Sunday, August 01, 2010


During the past couple of years, a reader from New York has found himself drawn to classic country music, artists from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

"Much of their work isn't available on CD," he writes, "so I've been buying from various people who sell used vinyl records by the artists I'm interested in."

One of these sellers - the one my reader finds the most helpful, in fact - offers either to sell his customers a record or to burn them a copy of it on CD, "presumably keeping the record for future use," my reader surmises.

"I know that this is illegal, and unethical as well," he continues, "and I have made clear to him that I disapprove and would never take advantage of this option."

My reader imagines, however, that there are other people who do take him up on this offer, which is part of his standard order response. He is wondering if it is ethical to buy legal products from someone who is also engaged in selling illegal products.

"I am not personally trading in illegal goods," he writes, "but presumably the profit he makes from the records he sells to me help keep him in business ... making illegal copies. On the other hand, every record I buy is one less for him to illegally copy.

"Is it enough to limit myself to legal recordings?," he asks. "Or does his illegal activity taint even his legal activities?"

The question is an interesting one, because it pivots not on what the record-seller is doing but on what the customer knows about it and what he thinks of the practice.

If a customer knew nothing of the illegal practice, he would buy the legitimate recordings with a clear conscience. He does know, however, which complicates the situation.

It would be only a minor problem if he knew about the practice but saw nothing wrong with it. Under those circumstances, he could continue to buy the legitimate recordings without thinking twice. As for the CD copying, while it might be illegal, his own moral compass would see no problem with it and, of course, the primary legal risk would be faced by the seller. Buying legal products from a seller of illegal products is rarely if ever illegal.

Given, however, that my reader is aware of the illegal copying and considers it not only illegal but also wrong, he should ask himself if he really wants to continue to support the overall business practices of someone who engages in acts he doesn't condone.

If his convictions are as strong as he suggests, I don't believe he should. Would he, by extension, want to do business with a used-car salesperson who sold both legitimate used cars and others that had been stolen? Most customers would sensibly walk away from such a dealership, however appealing its legitimate vehicles might be, and this situation is different only in degree.

Burning copies of vinyl records to CD may feel like small potatoes, but wrong is wrong - and my reader has established that he considers some of his seller's business practices to be wrong. He must decide if he is willing to turn a blind eye solely because the seller also happens to deliver a legitimate product that is hard to find elsewhere.

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


Bill Jacobson said...


I applaud your reader for being willing to question his own ethics in participating in this transaction but I would suggest he not cast his stones prematurely. The seller is wrong (both morally and legally) in offering to sell digitized copies of the recordings without also selling the actual physical records that they came from but your reader in no way furthers the seller's sins by purchasing the actual records. Perhaps if more people were willing to purchase the actual records, the seller would not feel the need to sell the digitized copies.

If your reader feels strongly enough about the issue, he is free to take his money elsewhere, although I would suggest that in pursuing a hobby such as collecting old and rare music recordings, he may need to develop less constricting ethics.

The question as posed is a bit off-putting however as it seems to be as much public chest beating about own righteousness in redressing the seller as seeking an honest answer to an actual dilemma. Ethics are what we do when no one else is watching, not paraded in the public square.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Bruce Smith said...

The issue may be complicated by the era of the recordings in question. I am not a copyright attorney, but records from the 30s and 40s (78s on shellac, not vinyl, by the way) might not be protected. In some cases, the companies that made them no longer exist. There are a number of firms that reissue music of all types, and althought there are copyright questions in some cases, in other situations it is done entirely legally. In fact it is then the reissued recording which may not be copied.