Sunday, January 02, 2011

Use me, but don't steal me

A regular reader of my column from New York believes he has me all figured out when it comes to the ethics of selling used records or CDs. It’s clear from how he opened his e-mail to me that he’s read my previous columns about making or downloading unauthorized copies of music or movies.

“You’ve made your stance clear,” he writes. “Your position (with which, incidentally, I agree) is that this is nothing more or less than theft of intellectual property of the artists, producers and distributors of these works. If you want the music, you should pay for the privilege...and pay the rightful owners.”

But my reader wants to know how my clear stance squares with the sale of used records, CDs and DVDs.

If you buy used CDs or DVDs at a garage sale, over the Internet or at a used-book store, he writes, you’re getting the same music or movie, but not a penny goes to the owner of the intellectual property, only to the owner of the physical recording.

“Assuming the original owner bought the recording legally, is this OK?” he asks. “What if it has changed hands several times?” Is it OK only if the recording is no longer in print and thus not acquirable from the original distributor — or is that simply a rationalization? It’s not OK to steal a 1952 Cadillac, for example, simply because they don’t make them anymore.”

He wants to know if it’s OK to buy a used CD or DVD that is still available new if you’re buying it specifically to save money, “that is, getting it cheaper in large part because the seller doesn’t have to pay the royalties that the original record store did?”

“As I write this,” he observes, “it seems as if your position clearly would be that buying used records does not pass ethical muster...but can you really believe that everyone who ever bought a used record or DVD — or, heck, a used book — is guilty of unethical behavior?”

While I appreciate my longtime reader’s loyalty, his assumption is wrong. There is nothing ethically wrong with a rightful owner of a CD or DVD that was purchased legally selling that copy to someone else for whatever price he paid. While it may frustrate me a bit to see used copies of my books for sale in bookstores and online knowing that I will not see a penny from the subsequent sales of the books I write to make a living, the person who purchased the book originally is free to sell his copy once he is finished with it.

Selling a used copy is a far different situation than making an unauthorized copy where the creator and copyright owner is never paid for the work copied.

My reader’s parallel example of the 1952 Cadillac doesn’t hold up. Selling a used copy of a CD, DVD, or book would be more akin to selling a used 1952 Cadillac rather than stealing one. The transfer of legal ownership of used cars happens all the time. So too should used CDs, DVDs, and books be able to change hands whenever the rightful owner decides it’s time to part with the goods.

The right thing is to pay for that which you want to own and then decide what you want to do with it after you own it.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

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Bill Jacobson said...

The fallacy in your reader's logic is their assumption that the content provider has the right to be paid for every person who partakes in his work but this is not the case. Under the current schema, which has existed in the United States for 220 years, the content creator has the right to be compensated for every -copy- of his work that is sold into the stream of commerce. He has no right for additional compensation when that same copy is resold.

The same law that protects the content provider's right to be paid also ensures that existing copies may be resold without restriction. In fact, society's economic system turns on this very right. The CD that you purchase at retail has already been bought and sold many times by wholesalers, distributors and the store itself. Without this right, libraries, used bookstores, garage sales, and eBay would not be able to operate.

Things are changing though. The purchaser of a digital book does not have the same right to transfer their purchase as does someone who purchased the same book in hardcopy. One wonders what this means for the future of libraries. The purpose of copyright, though, is not so much to protect the interests of creators, but rather to promote knowledge - the progress of science and the useful arts. If the pendulum swings too far towards benefitting creators at the expense of society, the law will compensate to reestablish equilibrium.

Your reader may sleep well knowing that he has every right to purchase and sell used books and CDs without generating negative karma. Content providers, yourself included, Jeffrey, would be well served to reset their frustration levels to reality. A copy of your book in a bookstore is not a book that you will not be paid for so much as one that you have already been paid for. Anything else is pure greed.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Patricia Selk said...

Regarding Mr. Jacobson's notation ("The purchaser of a digital book does not have the same right to transfer their purchase as does someone who purchased the same book in hardcopy.") -- that is one of many reasons that I still prefer actual physical books. I can share them in any manner I choose: by handing the book to someone else to enjoy, passing along the title and author, or re-selling it.

As a creative artist, I understand the frustration of seeing your work re-sold (in my case, at times, for more than the original purchase price). Still, I know that if I buy -- and enjoy -- a used or remaindered book, I am likely to look for that new-to-me author in the future, and support his or her endeavors both by buying newer works, and through suggesting the book (and/or author) to friends.

tk said...

Does anyone support the idea that there is no such thing as intellectual property? I know the creative artist/writer/musician may not but is there anyone who is not supportive of intellectual property?