e-Book piracy: a moral dilemma

Here is a moral dilemma that I’ve not seen discussed before — maybe surprisingly, since it’s one that I imagine lots of us have run into. However I think through this, it leads me to a stupid conclusion. Can anyone help me to see what mistake I’m making?


I’ve enjoyed Terry Pratchett’s books pretty much since the start, so over the years I’ve accumulated a complete set of paperbacks.

I’ve had a Kindle for several years (actually I’m on my third), and now do the huge majority of my reading on it. So I acquired a set of Pratchett e-books via a torrent site, and have a selection on my Kindle. (That’s why I was able to read Maskerade on a flight yesterday.) It seems to me that this has to be morally fine; indeed several publishers now give you the ebook for free when you buy a physical one.

We have accumulated lots of crud in our home over the years and want to get rid of things we no longer need. Now that I have all my Pratchetts in e-book form, I don’t need the paperbacks, so we can reclaim the space they take up.

It’s stupid to waste good books, so I should clearly give them to a local library, or school, or charity shop that can get them into the hands of eager young readers — right?

But if I do that, then the situation we’re in is equivalent to if I’d just pirated the books in the first place. That is, the paperbacks have been paid for and are being used, and I have e-books that I didn’t pay for.

So does that mean that I need to keep the physical books, so that I own them as a sort of licence for the corresponding e-books? Does it mean I’m mandated to lock them up in  trunk somewhere, taking up space and benefitting no-one?

Of, if I don’t have to actually keep the books morally, but am free to reclaim the space in the house, does that mean that I ought to destroy them — burn them, maybe? — in order to prevent other people from benefitting from them?

And how on earth did we get into the situation where burning books in order to prevent people from reading them looks like a morally coherent thing to do?

Help me out, people! Which step in this chain of reasoning is broken?

40 responses to “e-Book piracy: a moral dilemma

  1. Andrew Hickey

    The totally moral thing to do would be to buy legitimate ebook copies of the books as you give them away.
    On the other hand, Charles Stross, when asked about what people who’ve pirated his books should do if they feel guilty, tells them to buy a new paperback copy of one of his books and either keep it or give it to someone who’ll read them. Seems to me you’ve done that in reverse.
    On the gripping hand, Pratchett is dead, and was an extraordinarily rich man when alive, so you’re not causing any noticeable amount of damage no matter what you do.

  2. It seems to me that buying new copies of books that I already own is not at all a moral thing — or, more precisely, requiring me to do so is immoral.

    Charles Stross’s approach — just buy what you pirated — seems fine to me (it’s what I’ve done with much of Stewart Lee’s work). The interesting wrinkle here is that he’s fine with you then giving the paperback away, so that two people get the benefit of the book even though only one has paid. Needless to say, I like that solution, but I’m not sure that’s the same as it being moral.

    Finally, what you say about Pratchett is obviously true, and applies in this case; but I’m interested in the general case (and for that reason should probably have used a different example).

  3. Andrew Hickey

    Stross’ argument is partly that it’s expected that books will have multiple readers, and partly that a new reader made by being given one of his books is likely to become someone who purchases his other books, and thus makes him and his publishers money in the long term.

  4. Meanwhile, over on Twitter, Mark Kohut says “you stole the books with a rationalization. Keeping or giving the books away is a separate ethical action”. If I understand him rightly, he thinks that the broken link in this chain is the first one: I should never have downloaded the e-books.

    Needless to say, I disagree. Here’s why. First, had I scanned and OCR’d my own physical copies, then the e-books I created would be the result of format shifting, which has been formally recognised as legal in the UK. (No, “legal” is not the same as “moral”, but it’s at least a clue; and usually, a lower bound). Given that the copies I downloaded are essentially the same as the ones I would have made in this scenario, it would ridiculous to say that everyone who wants an e-book copy of a book they own has to go through the time-consuming process of making their own copy, duplicating work that has already been done.

    So I’m happy with the first step of the scenario in the post. The mistake has to be somewhere else.

  5. Andrew, Stross’s argument is eminently sensible, and I endorse it wholeheartedly. Maybe it’s as simple as that. What’s moral is, after all, usually sensible.

  6. Michael Kohne

    Yes, you have to keep the books. Or, re-buy as Ebooks.

    Making an analogy to CDs, you can’t very well rip the CD to your iPod, then sell the CD and be anywhere near in the right.

    This is leaving aside the question of whether it was OK to torrent the books just because you owned them in the first place – you have your own answer to that already.

  7. Why not just donating the paper books _and_ deleting the ebooks? I don’t understand the need to keep a collection of digital content, now that it’s so easy to have that content back if you need it–just to to $FAVORITE_EBOOK_STORE, pay & download it in a couple seconds. That way you only need to pay again for books you actually decide to re-read at least once, and I bet you won’t do that for this entire collection.

  8. John Mark Ockerbloom

    Your original post is trying to justify an ethical shuffle: a sequence of actions, each of which seems rationalizable by itself, but taken together are clearly wrong.

    They’re pernicious, and you can spot them in lots of contexts if you look carefully. There’s a similar one, actually, in American bookselling: Booksellers can get refunds from publishers for unsold paperbacks by sending them a torn-off cover and saying the book was destroyed. It’s cheaper than shipping back the whole book, but some booksellers then turn around and give away or even sell the book they said they destroyed, and that they got a refund for.

    The bottom line is this: You have two copies of a book, and you’ve only legitimately paid for one of them. Ethically, you can either put one “beyond use” by escrowing it with the digital copy or destroying it, or you can pay for the second copy.

    It’s your choice what you do. You can effectively “beam” the physical book to your virtual library, and like the transporter in Star Trek annihilate the original print copy and replace it with the new (electronic) copy. Or you can delete the *electronic* copies and keep the print, though it sounds like you prefer to read them in electronic format now. Or, you can buy ebook copies of the print copies that you’re giving or reselling to someone else. All of these sound preferable to the shuffle you’re proposing above.

  9. Noprob Bro

    You have already paid to know the contents of the books.
    You are free to sell or gift the paper books.
    As you have already paid to know the contents I see the ebooks
    as an electronic reminder helping you to remember the contents.
    You could also have made notes in your word processor while reading
    the paper books.

  10. Crash Random

    The main danger with doing things that have the practical effect of undermining copyright laws is that we as a society will get to a point where we expect all our books/music/etc. to be free, or *certainly* not cost more than a dollar or two. And then we will have no really professionally produced books or songs, only amateur ones, and I think that will be a great tragedy. (One could probably prove that it will be, by comparing the cultural output of countries with a strong copyright culture to those without.)

    So do your actions tend to create that dystopian future? I think that donating your used books to a library or school is morally acceptable, because local libraries and used book stores do not, in fact, pose an existential threat to new book sales; the needs they serve are really somewhat different and new book stores managed to survive alongside used book stores and libraries for at least a century or two. One can imagine that this might possibly change with technology, but right now, your local library is not the threat to professional authors.

    On the other hand, torrent sites that distribute illegal copies for free are a real threat to the existence of professional authors. So I would say the morally suspect step in your chain is indeed the one where you downloaded the e-books from a torrent site… not so much because of the benefit to you (since you had already paid for the books), but because of the benefit to the torrent site: presumably they showed you some ads, or used your computer as a resource in their network, or somehow you helped vindicate and support the torrent site’s existence by using it.

    Your claim that you could have OCR’d the book yourself, and that would be the same, strikes me as a rationalization. If you OCR’d the book yourself (which we agree is legal and moral) you would not have done anything to support or encourage the distribution of illegal copies. But patronizing a torrent site is supporting a distributor of illegal and immoral copies and suggesting by example that others should patronize it. So the two actions are not the same.

    To recap my thoughts:
    * Making electronic copies of your own books: Okay.
    * Supporting a torrent site that carries illegal downloads: Not okay.
    * Giving books to the local library while keeping an electronic copy: Probably okay given the reality that currently exists; could become problematic if and when the local library becomes equivalent to a torrent site–just a place where you instantly get free copies of whatever you want.

  11. David Brain

    Yes, my conclusion is largely the same as Crash Random here – it’s probably supporting the torrent site that is the questionable step. Because by doing so, you are enabling it to justify its presence, which is, as noted, making it dangerously akin to a Library but with a skewed version of the social justification of the Library in the first place – which was to make things available to those who couldn’t or didn’t have access to it. Whereas an illegal torrent site is generally making things available to those who already have access to it.
    [I would note, however, that I too did exactly the same thing as you, and downloaded an illegal torrent of Pratchett ebooks despite actually owning all of his books in both hardback and paperback versions, and justified it to myself using the same initial arguments that you did.]

  12. What about if your wife throws them out while you’re away?

  13. Format shifting would require you keep the copy your bought. Selling the paper copy then means your ebook copy is no longer a “backup” of the paper copy since you no longer own the paper copy. You are forbidden to share such copies with other people, which would necessarily mean the new owner of the paper copies has “shared” the ebook copies with you by you keeping them. That’s a no-no.

    Burning the books is essentially the same thing: you no longer own the paper copies, ergo you cannot have the ebooks. (Quibble: what if you retain the receipt of purchase?)

    The backup copies are inextricably linked to the paid-for copies. You may not separate ownership of them. So, yes, the paper copies must occupy space in your trunk or wherever you desire to keep them. The utility remains in your ebook copy, even if the paper copies are never utilized again.

  14. Crash Random: I get my dodgy ebooks from IRC channels where no one makes any money from it. Does that make it OK? (I have a similar philosophy to the original poster; if I already have a paper book I will make a digital copy of it for my own use by this method. I will also download a book if the author won’t let me give them money for it.)

  15. Giving away your Kindle with all its books on would not be acceptable; you would have to wipe it first. This is the digital equivalent of burning your books and giving away your bookshelf. Would the former seem broken or morally incoherent? I would say no, because we know the information isn’t lost to you. The same is true with your books.

    You may want to recycle them rather than burn them, though.

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  17. I wouldn’t object to giving the books away, but this is a context-conditional decision, not a principled one.

    When you buy a physical book, you buy a physical item and a licence to the content. Having transferred it to electronic form, it’s OK to sell the physical item, but not the licence. In most cases that would mean that you are obligated to keep or destroy the book because they’re not severable – and if it were, say, a CD, I’d certainly say you were, because a second-hand CD is pretty much a perfect substitute for a new CD.

    But second-hand books are not perfect substitutes for new books, or even close to being such. As long as you don’t directly deprive Rhianna Pratchett of a sale by giving a book to someone who would otherwise have bought one, giving to a charity shop is not depriving a new sale, because the two markets are so completely separate.

  18. In what case is a used book NOT a perfect substitute for a new book?

    Other than the relatively small number of collectors who insist on a library of perfect books, a used book (as long as it’s not missing pages) IS a perfect substitute for a new one as far as the reader is concerned.

  19. Andrew Hickey

    Used books often have cracked spines, discolouration, possibly stains or annotations. Also in the UK (not necessarily true in other countries) most books (even hardbacks) are bound with rather cheap glue which means they have a finite shelf life.
    But the more important point is, as @po8crg says, the market. The second-hand book market is pretty much entirely separate from the market for new books, especially in the case of mass-market paperbacks by ultra-popular authors like Pratchett. If those books are given to a charity shop, they won’t be bought by someone looking for that specific book, because anyone looking for a Pratchett book will know they can find it in their nearest Waterstones. Rather, they’ll be bought by someone looking for “something to read”, who might otherwise buy a Stephen King or John Grisham novel, so the sale isn’t fungible with a new copy of the Pratchett, but with another second-hand bestseller.

  20. The physical condition of the book isn’t really relevant if the purchaser just wants to read it – most of us don’t really care if the spine is cracked, as long as the pages aren’t falling out.

    As to the used and new markets being separate: That’s not really true anymore. The Internet has changed things. No, no one goes to the local charity shop looking for book X, but frankly people don’t go to the local Waterstones the way they used to. Even for printed books, they go in large numbers to Amazon, who sells the used copies right alongside the new ones. Half.com is also an option, where I’ve bought no small number of used books.

    Probably going to be an ‘agree to disagree’ thing here, but I will continue to assert that unless you are a collector, or buying the book for a gift, the fact that a used copy doesn’t look good is irrelevant, and makes the used copy a pretty darn good substitute for a new copy.

  21. Noprob Bro

    Colin wrote backup copies are inextricably linked to the paid-for copies and one may not separate ownership of them.
    This is not correct. You can photocopy the whole paid paper book, sell the paper book and keep the photocopy for yourself to read it again.
    Same if you photograph, scan or OCR each page of your paid paper book and keep it on your computer to read it again after selling the paper book.

    I may not understand Collin correctly when he wrote ” which would necessarily mean the new owner of the paper copies has ‘shared’ the ebook copies with you by you keeping them”.
    Because this looks like he does not take into account that you and the buyer of the used paper book have each paid money for the paper book. There is no sharing involved in that transactions.

  22. I believe Colin is referring to copyright law, under which format-shifting might be reasonable, but making a copy and selling the original is pretty clearly a violation of copyright.

  23. Noprob Bro, sorry for not including the word “legally” when talking about paper and ebook being inextricably linked. Of course, they are things you can separate but, legally, you are not permitted to do so. This may shed light on your second quote of me that you didn’t understand. By selling/giving away the paper book you forego the legal ownership of the “backup”/ebook copy. If you transfer ownership of the paper book, then retaining the ebook is *as if* the new owner shared the ebook with you, which is not *legally* permitted. You lose the legal ownership of the ebook by transferring ownership of the paper book.

  24. Reverance Pavane

    In Australia, under the copyright act as amended in 2006, you can actually produced a single printed copy of an electronic book for personal private use without violating the copyright on the work. You specifically may not sell, distribute, or give away this print copy, and the fate of the print copy is irrevocably tied to the legal state of the electronic copy. If you dispose or sell the electronic copy, which hold your rights to the ownership of the book, you must also dispose of any such printed copy.

    In many jurisdictions where format shifting is allowed this is a common interpretation of the law. You must retain ownership of the object that you bought in order to maintain ownership of any personal copies of that object. If you dispose of the object that you bought, you are not permitted to keep any copies of that object (whether physical or virtual).

    [Incidentally if you burn the books you have disposed of them and are required to dispose of any copies you have made of them. The copyright is not transitive. It is always retained by the original source that you bought.]

    There are caveats to all this, and some of them can be pretty important. For example, in Australia your rights to produce a physical copy are specifically set out in the act (along with other things you can do that generally come under the heading of format shifting). However the reverse situation – producing an electronic book from a printed copy – is also specifically mentioned. Unfortunately it is considered to be illegal, even if it is simply done for personal use. In fact it is considered to be an aggravated offence (which means it attracts an even more severe penalty than simple possession of the illegal ebook). The nett effect of this is to ensure that the ownership of the physical book in Australia does not give anyone the right to have an electronic copy of that book.

    As always, consult competent legal advice for your legal jurisdiction rather than any yahoo from the Internet. (And that includes ignoring any advice from me, apart from what is in this paragraph.)

  25. You ask where you made your mistake and then dismiss the possibility that you made a mistake.

    Specifically, when you downloaded a pirated copy of the book, you committed an immoral act. You rationalize this action by saying you could have done it yourself, but why waste your time when someone else has already done it. The problem with this is that the distribution was immoral. You can’t simply take part in an immoral act and rationalize it away as being moral.

    Taken into the physical world a bit, assume my good friend steals money from his brother and gives some of it to me. If I am unaware of the original theft, my accepting the money would be moral. However, if I know the money was stolen, I am complicit in the original immoral act.

    In the case of downloading a copy of the book to save yourself some work, you cannot claim that you did not know that the data was being provided as the result of an immoral act (piracy).

  26. You ask where you made your mistake and then dismiss the possibility that you made a mistake.

    No; I just disagree with your opinion on where the mistake is.

    Specifically, I don’t accept that the distribution of the ebook was immoral, especially if its goal was precisely to allow access to people like myself who own the physical books.

    As always, analogies of copyright violation with theft cast no light on the problem, because they are entirely different actions. (That is why copyright maximalists’ use of the term “theft” for copyright infringement has had such a catastrophic effect on the rationality of discussion — which I assume was precisely what they intended.)

  27. Your only justification for having the ebook is that you have purchased the physical book already, and therefore in theory could have created the ebook from the physical copy. In practice you didn’t do that work (someone else did), so I would say you’re on somewhat shaky ground by taking someone else’s work for free (in some cases you claim the owners of the work have said that’s fine, but extrapolating that to other owners who haven’t given that permission seems immoral). But that aside, I would stand with the others in saying that you don’t own the ebook separately from the physical copies.

    Your primary and only source of ownership is the physical copy, and you effectively see reading an ebook copy of it as a mechanism by which you’re reading your copy via a transformation. Imagine that you set up your physical copy with a camera system and a way of turning pages for you, so that you could remotely access the camera and read the book. If you then sold/lost/gave away the book, you would no longer be able to read it, because the whole thing is based on you having *possession* of the book. Similarly, once you no longer have the physical copies of the book, you should no longer have any expectation that you can read the transformations of the book without repurchasing it (or borrowing it from someone). If you don’t want to have physical copies around, get rid of them (along with the transformations of them) and go buy ebooks for the ones you want to have ebooks of.

  28. I’m not convinced that the nature, be it physical or electronic, of the book is that important here. Simply put: you have two copies of the book, only one of which you have actually paid for. Therefore you are only entitled to own one copy of the book. The second copy has to be either destroyed or disposed of in such a way as that the new recipient of the book can not in turn make any money from it, i.e. by selling it. In that case, the logical step would be to give them to a library.

    PS: in future, Mike, better to not download anything from anywhere without asking our collective opinion first (grin)

  29. This is an interesting moral conundrum. Here’s something that might make solving the rest of it easier: Consider what happens if you change the order a bit.

    You buy the paperback books. Then you give them away to a library. Then you torrent the ebooks.

    Now it’s quite obviously stealing. You had the books. You gave them away. You then downloaded them for free, which was theft.

  30. Useful perspective, Ryan!

    So, what is your conclusion? That I should destroy the paperbacks?

  31. “Theft” is not the best description for an action that doesn’t deprive other from any property… I agree that we have to compensate authors for copyrighted works, but it’s a different problem. For one thing, lots of people collect books they have read, but won’t likely ever read again. So maybe donate the paperbacks and keep the e-books, but if and only if you actually start re-reading some of these e-books then pay for it again?

    Even that case is debatable because the second read doesn’t have the same value as the first. Speaking for myself, the “replay value” of books is usually just the pleasure of nostalgia, like when I fire up an emulator to briefly play a videogame from my childhood. But let’s make the argument that when you buy a book, you buy both [1] the “first reading” value, and [2] the “collectible + re-reading” value: now, if you donate the paperbacks to a public library, we could argue that only [1] is being transferred! Because most people that borrow books from libraries will be first-readers; certainly at least, no borrower will have the right to keep the book as a collection item, borrow it to friends, re-reading it again every few years, etc. So when you donate the paperback specifically to a public library & keep the e-book, apparently you are splitting its value components [1] and [2]; nothing is duplicated so there’s no unfairness, and no copyright violation (in the moral and logical aspects).

  32. My philosophy is that if an action wouldn’t change the amount of money the publisher gets from me, e.g., if I just wouldn’t both with a second copy otherwise, go for it. But that’s qualitatively different that having your only copy be torrented (the end result of the process above). I don’t do that, but then I very rarely get a second copy anyway.

    The real problem is that electronic media is a completely different animal from anything we’ve seen since Gutenberg, and I don’t think society has fully accepted that. Only one person can read a print book at a time, and if you give it away, you don’t have it anymore. But if you give an e-book away, then you both could have a copy, and even the publishers themselves don’t know where that will lead. Maybe the whole industry will collapse. Probably not, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    And I have to disagree with Crash Random. People who care enough about their writing to write it and post it for free make some of the best writers. True, you have to sift through a lot more crud to find them, but they’re out there.

  33. The real problem is that electronic media is a completely different animal from anything we’ve seen since Gutenberg, and I don’t think society has fully accepted that.

    I think this is indeed the heart of the matter. In fact, much of society does get it, which is why we have torrent sites. But much of the rest doesn’t and that very much includes the big copyright owners.

  34. Hi, Mike. Getting back to this… I think the torrented copies have value to you as backup copies of your paperbacks. They’re justifiable in the sense that you have the right to make backup copies, and there’s no reason not to use the backup copies instead of the originals if they’re identical.

    The trouble is that if you donate the paperbacks to your local library, then the torrented copies are no longer backup copies. Even if you had laboriously converted all the paperbacks to ebooks yourself, they would still be backups of the paperbacks. But they *wouldn’t* be that any longer if you donated the paperbacks to someone else (or the ebooks, for that matter).

    The paperbacks and their torrented backup copies belong together. The backup copies can’t be separated from their original material, because then they’re no longer backup copies, and thus no longer justifable as having without cost.

  35. Ryan, I agree with pretty much every step in your reasoning here. That’s why I find it so interesting that those steps lead to the position — ludicrous to me — that I am obliged to keep the bulky physical artifacts around. A sequence of sound-seems steps give rise to an absurdity.

  36. “The paperbacks and their torrented backup copies belong together. The backup copies can’t be separated from their original material, because then they’re no longer backup copies.”

    I disagree with this assessment.

    1) Buying the book gives you permission to own the content, including in alternative formats.
    2) Selling, giving away or otherwise transferring ownership of the book also transfers your rights, and thus revokes your permission to own it in any format.

    Thus, provided you do not do step 2, there is no reason why you should keep the physical copy of the book. I suggest there are two alternatives:

    (a) Burning/shredding/composting the book does not transfer your rights. I am 100% certain of this. (IANAL.)
    (b) Libraries have special dispensation under copyright law to retain copies of any book without recompense to the copyright holders. Thus, you can probably give your books to the local library without transferring your rights.

    I like b.

  37. Pingback: Throwing out more stuff — a continuing saga | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  38. Order is important. Imagine that you shoot someone and then they try to shoot you. Now imagine that someone tries to shoot you then you shoot them. Exactly the same actions, different order, different moral judgement.

  39. Excellent point. (I like the Star Wars reference, too!)

  40. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 18 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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