There’s a famous scene from the 1997 movie Men in Black in which Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Agent Kay, holds up a tiny alien music disc and mutters, “This is gonna replace CDs soon; guess I’ll have to buy The White Album again.”
The joke resonated then, and it does today. Basically, Agent Kay was complaining about versions of a work. We’ve all been there. Your favorite old album comes out on a pristine CD with remastered digital sound, and you buy it again. That great CD gets buried in a box in your basement, virtually impossible to fish out without tearing the place apart, but iTunes has a digital download you can get now, so you buy it again. And so on. Soon, you have four versions of The White Album in your possession, each one a little different in functionality, packaging, and sonic architecture.
Recently, “The Ethicist,” a column by Randy Cohen at the New York Times, ran a letter from a reader wondering if downloading an illegal e-book copy of a novel this person had purchased in hardcover was ethically wrong. While acknowledging that this person’s actions were illegal, Cohen argued that they were not unethical. He compares their actions to ripping a CD to their digital music device, and he reaches this conclusion with an amazing logical leap:
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform.
Cohen then says that so little harm is done with this line of reasoning that it doesn’t meet his threshold for being unethical, and he concludes:
Your paying for the hardcover put you in the clear as a matter of ethics
These are astounding statements. Let’s follow Cohen’s logic a bit here. Suppose I pay to see a movie in the theater. Do I then have the right to a free DVD (regular and Blu-Ray), a free digital download of the movie, a free copy of the source novel (if there is one), and a free copy of the soundtrack (I did hear the music)?
After all, if I experience one version of a work, I have an ethical right to all versions of that work, according to Cohen. And even if someone is demonstrably trying to protect the other versions from being appropriated at no cost, I can take them without ethical concern, Cohen might argue. All I have to worry about is getting caught be officers of the law. But my conscience would be clear.
This is the first fallacy of Cohen’s line of reasoning. Even if there is an arguable similarity between version A of an experience and version B (print book to e-book), they are different, and each has separate value. This becomes clearer when you compare hardcover books and paperback books. You’d never argue that a buyer of a hardcover book merely has to present a receipt proving ownership in order to claim the paperback when it comes out. They are different experiences, different versions, even if the only differences are trim size, paper stock, and binding.
E-books are different in a number of ways, and they aren’t necessarily easy to make well. There are probably as many production steps (cover art, cataloging, text transformations, etc.) and marketing steps to making a polished e-book as there are in releasing a paperback. And the letter writer in Cohen’s column obviously wanted an e-book, so it clearly has value. It was a version of the experience of Stephen King’s latest novel that this person wanted. Ethically, this person ascribed value to the e-book, but sought to get the value without an exchange. That’s unfair, that’s stealing, and both are unethical.
Then there’s Cohen’s argument that if someone else posts or makes available a pirated version of a work, and I take it, I’m just doing the equivalent of scanning my own copy in for my own personal use.
No, Mr. Cohen, if I scan a book I bought and use that scan myself, that’s akin to ripping a CD. If I take someone else’s scan done without permission, I’m participating in commercial piracy.
Not to make this personal, but I naturally wondered about the Ethicist’s background. I’m always willing to learn from a trained, experienced ethicist, so I wondered if maybe I was being rash in my judgment and would be so impressed by the Ethicist’s long tenure dealing with such issues that I’d rethink. After all, the guy’s in the New York Times. He must be a top-tier ethicist.
I’m so naive.
Cohen’s chops for making ethical statements seem a bit thin. He’s a good writer, it’s clear, and a former comedy writer for Letterman and others, but the only claim to an ethics pedigree I can find is that he published a book in 2003 called “The Good, the Bad, and the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations.” It’s odd that a writer would make the argument that if anyone has one version of something he’s done, they are entitled to every version. For instance, his book is available in hardcover and in paperback. I should be able to have the hardcover version for free if I’ve purchased the paperback version, right?
I doubt Cohen would argue that, because paper is tangible. And I’ll bet tangibility lies somewhere at the crux of this ethical reduction Cohen’s concocted.
Ultimately, I think this ethics kludge is about the devaluation of digital assets.
I thought we were past this by now, but Cohen seems to be implicitly stating that in a cost-based world, digital is virtually free, so stealing it isn’t unethical. This is an outdated approach to valuing information. It’s clear that e-books, electronic subscriptions, digital music, and digital video are all worth billions of dollars. These billions of dollars drive industries that employ people. Real people, not pretend SIMS people. And these real people invented things like the Kindle, the iPad, streaming video, and e-commerce.
It’s worth noting that scholarly publishers have not completely grappled with the problem of devalued digital content. We still bundle online access with print in many cases. We used to bundle online ads into print ad sales when online ads weren’t worth much, but not many do that anymore. And we’re investing more than ever in our digital versions.
The electronic era is full of possibility as well as potential downfalls, and I think we need to get past the idea that an electronic format is value-less relative to print. It has value. It is a different product. You can add that value yourself by converting something you bought, or you can pay for a new file.
Since when does stealing something of clear value for no reason other than to save money or avoid having to lug around a heavy book amount to an ethical act?