unless readers have the copyright owner's permission to make or download an unpaid-for electronic copy of a book, they should expect to pay for whatever version of a book they want to read. That a pirated copy is the only electronic version available does not give a reader carte blanche to toss aside what's right.

Even Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book, first published in 1971, sells for $10.85 on Amazon.com.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: SHARING THE SAVINGS

It sometimes seems as if everything this side of maternity hospitals offers a senior discount these days - and, with the way technology is going, the maternity hospitals may get into the act before too long.

With these attractive deals, however, come some vexing ethical issues, one of which is raised by a reader from Ohio who is a senior citizen and takes advantage of the appropriate discounts whenever possible.

"The problem is that, when I take my daughter or friends to the movies, I buy the tickets under the senior rate," he writes.

This bothers his daughter, who isn't a senior citizen, so much that she would rather buy her own ticket at the full price.

My reader doesn't see it. His position is that, since he is treating her to the movies, he is entitled to buy the tickets at the discount rate offered him because he is older than 60.

"No, dad," she tells him, "you are cheating them."

His response: "As long as I am buying the tickets, so what?"

He uses a similar approach when he plays golf, my reader adds: He gets the senior discount for his greens fees, covering both himself and his non-senior playing partners, who then reimburse him for the discount price.

In a nutshell, my reader feels, he's entitled to the senior discount for the things he buys, and it's nobody's business but his what he does with them afterward.

"So what?" he concludes. "Am I a crook?"

It would be overstating things, I believe, to call him a crook. Nonetheless, his practice doesn't measure up from an ethical standpoint.

This question is one that comes up not only for senior citizens, but also for anybody who is offered a discount on goods or services based on his or her particular situation. Besides seniors - and children, of course - who receive age-related discounts, employees of department stores, airlines and car dealers usually receive employee discounts. Some businesses also offer discounts to military personnel, veterans, police officers or members of organizations such as the American Automobile Association.

In some cases these offers extend beyond the immediate person who is entitled to the discount. Employee discounts, for example, often extend to other members of the employee's family. In such cases, of course, there is nothing wrong in sharing the discounts to pass on the savings.

In cases in which there is no specific policy authorizing an extension of the offer, however, the assumption is that the price break is for the person who falls into the favored category, and only for that person. Using it for the benefit of individuals outside the favored category, whether or not they then pay back the expenditure, is wrong.

In some cases it is actually illegal to do so - for instance, an adult can't legally buy cigarettes, alcohol or other age-restricted products and pass them on to someone who is underage - but it is always ethically beyond the pale.

When his daughter was a child, I daresay my reader never would have entertained the notion of having her buy tickets for both of them, at the children's price, and then paying her back. The same principle should hold true now, when he's the one that can buy tickets at a lower price.

It's generous of my reader to take his adult daughter to the movies, but the right thing for him to do is to pay full freight for her until she qualifies for the senior discount herself. And, unless his golf course explicitly allows senior citizens to pay fees for their entire foursomes at the senior price, his golf buddies should pay their going rate.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: MAKING BOOK

In the case of textbooks that come unsolicited from publishers, 15 percent of the readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog said that it was OK for professors to make some pocket change by selling review copies, while 52 percent said that they should discard them or keep them for personal use, but not resell them. Less than half of those responding thought it made a difference if the book was stamped "not for resale."

"If the publisher sent the book unsolicited then ... it is yours free and clear," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif. "I see this being an ethical issue for the professor only if he purposely agreed to receive these books for review with no intention of reviewing the books, but only with resale in mind."

M.E. Yancosek Gamble of Bethany, W.Va., disagrees.

"It is wrong to sell back a book you did not buy," Yancosek Gamble writes. "I see it as stealing."

She would rather a professor either returned the copies after reviewing them or placed them in a common area for students to use.

Check out other opinions here, or post your own by clicking on "Comments" or "Post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com/, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

SOUND OFF: CHARGED AS ADULTS

In March nine teenagers from South Hadley High School in Massachusetts were charged with various crimes relating to a bullying incident that ended in the suicide of a classmate. Six of the teens were charged as adults - among them three 16-year-olds, two 17-year-olds and one 18-year-old - and three as juveniles. The day after the charges were filed, local newspapers published photos of the teenagers charged as adult, but not of those who had been charged as juveniles.

It is common for newspapers to print pictures of adults charged with crimes, but some questioned the publication of pictures of teenagers younger than 18. Given that the youths are considered innocent until proven guilty, and in light of the lasting damage that might come from having their images published in this context, some readers felt that the editors had erred in publishing the pictures.

Is it OK to publish photos of teenagers younger than 18 who have been charged as adults? Or should newspapers withhold such images, as they do with those of any juveniles charged with crimes?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

You can also respond to the poll with this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.
c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate) 

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN A FRIEND OF A FRIEND CROSSES THE LINE

A reader from Ohio tells me that, several years ago, he was "involuntarily separated" from his job because of layoffs at the company. His department was shrunk from 22 employees to 12. At the time he was 59, had put in almost 26 years with his company and had received good performance reviews.

About two years after the layoffs, the staffing of his former department was increased and four people got their old jobs back. All of them were younger than 40.

"My messages concerning rehiring requests went ignored," he writes. "Because of verbal remarks made to me and being treated differently when requesting interviews, I decided to file age-discrimination charges."

His age-discrimination suit, however, is only the backdrop for his real questions to me.

"Several of my former fellow workers run with me weekly on weekends," he writes. "Each of them knows of my age-discrimination lawsuit. One of them is a very close friend to one of the two managers who discriminated against me. I have a lot of resentment against these two former managers, because of the reasons given for my not being considered for my old position."

So here are the questions he asked - in boldface type - in his e-mail: "How do I accept my running buddy when I want to tell him how his friend is treating my professional reputation in the company's response to my charges? Should I tell him how I feel about his friend or leave him out of all of this?"

His first question strikes me as simple to answer in theory, but not necessarily in practice.

His running mate is not the one with whom he has a beef, and my reader can "accept" him by bearing that in mind. So his running mate is friends with someone whom my reader doesn't respect - who among us hasn't had a friend with a friend or two we weren't particularly fond of? He may question his friend's judgment, of course, but his own friendship with that person should be based on his friend's qualities and actions, not on those of other people with whom he chooses to associate.

Ethics isn't a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. We are obligated to judge our own conduct rigorously, and well-advised to judge that of our friends, since association with people who misbehave is a good way to risk unethical behavior of our own. But the conduct of our friends' friends, or for that matter our friends' friends' friends? That's outside any reasonable ethical expectation.

Should he tell his running mate how he feels about his friend? That's his call. There is no ethical imperative to do so, nor not to do so.

Personally, though, I'd advise against it. It might be a relief to vent, but otherwise it's hard to imagine what good could come from disclosing his feelings. In fact, it would most likely turn an enjoyable run into an awkward slog.

If the running mate brings up his friend, my reader shouldn't lie about his feelings, of course. He can respond honestly or, better yet, simply say, "I'd rather not talk about that fellow." You know the old saw: If you can't say something nice about someone ...

It's possible, of course, that the fact that his running mate is friends with his professional nemesis will get in the way of a good run regardless of my reader's attempts to put this issue aside. If that's the case, the right thing for him to do is to find himself a new running mate.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: JUGGLING TUITION AND A SICK CAT

A graduate student in Boston has accumulated some savings, but he writes that he is relying mostly on loans to pay his way through a master's program. He isn't alone: The College Board reports that the average debt borne by those who completed a graduate degree in 2007-2008 was $35,750, one-third of which came from undergraduate studies.

My reader shares his home with what he describes as "a stupid cat who has become prone to getting urinary-tract infections, which can be deadly in male cats ... in a very painful way."

My reader has taken his cat to a veterinary emergency room several times in the past six months. Twice the veterinarians have had to keep his cat overnight to administer treatments.

One veterinarian suggested some lifestyle and dietary changes designed to reduce the cat's stress levels.

"He's already living a fairly stress-free life," my reader writes, "but he refuses the dietary changes. You can lead a cat to water ... "

When the infections continued, he took his cat to another veterinarian. The result: new suggestions for dietary changes, including a very expensive brand of cat food. This was problematic for my reader, who is on a fairly tight budget and has already spent more than $1,000 on overnight stays and treatments.

Since he doesn't have much income, my reader is paying for his cat's treatment primarily with credit cards and with money from the student loans he has received.

"These loans are supposed to be going toward the cost of my higher education," he writes. "But I didn't have the heart to kill my 2-year-old cat."

He jokes that he's pretty sure he signed something at some point saying that he wouldn't use his student loans to pay for cat-related expenses.

"On the other hand, I don't want to be known as a cat-killer if I ever decide to run for office," he adds. "Is this misappropriation of funds unethical?"

I don't know the details of my reader's particular loan agreements. Obviously, if he has undertaken specifically to use his student loans only for, say, tuition, then it would be unethical to use them for anything else, cat care included.

Otherwise, however, his choice to continue to care for his cat does not cross ethical lines, so long as he can do so while meeting his financial obligations - specifically, paying his tuition and other education-related bills.

That will not be easy, however, given my reader's limited resources and the expense involved in caring for his cat. One way or another, he must continue to pay all of his bills. He may do that by taking on part-time work, or he may continue with his riskier strategy of deferring the immediate crisis by using credit cards.

It is not unethical to take the latter option, but it is only postponing the day of reckoning. Sooner or later he will have to pay the piper ... or, in this case, the veterinarian.

Should he continue to finance his cat's expensive treatments? He didn't ask that question, and if he had I wouldn't have been able to answer it. That's one only he can answer, because only he can gauge the various priorities involved. Having a pet imposes certain obligations, but so does attending graduate school. How he balances out these obligations is ultimately his decision.

I can tell him, however, that he's doing the right thing by acting responsibly in paying his tuition and other obligations. As long as he continues to do this - and as long as he pays back his loans when they come due - he's not "misappropriating" anything. He's simply finding a way for him and his cat to live on a tight budget.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: SMOKE UP

Half of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog believe that real-estate brokers are obligated to address any existing issue of secondhand smoke when they show a property. The other half think that it's up to potential buyers to keep an eye - or a nose - out for such problems while inspecting the property.

Those who felt strongly enough to add personal comments, however, were decidedly in the latter camp.

"For a person with severe asthma, cigarette smoke isn't just a smelly annoyance - it can severely affect someone's quality of life," writes a reader identifying herself only as Katie. Even so, though, she believes that it's up to a prospective buyer "to take it upon herself to meet the neighbors and go the extra mile to determine whether she could live there comfortably."

Another reader writes that, unless a buyer lives in a city that has laws against smoking in your own home, or in a building that bans smoking, she has no valid complaint.

Living within any community "doesn't always offer you complete freedom from neighborly activities," Laura VanDorsten observes. "If you have any allergies, then have the air quality tested before buying or talk to the neighbors and see if they smoke. If you, the buyer, don't like what you smell, see, hear or feel, then do not buy it."

Check out other opinions here, or post your own by clicking on "Comments" or "Post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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