Sunday, March 22, 2009


In the world of movies, the big heist isn't always on the screen.

A few weeks ago a reader from southern California wrote to ask if she was doing anything wrong by accepting DVDs of current movies given to her by a friend, if she knew the DVDs to be illegal, bootlegged copies.

"I was happy to get the DVDs," she writes. "I watched and enjoyed the movies. And I thanked my friend who gave them to me."

The ethics of accepting bootlegged movies never crossed her mind until another of her friends told her that she "could not have even watched them, knowing that."

"Am I wrong to accept these DVDs, even from a second party?" she asks. "I do not want to get anyone in trouble. I am just wondering what your opinion is of my participation in it."

My opinion is that, legally, it stinks. Making, selling or buying bootleg movies is illegal everywhere in the United States.

I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say how much legal trouble my reader might be in, but I'd guess not very much, since she didn't pay for the movies and I doubt that watching them is illegal. At most, I suspect, she's guilty of failing to report a crime or something of that nature.

Some things are illegal but not unethical, however, the same way that many things are legal but not ethical. Setting aside the legalities, how does my reader's situation stack up?

My opinion: It still stinks. Ethically speaking, bootleg films -- and all other illegal replicas of copyrighted books, CDs, software and so forth -- are stolen goods, pure and simple. The person who made them was stealing from the rightful makers and distributors of the film, and anyone who knowingly watches them is aiding and abetting the crime.

From an ethical standpoint, it doesn't matter that my reader didn't pay for the movies she watched. Surely watching them made her less likely to pay to see them in a theater, and that's as good as taking money from everyone involved in the film.

Does it matter if she wouldn't have gone to the theater or paid for a legitimate DVD, whether or not she had seen the bootlegs? No. The viewing of a copyrighted film is not a human right, but rather a privilege with a cost associated with it. Because neither she nor anyone else involved in the bootleg paid anything to the rightful owners of the film, any viewing of it -- except by law-enforcement people trying to track down the bootlegger -- is unethical. Simple as that.

Granted, I have a vested interest in this issue: I make my living partly through royalties from my books and this syndicated column. Understandably I am loath to blithely accept that it is OK for people to make copies of my material without my permission.

Longtime readers of my column know that I always have taken a strong stance against illegal copies of copyrighted material, regardless of who's doing the copying or what their motives may be. Parents who make multiple copies of DVDs or videotapes to give to their children's friends set a terrible example. So too do professors who Xerox large portions of books or articles for their students' classroom use, without obtaining permission from the publisher or author.

People's work should not be stolen, whether by a bootlegger or by private citizens downloading or otherwise making illegal copies of DVDs, CDs or printed material for their own use. Those who own the rights to goods should decide who gets to use them and how. If it's wrong to steal a dress without paying, and thus depriving the dressmaker and the store owner of the fruits of their labor, then it's wrong to steal a movie and rob the filmmakers and distributors.

That one is a physical object and the other an intangible work of art is irrelevant. The movie is equally intangible in the theater, yet most people who buy bootlegs would probably feel it was wrong to sneak in the theater's back door and see the movie for free.

Are DVDs too high-priced? Does little of the purchase price actually go to the creators? No matter. This isn't a Robin Hood situation, and movies aren't essentials like food or shelter. If you don't like the business model, don't buy DVDs ... and don't watch them.

The right thing for my reader to do, should her friend offer her any more illegal DVDs, is to refuse to accept them and to tell her why: Doing so is both illegal and unethical, and she doesn't care to have any part in condoning such activity.

In the meantime, my reader should destroy any bogus DVDs, whether bootlegged or copied illegally, that she may have in her possession. If she wants to see a movie, she should go to the theater or, alternatively, wait until it's legally released on DVD and then either buy it, rent it or borrow it from her local library.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Mapcat said...


For the most part I think your commentary on pirated material is absolutely right, but wonder how the following scenario fits in ethically.

Some companies release CDs and DVDs for a limited time, and then produce no more. Once the discs are gone, they're gone. How ethical would it be to copy a CD or DVD (from a friend, or the library) for one's personal use in such a case? If I want to buy one, I can't, unless I buy it used, in which case the artist still would not see a dime.

Your thoughts?

Thanks for writing an always thought-provoking column.

Bill Jacobson said...

From a legal and ethical standpoint, the availability of purchasing a given recording is irrelevant. Only the rights-holder has the right to decide whether a given work should be available for sale and if he decides that it not be, fans have no more right to make an unauthorized copy than if the work were for sale.

From a practical standpoint, fans will more quickly rationalize their unauthorized copying of songs if the work is unavailable for sale. Luckily services such as iTunes are making this less of an issue these days

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