Is it ok to illegally download a book I already own?

It’s not acceptable to steal the electronic version just because you bought the hardcopy. They are separate entities, says ethicist Chuck Klosterman. 

I’ve recently been buying physical books and then illegally downloading their electronic version, so I can read them on my Kindle when it’s more convenient. Is this stealing?

If you were just asking a semantic question about the definition of the word ‘stealing,’ then, yes, in the biblical sense, you are stealing. But this problem is more complicated.

What we’re considering is the reasonable limitations of ownership.

We’re deducing whether buying a book once means you deserve to own it in all forms, regardless of the medium.

Reading a physical book is a different experience from reading it on an electronic device, just as seeing a movie in a cinema is different from watching it at home.

If you bought a ticket for the theatrical release of a film, and asked if it was now ethical to rip it off a website, like Megaupload, for home use, I would say no. Your situation with the book is different, but only slightly.

Personally, I’d like to argue that buying a book once should be enough to satisfy all other concerns. If you bought a physical copy of a book I wrote, but also stole the electronic version for your iPhone, I would have no problem with that, because — as the author — I’m concerned only with the consumption of the words. But my view is irrelevant. I may have written the book, but I didn’t publish the book — in exchange for money, I conceded that right to the publisher (who views the work as a straightforward commodity and doesn’t see duplicate copies as interchangeable).

The publisher ultimately decides if buying a physical copy of my book entitles you to automatically own it across multiple platforms. And, in every case I’ve encountered, it does not. Publishers tend to view the electronic version of a book as a separate entity.

Your motive for wanting an additional copy of the book is pure convenience. Yet this, it could be argued, is precisely why the electronic version of the book has its own, separate value — what an e-book buyer is theoretically paying for is an additional level of expediency.

But you’re not doing that; you’re paying for a physical object and then stealing the related data file.

Granted, doing so does not give you access to any extra content.

But when you buy a book, you’re not only paying for content. You’re also paying for everything that went into its production and distribution.

The best argument in your defense would be that no-one involved with this illegal transaction is losing money.

You are not stealing something that you would have otherwise purchased (or that cost anything to produce), so nothing is lost.

But this argument has a fatal flaw: If we accept that premise, it becomes justifiable to illegally download any book that you would never (under any other circumstance) purchase legally.

In other words, it would be OK to steal something as long as you don’t really want it. Which doesn’t make sense.

I’m a compulsive crossword puzzler. Coffee shops often have newspapers available, and I’ll tear the crossword out and pocket it for later. Am I crossing a moral boundary by taking part of a communal newspaper for my own personal pleasure?

Let me begin by noting the obvious: Crossword puzzles are not hard to come by.

There are thousands of books filled with hundreds of puzzles, many of which would effortlessly satiate your compulsion.

This entire ethical conundrum could be avoided, for the next 10 years, if you made a €40 investment at any ordinary bookstore. But this, of course, is not the point.

You want to know if you can continue to fill out crossword puzzles in shared newspapers. And you can. You just can’t tear them out.

Crossword puzzles represent a unique circumstance for newspapers allocated for public consumption: They aren’t useful unless someone completes the challenge.

In other words, there is no utility to an unused crossword puzzle; it’s not as if multiple people want to ‘read’ the puzzle without filling in the spaces.

The only social purpose a crossword possesses is directly tied to the user.

And that user may as well be you. So if you come across a blank crossword at a coffee-house, you are justified in sitting at the establishment and completing the puzzle.

Now, this would not be acceptable behaviour at a library or a museum (where the publication itself might also be archived). But if you’re at a place where the newspaper is clearly disposable, the puzzle is an open target for whoever wants to complete it.

You can’t, however, take it with you.

There are many reasons this shouldn’t be done, but the primary explanation is practical: There is always something on the other side of the page.

It might be a news article (which others may want to consume), or it might be an advertisement (which has monetary value to whoever purchased the space).

Unlike a puzzle, those entities can be experienced by numerous users equally. Do not damage the medium.

(c) NYT Magazine


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