Sunday, September 10, 2017

Is it OK to use stuff we didn't pay for?

Is it ever OK to get what you don't pay for?

L.H., a reader from Massachusetts, subscribes to basic cable television service from one of his local providers. "I'm not a big TV watcher," he writes, "but I like to be able to watch news and sports channels on occasion that are available through my cable subscription." He notes that he doesn't pay for any premium channels or extras in an effort to keep his bill as low as possible.

A neighbor recently told L.H. that he had been able to watch some premium cable channels without having to pay for them. "A glitch in the system, apparently," writes L.H. Upon learning of this news from his neighbor, L.H. figured he would give it a try and soon he too was regularly watching shows and movies on the premium channel without paying for them. "I know I wasn't being charged," he writes, "because the little button you have to press to buy the show or subscribe to the channel never showed up on my screen."

For several weeks, L.H. continued to watch the premium channel. (It turns out he might be more of a TV watcher than he lets on.) But he indicates that he knows he's getting something for nothing and wonders if it's wrong to take advantage of what appears to be a glitch that allows non-premium subscribers to tune in for free.

"Eventually, I suspect the glitch will be fixed," he writes, "but in the meantime is it wrong for me to tune in when I know I haven't paid for the service?"

Given that premium cable channels sometimes offer free trials by making the shows they regularly charge for free to all comers, L.H. might not be getting something for nothing as he suspects he is. But suppose it's not a free trial and simply an error that lets viewers get free access? Is it wrong to take advantage?

It's a question that could apply to several situations. Suppose, for example, everyone at work knows there's a vending machine that dispenses two soft drinks every time someone pays for just one?

The responsibility is ultimately on the cable television provider to make sure that its system works so that subscribers get what they paid for and are charged for extras when appropriate. If L.H. wants to do the right thing, it would be to check with his cable service provider to see if the premium channel is running a special offer that allows him to check in. He might also check his bill to make sure he hadn't inadvertently signed up for something he didn't want.

The same goes for the soft drink machine. A quick call to the service phone number on the machine to alert the vendor that its machine is dispensing multiple drinks for the price of one would be the right thing to do.

Once L.H. alerts the company, it's up to it to fix the system if it's broken. Cable service might strike L.H. and others as already too high for even the most basic of services. But the option exists to cancel any service that seems too expensive. Knowing the you're wrongly receiving services for free might feel like a windfall, but it's still taking advantage of a mistake to get something that isn't rightfully yours. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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