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Sunday, April 25, 2010

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)

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