Letter to the Ethicist

Dear Ethicist:

I am a long-time reader of this column and I have never been as dumbstruck as I was by your response yesterday in E-Book Dodge. In both reasoning and conclusion your response was, in contemporary parlance, a great big bowl of wrong.

First, while an illegal act is not automatically unethical, as we live in a society of laws, deliberate law-breaking should be restricted to situations where ethics demand it. Mere convenience does not meet this bar.

Second, the comparison to “buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod” is invalid, since doing so for personal use is explicitly legal in the United States (see http://mp3.about.com/od/digitalmusicfaq/f/CDripping_legal.htm).

Most significantly, you provide no ethical justification for the statement that "buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform." Indeed, it appears to be based on the dubious and – dare I say it – anachronistic notion that the primary value of content is in the physical media with which it is transmitted and not the content itself. A sounder ethical principle would be that the individual or organization that owns the right to distribute the content – ideally its creator – decides what the appropriate value is on different platforms. It may be short-sighted of Apple Records to not make “Abbey Road” available for me to download when I’ve already purchased it on LP, cassette, and CD, but ethically speaking it is their right.

Finally, the statement that “no potential pirate will actually realize” when someone downloads an illegal copy is simply incorrect. Basic web site logging enables the provider of pirated content to track the who, what, and when of access to such content.

Sincerely,
Daniel Glasser

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