When the New York Times says it’s okay to steal content, you know it’s not going to be a good day. Before this afternoon I’d never heard of Randy Cohen, who apparently writes a column called The Ethicist for the NYT Magazine section. After today I have to question his qualifications for passing judgment on ethical behavior.
Here are the first three graphs of today’s column, in which he responds to a reader’s question. (Am I copying and pasting too much of the NYT’s content? Or am I allowed to do so because I already paid for that ethical right when the NYT subjected my eyeballs to their online ads?)
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.
An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.
What Mr. Cohen is arguing is not simply that you have a right to make a back-up copy of content already purchased, you also have the right to port purchased content to any other medium you choose — and to have others aid you in doing so, even if by doing so you or they also profit, and even if by doing so you or they profit at the expense of the legal copyright holders of that content. [ Read more ]