Sunday, February 26, 2012

Browsing friend is not a thief

"Am I a thief?"

When someone asks if they're a thief, an instinctual response is: "Well, if you have to ask. . ." But gut instinct doesn't always yield the best answers. A reader poses the question because, well, her friend called her one.

The cause for the charge centers on a topic regularly raised by readers who write me: Is it wrong to make use of things at a bookstore cafe without paying for them?

Several years ago, I responded to a reader from a leafy suburb of Boston who thought the woman who sat and read a newspaper while drinking her coffee and then refolded the paper and returned it to the rack to be sold was wrong. That coffee shop had a sign that asked readers not to read newspapers before paying for them. I weighed in that the customer was indeed wrong to read without paying.

A reader in Southern California worried she was overstepping by holding small meetings at her local bookstore cafe without all meeting attendees always buying something to imbibe while there. Since some of the folks did always make purchases, I saw no fault in the group's actions.

Now, comes the alleged thief from Ohio.

"On a regular basis, I frequent a large nationally known bookstore to sit and relax," writes the perpetrator. "When I am there, I will read the current magazines that I find interesting. On very rare occasions, I will purchase one that I may find extra interesting. And most of the time I will purchase coffee to sip on when I am relaxing and reading the magazines."

Her friend believes she's a thief. "I have never thought of it that way," she writes. "Am I stealing?

Upon discussing the matter further with the suspect, I discover that there is no sign prohibiting customers from reading publications unless they purchase them, that she returns them to the shelf in pristine condition, and that she purchases coffee 99 percent of the time she sits to read a magazine. While she reads a wide variety of publications including those on home decor, outdoor recreation, health, knitting, crafts and photography, she only buys two or three magazines a year. Her friend tells her that what she's doing is no different from going to the grocery store and eating the food there without paying for it.

The friend's comparison doesn't hold since once you eat the food, it can't very well be returned to the shelf to be sold to a paying customer.

But a larger point is that the bookstore cafe has a right to set whatever policy it wants for its customers. If the management believes that allowing customers to browse magazines while drinking coffee drives up coffee sales, then that's its call. Unlike the suburban customer who broke store policy, the reader from Ohio is doing nothing wrong.

Granted, it would be nice if she and others purchased magazines more frequently to support the business, but the right thing is to honor the rules of the establishment. My reader does this and her friend should back off and perhaps turn her attention to the grocery-sampling thieves who may indeed be stealing. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

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

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Shmuel Ross said...

"That coffee shop had a sign that asked readers not to read newspapers before paying for them."

As this is the only real difference between the two cases, that would have been a useful bit of information to have included in the previous column, wouldn't it? It's not actually stated there; in fact, that time around, you implied that there was no such sign, relying entirely upon an "assumption."

(Also, 14 months is "several years"?)

William Jacobson said...


The question posed is as much one of semantics as of ethics. Stealing is commonly defined as any act of theft and theft defined as "the dishonest taking of property belonging to another person with the intention of depriving the owner permanently of its possession". As such, your reader's actions fall short of stealing on two counts: 1. intent. She did not intend to deprive the owner of the property and 2. facts. She did not in fact deprive the owner of the property.

The real question you should be asking is whether this behavior is wrong. I would argue that this turns on the seller's position. Clearly the seller is there to sell the reading material but if they have no problem with you perusing the works over a cup of coffee, then likely no harm, no foul. I would note that perusing should not include reading the works cover to cover.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

When the questioner asks, "Am I stealing", the answer is simple. The bookseller is open to sell products: newspapers, magazines, books, coffee and other refreshments. The bookseller cannot stay open without making a profit from products sold.

The patron who looks at a magazine to decide if s/he wants to buy it is in the same position as the patron who tries on a dress or jacket and returns it to the salesclerk in near-pristine condition. Both are looking with intent to make a purchase.

But the patron who looks at / reads the magazine virtually cover-to-cover and returns it to the shelf is acting in the same way as the patron who buys the dress/jacket, wears it to an event, and returns it to the store for full credit.

The now-worn garment is no longer in pristine condition. The wearer is a thief.

And since the reader has not 'perused' but has read the magazine virtually from cover-to-cover, it is not in pristine condition. The reader is a thief.

Anonymous said...

I use the KISS principal - keep it simple, stupid. If you have to make all kinds of wherefore's and whereas's to defend the "perusing", then it's out of bounds. We know people "browse" - the acceptable kind of browsing is to quickly leaf through the magazine to see if it contains the subject matter you want. That's acceptable "browsing". Standing there paging through every page, standing there for 5 or 6 minutes is not "browsing", these activities are unacceptable. Of course, the place where the browsing is done may have a loose interpretation of browsing or may encourage browsing. Usually, you know when you are exceeding the bounds of acceptable. But, to call the person doing a little excessive browsing a thief is a little much. This accusation was not the action of a "friend". Some people have a very loose definition of "friend", it would seem!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Dorothy Pittman said...

Years ago Ann Landers answered a similar question when the person asked if it were OK for her child to eat the candy before it was purchased. Ann's answer was that to consume the product before it was purchased was stealing -- plain and simple. To read a book or magazine without first purchasing it is stealing. It is the same as the person who would read his neighbors newspaper and then replace it on the doorstep. Even it the bookstore did not post signs, the "thief" should know better than to read the magazine without paying for it.