Does anybody remember the Unethicist? Now that was an awesome column. And such a simple concept: every week Gabriel Delahaye answered the same questions featured in Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” column, but with extremely different (and much more vulgar) answers. The perfect example of how to jack someone else’s content, add snark, and create something that effing hilarious.
Anyway, one of the first unethicist columns I ever read was this one, which I probably shouldn’t quote from here in fear of offending at least a few of you . . . But to summarize, some guy asks if it’s ethical to take his laptop into the library and copy the library’s CDs and DVDs. Which is obviously piracy, but hell, that’s exactly what the internet is for! (According to the Unethicist, at least.)
This weekend, the Ethicist was faced with an interesting situation that’s only going to become more and more common as the iPad reproduces itself all across the country.
I bought an e-reader for travel and was eager to begin Under the Dome, the new Stephen King novel. Unfortunately, the electronic version was not yet available. The publisher apparently withheld it to encourage people to buy the more expensive hardcover. So I did, all 1,074 pages, more than three and a half pounds. Then I found a pirated version online, downloaded it to my e-reader and took it on my trip. I generally disapprove of illegal downloads, but wasn’t this O.K.? C.D., BRIGHTWATERS, N.Y.
Now, of course Cohen’s going to disapprove, right? I mean, it’s illegal. And besides, if readers get the crazy idea in their head that it’s totally OK to download things they paid for in other formats, the whole publishing industry will implode, and none of us want that, right? It’s a moral imperative that Cohen make every reader out there with an internet connection and the ability to use Scribd feel really, really guilty about their suspect activity . . . So here’s the ethical hammer:
An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.
Wait— What? Even after a couple paragraphs explaining the publishing industry’s opposite point of view re: this situation, Cohen comes back with a healthy dose of wit that will surely cause publishing execs throughout New York to collectively freak the fuck out:
Your action is not pristine. Downloading a bootleg copy could be said to encourage piracy, although only in the abstract: no potential pirate will actually realize you’ve done it. It’s true that you might have thwarted the publisher’s intent — perhaps he or she has a violent antipathy to trees, maybe a wish to slaughter acres of them and grind them into Stephen King novels. Or to clog the highways with trucks crammed with Stephen King novels. Or perhaps King himself wishes to improve America’s physique by having readers lug massive volumes.
So be it. Your paying for the hardcover put you in the clear as a matter of ethics, forestry and fitness training.
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