Sunday, August 16, 2009


Two years ago, while she was at a hockey game, a reader had her car broken into.

"There wasn't a lot for them to steal," she writes, "but they did get my collection of CDs that was in the car."

As bad luck would have it, she had only recently started listening to CDs in her car, but had grown used to leaving them there.

"Then they broke in and took them all!," she writes.

Altogether she lost 20 to 30 of her favorite CDs. None of what was stolen was covered by her insurance company, nor was the cost of replacing the broken window, because of her policy's high deductible. If she replaces the CDs, therefore, she will have to shell out for duplicate copies of music that she's already bought.

"I've been avoiding buying new ones to replace the lost ones," she writes. "I just didn't want to spend the money, because I knew I would be afraid to leave them in the car again."

Recently, however, she has begun to think about investing in an MP3 player for her car. She'd like to load onto her MP3 player some of the music that was on the stolen CDs, but money is tight right now and she's reluctant to spend the money to replace the stolen CDs.

You can probably guess where this is going: My reader's husband suggested that she borrow those same CDs from the library, make copies of them and then download them to her MP3 player.

"His reasoning was that, because I had already paid for the original CDs and it wasn't my fault that they were stolen, I wouldn't be infringing on the copyright," she writes.

She's not convinced, however.

"I think it would still be wrong," she writes. "I think I still need to pay for new copies of the music.

"What do you think?"

Longtime readers of my column may remember that I have addressed the acceptability of making unauthorized copies of copyrighted material - such as CDs but also books, DVDs, computer programs etc. - in the past. My stance has been consistent: There is no ethical justification for copying and making use of the work of others without either obtaining their permission or paying for the privilege of doing so.

Borrowing a legitimate copy from a library or from a friend is fine, so long as you plan merely to listen to it and then return it. Making illegal copies of your own, or downloading someone else's illegal copies, is not. It's stealing from the record company and from the artists who created the music and are entitled to royalties.

This is the first time, though, that I've had a reader tell me that she's considering duplicating CDs because her legal ones were stolen. Nor have I previously encountered the husband's argument that having legitimately purchased the original CDs and lost them through a sad twist of fate justifies making illegal copies of the local library's holdings.

Nice try, but those facts don't change the ethics of making illicit copies. It's still wrong.

My reader's husband is guilty of the all-too-common tendency to regard intellectual property as somehow less "real" than physical property. If the thieves had stolen my reader's car, I doubt that her husband would be encouraging her to steal someone else's car to make up for it, though it's not her fault that her legitimately purchased car was stolen. He probably wouldn't want her to shoplift replacement CDs. But somehow stealing someone's song doesn't seem the same as stealing someone's car or someone's CD.

It is the same, though. The right thing for my reader to do _ as she appears to realize - if she wants to replace her stolen music is either to buy new copies of the CDs or to buy the individual songs online so that she can play them on her MP3 player.

It's sad that she was the victim of a theft, but she's right in thinking that the answer to her problem is not some thievery of her own.¶

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


Anonymous said...

Once she buys the new ones, she should make copies to take in the car, and leave the originals in a closet at home. Making copies for your own use is neither illegal nor (in my opinion) unethical.

Bill Jacobson said...


Thank you for identifying the issue correctly. This is an issue of infringement, not theft - no matter what the RIAA claims. As a general rule, your reader does not have ANY right to make a copy of the CDs she borrows from the library or anywhere else even if she has previously owned them. She only has the right to make copies of the CDs she owns under the Audio Home Recording Act. That said, i believe most people will rationalize and copy the CDs anyway.

I think the more interesting question is if she has already copied the CDs and the CDs get stolen, does she have the right to the digital copies... The RIAA would say no.

While we are talking ethics, wouldn't it be ethical for our columnist to admit his bias on this issue being an author and thus copyrighted content provider? :)

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA