Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Copyright, Digital Media, and Ethics

Recently a storm has been brewin’ on the web over columnist Randy Cohen address of book piracy in his latest Ethicist spot, published in the New York Times. A reader wrties:
“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.”

Cohen approves morally saying that there is a disconnect between the law (downloading the book was clearly illegal) and the morality of the act (here Cohen approves). Cohen’s response has garnered varied responses. Paul Constant, the book critic at Seattle’s alt weekly The Stranger, agrees, while over at Moby Lives Megan Halpern writes a vitriolic rant against the column. Most importantly these responses and the original column itself raise an interesting point, what is ethical ownership of a book?

Obviously if you buy a hardcover book you own that hardcover book. You can read it any time you want, you can draw in it, you can lend it to your friends to read, and then not give back to you, and you can resell it. These are all accepted legal aspects of the book. But do those rights and ownership extend automatically to ownership of a digital edition of the book?

If you digitally copy the book yourself, you’re in the clear. Just like ripping a cd to your computer, or making a mix tape back in the day, you as the owner of the book have a certain purview called fair use. Fair use, legally and ethically, allows you to have some control over your copy of the book, or CD. It lets you have some control over how, when, and where you enjoy that piece of media. Fair use is less a moral dilemma of the public and more one for the artist and their artistic control, but its one that they give up to allow society to consume their work. They get fame and financial benefit and give up some control, and if they want more control, then they should be a performance artist and not an author.

Publishers may disagree, because they want to sell you digital copies. However, Big Pub should take a lesson from the Big Music. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s the music industry attempted to block fair use of music by mandating heavy DRM on digital music software, and loading up their cd’s with all sorts of cleaver tricks to keep people from pirating music. They even created a draconian piece of legislation which even today stifles digital creativity and innovation in Business, the DMCA. The result of all this was that people got ticked off at the music industry and stopped buying music. The rise of digital piracy isn’t associated with the rise of Napster or BitTorrent, it started when the music business decided that they had to force their customers to buy their music twice.

Since then the music industry has learned its lesson and adopted a model of distribution that doesn’t involve shackling consumers. The book industry shouldn’t either. If I buy a book, I have every right to digitize it. If that book is digital, than I have every right to print it, and read it however I choose. I even have the right to bind it into a book, whether the law completely recognizes it or not.

However, I don’t have the right to distribute it. Nor do I have the right to illegally download them. The music and movie industries have realized this, allowing internet radio stations to broadcast more freely, and removing DRM from their downloadable products. The movie industry had begun to distribute movies and TV online through Netflix, and Hulu, while the music industry has last.fm, and Pandora. Publishing has the same thing, its called the library. Many of which have begun to offer Ebooks for loan.

With legal means available to get a digital copy distributing, and downloading pirated copies, is not ok. Even if you bought the hardback, however people who spend $30 on a novel will admittedly feel like they have rights beyond normal. Publishers are realizing this and a few are moving to sell eBooks bundled with their hardback counterparts. However, that’s not what was asked. In the particular case discussed above, Cohen clearly missed the mark. We just don’t need to insult the man to point out his errors.

Here is a link to the original Ethicist Column, Constant’s Slog Post, and Halpern’s Open Letter.

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