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.

As Nathan Bransford puts it in his post on this topic:

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?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


33 Thoughts on "The Ethics of Versions: Why Buying One Experience Doesn’t Permit You All Experiences"

If the publishing industry (trade and scholarly both) wants to make clear their position in the differences between print and digital, then they need to be more honest about the difference between actual purchase and licensing access. The refusal to make this line clear (due to fear that it will either slow adoption and/or reduce sales revenues) is the source of the confusion in the wider population. I don’t disagree with the stated position here that the Ethicist’s logic may be faulty, but I don’t hold the publishing community blameless. Specify clearly what the differences are between the two models and then be prepared to explain and perhaps justify the costs that are associated with each.

I agree. Clarity is key to this, and there’s nothing wrong with demanding people strike the right bargain.

I am an author and independent publisher and if there were an easy way to implement it, I would absolutely do what you suggest no publisher would: I believe sincerely that it is the IP itself that has real value, and that if a person has paid for that IP once it is unreasonable to ask them to pay for the IP a second time. Someone who purchases one of my books in paperback should be able to get the hardback for only the cost of the paper/ink/cloth it’s made from, and the electronic copy for only the cost of the bandwidth used to transfer it (which is effectively zero, especially in comparison to transaction costs).

I haven’t yet figured out a way to implement this so that it does any good to anyone, but as soon as I do, I will. I tried to implement a pricing structure based on this idea, but it is at odds with the way book sellers and eBook distributors and everyone in the chain is used to operating, and is in some ways prohibited by law, so for now I try to set my prices based on a reasonable value for the IP plus the cost of incremental production plus the ridiculous margin of the reseller. I’ll gladly sell directly to anyone who proves prior purchase another version of the same work at cost (which, yes, for eBooks is $0); this is currently a manual process, time consuming and cumbersome and difficult to communicate to readers. I look forward to a future where publishers acknowledge that their product is IDEAS, not PAPER.

You are an author, but not a businessman. If you constrain your value calculations to the variable costs of producing fixed media assets, you will never defray your fixed costs (lights, HVAC, food, cable modem, software licenses), and you will go broke. The business model of paying again for different versions allows providers two major approaches that benefit consumers — they can offer each version at a lower overall cost, making works more accessible to more people generally; and they can offer new experiences of the same “IP” as you put it to reward people who are more intensely interested or want that different experience.

Business also means you have to do a lot of guessing. You can’t know what the variable costs are for paper, ink, etc. per copy, because you don’t know demand. If you’re charging for each one as a handcrafted item, you’re overcharging for the asset.

“Avatar” opened in 2D and 3D. If I’d gone to the 2D version, should I have been allowed to go to the 3D version for free? Or only paid an unknowable fraction of the incremental cost of the 3D print, projection, facilities, staff, marketing, archiving, fixed costs — really, it’s completely untenable. There is no way for that kind of economic model to work. Go ahead and try it, but you’ll find out soon enough that you’re either overcharging at an egregious rate or undercharging yourself broke.

On the ethical front, you may feel like you’re on the side of the angels, but as an independent publisher, you’ll die and go to heaven if you stay on that side too long. There’s nothing unethical about asking people to pay for something, since they only have money because they got paid for something.

It’s going to be hard to have an economy based on ideas. There aren’t enough of them, and they spread too fast to be commercialized. Imagine if Google had said, “I have an idea — put the citation model in a computer network and make a search engine work like that. Please pay me $16 billion per year for the next 30 years for this idea.”

It just doesn’t work that way. People pay for the products of ideas, not for ideas.

Everything you say is untenable & unknowable is certainly in the realm of the calculable and possible. Just because that isn’t how it’s done doesn’t make it impossible. If you’re publishing and you don’t know how much your paper/ink/etc costs are per book you’re putting out, you’re doing your accounting wrong, and it has nothing to do with guesses you make about demand. Once you make your guesses, you know what you’re spending.

People pay for a lot of different things. Some people buy bound blocks of paper just to have something to decorate their walls with. I don’t consider them “readers” – Readers are buying your ideas, and in order to get at your ideas, they’re forced to also pay for paper and/or bits. But what they want is the ideas. If there aren’t enough people who value your ideas enough that their paying you a reasonable amount for those ideas doesn’t cover your overhead (your “fixed costs” which are significantly more variable than print costs, depending on how you choose to operate your business), then yes, you’ll have trouble being profitable. That’s obvious.

You’re suggesting that it’s ethical to charge someone a second time for the ideas they’ve already paid for, and I’m suggesting that -assuming I’ve charged an appropriate amount for the ideas- there’s no need to charge them more for a second copy than it costs to make & deliver that second copy. No need, only greed. You’re welcome to be greedy, but it’s certainly not needed.

That’s my point! You have to guess. And if you guess wrong, you’ll either over-charge or eat costs. In your model as I understand it, you’re only wanting to charge when there is demand, and then only for the variable costs. How can you spread the fixed costs over an unknown demand? You’re still going to have to make some guesses, and then you’ll be just like a regular businessperson. It’s messy, it’s not easy, and you have to guess a lot. And you’re right, fixed costs are really tricky. You have to plan on defraying them.

If you only read for ideas, then I don’t know what you’re reading. Must be fortune cookies. To me, reading is about being swept into an author’s voice, a different world, a set of stories, a compilation of facts into an argument, a new perspective. The “ideas” might even be old, but the experience of reading Michael Lewis or Stephen King write using those ideas is what I pay for. Should a new actor not be paid to play Shakespeare because I’ve seen “Macbeth” before? After all, I’m only paying for the idea of Scottish wifely power and vainglorious failings.

Why should I have to pay for Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short”? Is the idea of shorting the market new? Are the facts new? No, but nobody puts it together like Michael Lewis.

Greed is an unfair accusation. Often, people arguing they shouldn’t have to pay for something they want (aka, clearly value) are as greedy as anyone. The Napster case, the Texaco case, and other cases revealed this ethical “tell” in people saying, “I was just trying to avoid paying.” Why? Because avoiding paying is just the flip side of greed.

I apologize for any confusion, my use of the word “ideas” was meant to encompass the full IP, while leaving out the medium. All the words they used, and how the authors used them, and NOT the paper and the ink (or pixels) that are merely there to convey them to you.

I see the performance of a play to be a derivative work based on the written play. If you want to know what the author thought, read his work. If you want to know what that theatre company thought, buy a ticket to their performance. Each has its own IP/ideas. (Of course, performance art has its own difficulties re: format shifting. If scanning my owned copy of a book for personal use as an eBook is fine, what about video-taping a performance of a play/movie/dance for my own personal use?)

The financial/business problems you keep going to are not, as far as I can tell, really related to the issue at hand of ethics, copying, and the value of IP vs. the value of artifacts used to convey IP. Your problems with guessing and over/under-charging don’t really change or go away in the force-people-to-pay-for-the-IP-once-per-format model that is currently in use; they’re merely obfuscated – Usually obfuscated to the point that publishers don’t consider the value of the IP they’re selling AT ALL, creating bad value propositions with things like MMPB’s where the cover price is less than the value of a copy of the IP (ie: less than the value of an electronic copy). It is only by waking both publishers and readers up to the idea of the value of the IP (instead of the value of the artifact/convenience alone) as a core part of what is being purchased that a viable model for eBooks (& other digital forms) can be created.

Kent, Are you at all capable of ethical calculus? In other words, if I offer you a bundle of two actions, one of which is virtuous and the other morally corrupt, are you able to weigh the two actions against each other to decide whether, taken together, the actions are ethical? If no, then you subscribe to moral absolutism; moral absolutism makes for a very dreary discussion of ethics. If yes, then you need to consider more seriously what Randy Cohen has argued. He’s just saying that an unethical act (downloading the ebook) combined with an ethical one (paying for the print) can result in a net positive ethical bottom line.

Let’s take your argument to the extreme. Let’s suppose that you’re very rich. You ask a subordinate to load an ebook onto your iPad, no matter what it takes. You later discover that the ebook is not available by legitimate means in the country where you reside. Your subordinate has lied about your country of residence to obtain the ebook, resulting in a “purchase” that has not been authorized by the rightsholder, and is therefore illegal. Nonetheless, you feel remorse, and send the rightsholder a check for a thousand dollars (you are unable to contact her to establish a fair price), even though the ebook would cost only $9.99 in the US. In addition, you match your thousand with a contribution to a charity which uses it to feed 10 children for a year who might otherwise starve.

So your argument to Randy Cohen is that this combination of actions is still unethical because it includes stealing.

Well, that’s just crazy. Please give me a functional premise for moral calculus the next time. In this one, the rightsholder only receives a check even though I’m mysteriously unable to contact her until I send her money; I’m abusing my power which I’ve gotten via wealth, yet property rights are obviously something I flout; my subordinate is apparently a wet noodle and too stupid to buy the print book and scan it in and load the PDF on my iPad, which is both legal and ethical; and I’m rich but I overpay for things?

Let’s try this. I’m a mollusk who mysteriously has legs, and I run to a bookstore that only had digital editions, so I have to buy an e-book but I can’t afford one because I’ve only recently gotten legs and they don’t make mollusk pants yet and I forgot my wallet so I steal one and then I send the bookstore a million seashells which they are able to sell for a jillion dollars and the owner retires happy. Am I a good mollusk? No, because I could have traded the seashells legitimately instead of stealing and making reparations.

No matter how absurd your premise, stealing when the option of paying is more straightforward remains unethical. Your rich guy should just have his subordinate scan the book in for personal digital use if he wants to remain ethical, and he should still donate to children (and buy pants for mollusks).

Ok, you agree that your position in my ridiculous extenuation of it is absurd, but now are you saying that it could be ethical if there’s no straightforward option of paying? That’s an interesting avenue to explore!

Cohen’s statements don’t seem “astounding” at all. They are what consumers expect and why they are annoyed at, and don’t always purchase, every new format the entertainment industries develop. Less, than astounding, they seem quite reasonable in that light.

As to your arguments, the reader didn’t pay for a book reading, he paid for a copy of the book. The sentence you highlight says “Buying a book or a piece of music . . . ” not “paying for an experience of a book or a piece of music . . .” So the analogy to a paying for a film viewing granting you a copy of the DVD fails.

Similarly, Cohen claims a purchase of a copy allows for format shifting, not version shifting. So that analogy fails.

As for who did the scanning (and I’d suggest that a scanned e-book is not the quality product you address), the end result for that particular individual is not different. Indeed, Cohen failed to address that making it easy on yourself can be seen to condone the act that created the scanned copy, and that is a flaw in the column post. But is a column post and not an article in Ethics.

And I don’t think he is devaluing digital. Rather I think he is reacting to the publisher he consulted who claimed the act in question was thievery. Cohen did follow that with “Yet it is a curious sort of theft that involves actually paying for a book.”

And that is my point about Cohen’s response being common sense.

First, I disagree that Cohen’s perspective is what consumers “expect” (as if either common practice or common sense equate with ethics) — do you really expect to get a free paperback copy of “Moby Dick” at the airport bookstore because you read it in college? Nobody expects that. You’re asserting a falsehood. Consumers don’t purchase every new format, but that’s an expression of choice. I’m stopping short of Blu-Ray, but that doesn’t mean that if I cave someday and get a Blu-Ray player that I’ll expect to turn in my DVD collection for a full, free Blu-Ray replacement. It cost money to make those copies, and I ascribe a certain value to some movies that I would buy in Blu-Ray too, but others I wouldn’t. It’s about choice. Just because people don’t buy everything doesn’t mean the offer isn’t valid or appreciated.

Readers pay for many things when they buy a version of something — I sometimes like a book in hardcover over paperback because I have a collection of that author’s works and I want to add to it; I sometimes want a cheap paperback so I can read on the beach; I sometimes want an ebook so I can carry it more easily when I travel. Choice has costs, because you’re paying for convenience, preference, and an experiential difference. My analogy doesn’t fail.

Cohen is claiming that purchase of a copy allows for version shifting — I can get a different version. “Format shifting” to clarify this semantic game is what he and I agree is both legal and ethical — I scan in my print book to make an electronic copy for personal use = format shifting. My book in a different format. “Version shifting” means I take someone else’s pirated version of the book and make it my own. That’s stealing.

And while the end result isn’t different, ethics isn’t about the end result but the path there. And the path Cohen is contemplating is, to me, unethical.

We will disagree about whether Cohen is devaluing digital. It’s pretty clear to me that he is.

Common sense and ethics are not always on speaking terms, so I’d avoid mixing them up.

At this point, just about the only movie discs I purchase new are the ones that contain a DVD, a BD, and a Digital Copy – and appropriately, they cost the same as new movies have cost for quite some time, hopefully because the studios recognize that I’m buying the movie, not the discs. In fact, the latest I bought contained the DVD, the BD, the Digital Copy, AND a movie ticket, all for the same cost as any other new BD from a major studio.

This is what I, as a consumer, am coming to expect. And the studios who don’t deliver it won’t easily be able to compete with those who do. The same goes for publishing & music & any other IP as it becomes available across multiple formats. Just because there were very expensive roadblocks to this sort of multi-format availability for a single purchase price in the past doesn’t mean that those expenses are appropriate or ethical.

Suppose that instead of getting the ebook from the pirate site, you copy someone else’s legally acquired copy of the ebook. Does that remove the taint? For example, if I format-shift an LP that I own by borrowing the CD from the library and ripping it to my computer, do you consider that to be legal and ethical?

I’d agree that Cohen is simply relating a rationale for the common expectation of consumers these days. The concept of a work being licensed for enjoyment in various forms (instead of a copy as an object to own) has enabled time-shifting, backups, home media streaming, mobile devices, and so on, all of which expand the audience for creative works.

I can see how a consumer would be entirely uninterested in being locked into the buying of physical objects & losing his rights to make backups or stream from a home media server simply because publishers are accustomed to being paid for physical objects.

Fundamentally, once something is digital, it’s inherent fluid in form. The genie is out of the bottle, Pandora’s box has been opened, and just as every other content industry has had to learn how to live in this new reality, so do publishers of the printer word. Luckily, you’ve got over two decades of movie and music industry blunders to instruct you on what not to do.

Kent, you’re struggling to claim an ethical position in defense of a current business model. I understand why and recognize the temptation, but it just doesn’t work. Your purposeful conflation of experience/copy and version/format are the holes in the argument. Those differences aren’t just semantic in a discussion of ethics or logic, two topics I once taught.

And sorry for the short hand where “common sense” was a stand-in for “commonly held ethical belief.”

Well, I’m actually claiming that stealing isn’t ethical, and since it’s unethical, benefiting from stolen goods isn’t ethical, either. Cohen is asserting that taking a stolen copy of something and substituting it as a version for personal use is the same as scanning in your own copy. That’s not logical. I was disputing your portrayal of expectations, which I think was quite unrealistic. Also, if you really think a copy of a book isn’t an experience of a book, then you think that you and I would have identical experiences reading the same book. We may actually come away with completely different experiences from reading the same copy of a book. Reading is an experience, and we need copies of things in order to read them. There isn’t a conflation, just a relationship. Cohen’s letter writer wanted a different experience — that is, to read the book on an e-reader. To accomplish this, he downloaded a pirated copy. That’s stealing. To remain legal and ethical, he needed to scan in his hardcover book and make a personal digital copy. Otherwise, he’s participating in piracy. It’s quite clear. I’m not the one smudging the lines.

First, equivocating taking an infringing copy and making your own legal copy is disputable. But the dispute would be over principles, not logic.

Second, you and I would have different experiences watching the same showing of a movie, so why would I be having the same experience as you if we read the same copy of a book? Your claim was that Cohen would, following his argument, be justified in asking for a *copy* of a movie by having experienced it in a theater. My point was that Cohen made no such claim by talking about purchased copies. An experience is separable from a copy. They are different sorts of things. You connected them through the relationship of identity to try and make your outrage sound more reasonable.

Finally, downloading an infringing copy is certainly not stealing (see the line I quoted from Cohen), but we certainly don’t need to rehash that conversation here.

A case can be made that the act Cohen approved of is unethical, but you haven’t made it here is all I’m saying.

The more I think about the “experience” argument, the less useful I think it is.

For example, by the experience argument, shouldn’t publishers be entitled to charge every time we read a book? After all, we don’t expect to get a repeat of the seeing-a-movie experience for free?

I think the core argument of the ethicist is to look at why downloading the pirate copy is unethical. It’s unethical primarily because it deprives the rightsholders of money. It’s for that reason that the payment of money substantially cures the wrong.

Ethics needs to be simple, not arcane or legalistic. Here’s a useful test: If everyone acted the way Cohen’s reader did, would the world be better for it or worse? I think better.

I disagree that the world would be better if everyone acted as Cohen’s reader did. You just said it’s unethical because no money was paid to the rightsholder. Cohen’s reader only paid for the right to the experience of reading the print book, not to the right to the experience of reading the e-book. They are different experiences and require different craft to render, support, and provide. The e-book is a valuable item. Stealing it by taking a pirated version is unethical.

Ethics does need to be simple. Rule: Thou shalt not steal.

Simple enough?

I fundamentally disagree that the medium by which the written word is conveyed alters what a reader gets out of those words. They may create different experiences, but so does re-reading a book, so does discussing it with other people who have read it, so does the environment you’re in when you read it. But if the words are the same, the words are the same, regardless of “experience”.

When I buy a book, I’m paying for 1) the words 2) the paper/bits 3) overhead. As a reader I only care about 1 of these; the other two are delivery mechanisms for the 1 I want. Once I’ve paid for them (barring DRM) I’m allowed to read the words as many times as I’d like, and I’m allowed to do with the paper (and in some cases the bits) whatever I’d like (from scanning to reselling to burning/deleting). What the original example is positing is that once I have paid the creator for 1, 2, & 3, my having access to a second copy of 1 is not unethical. I’ve paid for 1 already. Whether created by my own means or someone else’s, the copy is ethical for me to possess. That is the supposition. The idea that I must be the one to create the copy in order to ethically possess it is what is being called into question. Logically, if I have a right to possess a copy, what bearing does the origin of the copy have on my right to possess it? If 1 = 1, it has no bearing.

Also: I very strongly disagree with the use of the word “stealing” being used to describe copying. They are in no way the same thing, and that fact is at the crux of the conflict over Intellectual “Property” as it exists today.

As I’ve said again and again, fine in theory, tough in practice, which is why business models have evolved how they have. How do you deal with all the costs of warehousing, servers, retirement, health care, legal fees, HR, innovation into new areas, etc.? I’m afraid I can’t argue with wishful thinking.

I write novels. I self-publish them. I make about $3 for each one I sell, net. If you scan a copy of my book and post it online, and someone downloads it to avoid paying for it, they are basically stealing $3 from me as an author. The same goes for publishers (who have worked and invested to make the book available), other authors, etc. Sorry, but even if it’s laundered through an online download, you’re basically taking something of value without paying for it, and that’s stealing.

If I shoplift something because I think it’s of less value than the store owner (I think it’s of zero marginal value), I will still be wrong. The people who make the stuff and sell the stuff get to set the price. Your ethical choices are to buy it or not. It is not ethical to choose to take it without paying for it. That’s stealing.

Copying != Taking. Shoplifting is also a false example. The physical equivalent of making a digital copy of a digital file would be:

I walk into a store, see something I want, and [using a magic wand | using a high-tech rapid manufacturing device] make an exact duplicate of it without in any way diminishing the original. I take the duplicate with me for my personal use & leave the shop owner with their original still available for sale. This is clearly not shoplifting, and does not represent “taking” a thing from the shopkeeper.

Making a copy is not stealing. Your inability to use an old business model to make money in an environment where copying is free and easy does not turn making a copy into stealing.

I’m really not here to argue *for* making copies without paying; I’m trying to argue for making copies *after you’ve paid,* which is what the original point was about, too. You keep going off on unrelated tangents like “what about the cost of doing business” and “copying is stealing” and ignoring most of what I say about the initial post.

I think I shall go back to simply *reading* The Scholarly Kitchen instead of attempting to intelligently *engage* with people in response to its posts. It was clearly a mistake to think that any form of intelligent and rational discourse might result here.

Well, this is the old and flawed argument that digital should always be free because it’s non-perishable. So, you must feel ethically fine sneaking into movies without paying. After all, you don’t degrade the film, add cost to the venue, or take a copy. You just don’t pay what the owner is charging. That’s unethical. Try it sometime, and see how your conscience feels as you sit there in the midst of all the other people who paid. So, you’re right — making a copy is not always necessary for stealing. Sometimes, you don’t even need to do that.

Digital publishing is becoming much more like the movies in the economic model. Costs are decreasing for copies, almost to zero, but the fixed costs of creating the materials are increasing all the time. But selling copies remains the primary way publishers can recoup those investments and have enough left over to invest in creating or cultivating the next works.

I was talking with someone the other day who noted that humans have two strange beliefs — first, each person believes they are inherently ethical; second, each person thinks it’s clever to get away with small acts of deception.

If you don’t think this is intelligent and rational discourse, I’m sorry about that. But I think that’s a cheap shot.

I think it’s more of a semantic quibble than anything. It comes up every time these sorts of issues are discussed, and really, it’s a bit of misdirection on both sides away from the actual meat of the argument.

“Stealing” is the word often used by people siding with copyright, as it’s easily understood by the layman and generally inflames emotions. “Stealing” and “theft” are things everyone understands as bad.

The correct word is, in fact, “infringement”. Infringement is a much more serious crime than stealing. It is covered by a separate set of laws, and has much, much more serious penalties than petty theft. In a realistic sense then, “infringement” as a term should be much more inflaming, should be seen as much worse than common “stealing” (if punishment is any indication). It ends up as the equivalent of arguing with someone and pointing out that what he’s calling “assault” is actually “murder”, and claiming that makes it acceptable.

But most people don’t have a frame of reference for the word “infringement”, so while technically correct, it ends up being less effective at getting meaning across in some ways. And it leads to endless pedantic corrections.

I think what you are minimizing is #3: overhead. There is differing amounts of overhead required to produce each format (or “experience”). When you purchase one format, you are not automatically paying the overhead costs for *all* formats.

There is usually a significant investment made when adapting content from one delivery format to another, and those costs are recouped by charging a different purchase price for each format. There is no magic button that will *poof* make an author’s book manuscript available in multiple print and electronic formats. It takes people, time, and expense.

To add to this, it takes overhead to market the new version, maintain it, and curate it into various outlets. These fixed costs have to be recouped mostly through the sales of copies, so it starts to appear to people that copies are being purchased when in fact it’s the copy + the cost of making the work, marketing it, paying for health insurance and retirement, etc.

I’m not minimizing #3. I’m suggesting that, if I’ve already purchased a copy (the initial example) and thus paid for 1, 2, and 3, any transaction for acquiring additional copies for personal use in other formats should only cost me the cost of 2 & 3 – That I shouldn’t have to pay for 1 again, for the value of the IP itself. I’m not saying those costs don’t exist, when a publisher is the one offering the copy (although they can certainly be kept low).

But in the example, the publisher isn’t the one paying them – some pirate somewhere paid those costs, and chose not to pass them on to the downloader. So the marginal cost of producing this copy, to the publisher, is $0. And they already got paid for the value of the IP (if they’ve based their pricing, in any way, on value).

Now, as to my initial comment, that I -as a publisher- would like to offer my readers the ability to pay only the marginal cost of each additional format they purchase (rather than forcing them to pay for the IP again and again), I will agree that I left out any mention of overhead. In relation to my 1/2/3 examples above and below, I was thinking in terms of cost of production including overhead, though perhaps I was not explicit enough – surely the cost of paper includes the cost of creating & delivering that paper, yes? Perhaps that is why Kent keeps going back to it; that I was not explicit enough. To me, it’s part of the same guessing game one goes through when determining print costs – you have to guess how many copies will sell, right? Well, you have to do that for all the titles you put out, and thus you have to guess how many titles you’re going to be able to spread your overhead costs across for a particular period. You were going to have to make that guess anyway (or ignore it, which seems to be what Kent is advocating – that rather than calculating it out as a per-book cost, it should just be absorbed by overcharging people for the IP on repeat sales) and once you make your guess (as with the print costs), you can calculate what the per-book overhead costs will be.

This isn’t impossible. It’s simply a different perspective. I’m suggesting that pricing of any edition be based on 1) value of a copy of the IP + 2) cost of materials for a copy + 3) cost of overhead for a copy — and that when someone has already paid for (1), their subsequent purchases should be charged based on (2)+(3). New purchases would always be charged based on the full (1)+(2)+(3). If you’ve done your calculations well, and if you’re any good at guessing, this covers your costs, both for new purchases and for subsequent purchases.

Why is this so difficult, as a concept, to grasp?

What none of you seem interested in addressing, and I think the more interesting point is this: I am advocating pricing based on value, and guessing what the value of the IP ought to be on a per-copy basis is MUCH more difficult and incalculable than either the cost of creating a copy OR the cost of overhead. It’s significantly problematic to me that publishers don’t see that consumers already do this sort of calculation in their heads all the time, and that this is why buyers of mmpb’s think eBooks cost too much: Publishers have told them that the value of a copy of the IP is somewhere below the mmpb price point.

Certainly the cost of overhead for creating/formatting/marketing/curating the mmpb is similar to the cost of doing same for the eBook, and consumers know this.

They also know that paper & physical distribution cost more than bits & electronic distribution.

So if the overhead is similar, and the production/distribution is less, and the IP is the same, why would they pay more for an eBook than a mmpb?

To me, this is a problem of publishers refusing to consider the value of the IP. Getting hung up on the cost of overhead (certainly something already on your books) and not thinking about the value of the IP is a symptom of this.


What’s hard to calculate is the demand. Without that, you can’t know how to spread the overhead costs, allocate them to copies, etc. That’s one of the main risks of business. And the value of IP is just as incalculable. “Here’s the story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls . . . ” Finish the song, and you’ve got the IP of “The Brady Bunch.” Or do you mean the IP of the music? The acting? The scripts? The brand? The rights?

You’re hoping to know something a priori that can’t be known that way.

Interesting discussion here.
I bought concert tickets recently and received in the post a ‘free’ copy of the band’s cd, so the issue is clearly being pre-empted. Maybe at some point the same will happen with movie-going and with e-books. The issue of ethics is really to do with the disorientation we experience when technologies change. Think of the shift from medieval manuscripts to printed bibles. The former were almost impossibly costly, the latter far, far less so. The result was several hundred years of warfare and persection in Europe as the Reformation took hold and people struggled with questions of who owed what to whom. There is a fundamental ethical code at stake, which amounts to the Buddhists’ avoidance of taking that which is not offered. Unfortunately it’s hard to make a Buddhist computer. Computers tend to copy first and ask questions later. One solution might be, as with my band example, to charge more for what can’t be just taken (the concert), and to offer for free the things that can be copied easily and have zero marginal cost. If someone takes my e-book, isn’t that something that should please me, a bit like taking my business card? Isn’t it my problem and no one else’s if I then fail to monetize the fact that of all the millions of works they could have chosen they actually chose mine? I suppose I’m suggesting that attention is very valuable but we haven’t quite worked out how to value it yet.

I like how you put “free” in quotes. It shows that you realize the CD was paid for by your ticket purchase, in part. I’m sure if movie companies thought it wouldn’t degrade theater attendance, they’d charge $20 per ticket and give you a DVD, but since DVD sales are more commercially viable after movies leave theaters, that probably won’t happen.

The shift from manuscripts to printing did cause a lot of strife, but not because ownership of printed materials became a big issue, but precisely because ownership was less of a big deal — people like Martin Luther and others could spread their ideas far and wide to people with relatively little money, causing major social upheaval.

If you’re OK with giving your e-book away for free, that’s a pricing decision you make. “Free” is a price, just a “0” is a number. If you compare giving a free e-book to giving a business card, then you are effectively saying that you are giving the e-book in the hopes that more business will come your way — after all, that’s why people give business cards.

I disagree that we haven’t figured out how to monetize attention. In fact, your last sentence strikes me as forced naivete. Look at all the businesses that monetize attention — advertising, movies, music, radio, television, books, magazines, journals, social networks, online video. I can’t see how trillions of dollars of monetized attention over hundreds of years equates to “we haven’t quite worked out how to value it yet.”

In another note on this post, the Ethicist reaches a different verdict when considering the replacement of Oreos in a hotel minibar, citing the service aspect.

I continue to think he’s a bit of a muttonhead.

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