An ethical question involving ebooks
I recently purchased a short story from Fictionwise, which was not DRM’ed, so I could easily get it into a form where I could read it on my Sony eReader. Thanks to that short story, I was introduced to an author, and a character, which I found very engaging. When I decided to find out more about the character, I found that the author had written two additional short stories, and three additional novels many years ago, but has since stopped writing any more books involving that character. Furthermore, the novels have gone out of print, and are only available from amazon.com as used books.
Unfortunately, I travel a lot. So much so, that one of the few times that I have time to read is when I’m traveling. And I really dislike having to haul dead-tree versions of my favorite novels around; they take up far too much weight and space in my carry-on luggage. Unfortunately, these out-of-print novels were published by a Neanderthal Publishing company who hasn’t made any of the books available in ebook format, DRM’ed or no. Grumpy, I searched on Internet, and found all three novels were easily available for free download — in a pirated form, of course.
Should I download them and convert them into a form which would allow me to read them on my Sony eReader? Well, according to Russell Davis, former chair (and now president of the Science Fiction Writer’s Association) of the SFWA’s Copyright Committee, “electronic infringement is theft”. From a legal perspective, I suppose that is true. And given that as an Open Source programmer, I depend on Copyright Law to assure that my wishes as an author are upheld, it would be hypocritical for me assume that I should be able to ignore Copyright Law just because it is inconvenient.
And yet… from a moral perspective, who has really lost anything? The argument made by Russell Davis is that infringement is bad because it is “harming authors and author estates”. Jerry Pournelle has indignantly proclaimed that e-piracy goes against a “specific (and very stern) Biblical injunction against stealing from widows and orphans”. Of course, in this case, the author is still alive (and is female, although I suppose stealing from widowers would be just as bad). Also, given that the author has publically stated she doesn’t plan to write any more books involving this character (since some of her more psychotic readers sent her death threats as a result of reading said books), the publisher is highly unlikely to re-release said novels — and if I buy used dead-tree versions of said novels, the author doesn’t receive any additional royalties. So, then, where is the moral bright line?
- Should I purchase a used dead-tree copy of the novel, and lug it around, inconveniencing me, causing more CO2 emissions by shipping the book to me, and in the airplane because of its added weight, as the only way I can comply with copyright law? Furthermore, should I do this to set an example to all of the younger generations that are treating copyright law much more casually, much as essentially all drivers casually ignore the law’s dictats to not drive faster than the speed limit? (Many have argued that the current state of affairs with respect to music and etexts and copyright law is bad because it encourages people to not respect the rule of law — I guess, as the argument goes, if people don’t respect the copyright law, what’s next? Torturing prisoners in Guantanomo in violation of the law? Oh, wait… too late…)
- Should I purchase a used dead-tree copy of the novel, slice the binding off, and then run pages through a scanner and an OCR program, then spend hours reformatting it into an .LRF file so I can read it on the Sony eReader? Would that be considered fair use?
- What if I purchase a used dead-tree copy of the novel, but to save the time and effort of scanning the pages and correcting the OCR errors, download the pirated e-text, and convert it into an .LRF file and enjoy it on my Sony eReader?
- What if I don’t purchase the dead-tree copy of the book, download the pirated e-text, and send a money order (so it can’t be traced) for roughly the same amount of money as the cost of the used dead-tree version of the book to the author, with a letter explaining why she was receiving this check?
- What if I just download the pirated e-text, justifying my actions that no one is actually getting hurt my downloading the text and reading it; after all, since it is long out of print and not available from any booksellers as a new book, the author isn’t going to be getting any more royalties anyway.
Somewhere along this continuum, we’ve crossed over from the light-side to the dark-side. Setting aside the observation that the Neanderthal attitudes and business practices of the publisher involved has made it impossible for me to legitimiately follow the law, enjoy the novels, and direct money to the author via royalty payments — what do you think is the morally correct course of action? And why? And if you don’t mind saying so publically, roughly what generation are you from (i.e., Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, etc.)? I’m curious how attitudes are changing based on age, and whether folks who are currently in college might differ from those who can remember a time when the Internet didn’t exist…
Update: I’ve posted a follow-up to this post here.
Update2:** This post is starting to get more attention from writers and publishers world. For those folks, after you get tired reading through the many comments expressing the opinion that it’s “ok to just pirate it”, you may want to skip ahead to the comments around #240-#250. (Also see some of Charlie Stross’s comments — he’s a British Science Fiction Writer — at comments #180, #193, #198, #204, #206, etc.) There are some much more nuanced discussions about the nature of copyright taking place later in the comment stream, and in my first (I doubt it will be the last) follow-up post. Please jump in and participate in the discussion — and please don’t just ignore first 200 or so comments; those people are your customers, and for those who are Gen X’ers and the Millenials, they are our future. Participating in the discussion is better than pretending they don’t or shouldn’t exist, or trying to sic the lawyers on them like the RIAA and MPAA tried to do…