Jag Venugopal's Blog

November 15, 2010

Ethics of downloading books

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 12:36 am

The easy availability of bootlegged copies of digital books on the Internet has raised some ethical questions and temptations to many a downloader. Why buy that book for $25-50 when one can download it from Rapidshare for free? When you buy a book on, say, the Kindle, is it legal to remove the DRM on it? Is it legal to share it?

I’ve given some thought to these issues, and here are the solutions I’ve come up with, based on my sense of what’s right and wrong. Just so I don’t get the lawyers sent after me, keep in mind that I am not advocating any of the practices below and neither am I affirmatively claiming to perform the actions mentioned below, but merely stating what I find ethical and not. Even if you agree with my ethics, you may fall foul of the laws (especially the DMCA) so please don’t do as I say or do other than at your own risk.

Guiding Principle

My overall guiding principle for the use of books is that if I derive benefit from it (either work related, or enjoyment), then the author and publisher need to be compensated at market rates. A good proxy for market rates is what the paper book sells for on Amazon.com.

Order of Preferences for Ebook Buying

When I am in the market for a title on a subject, my preferences are as follows:

  1. Buy a non-DRM’ed ebook: Publishers such as O’Reilly, Microsoft Press, No Starch Press, and Pragmatic Bookshelf sell ebooks without DRM, and in multiple formats. The more people buy non-DRM’ed ebooks, the stronger the signals sent to publishers that the market prefers ebooks without artificial restrictions on how they may be read. This recapitulates the same cycle that occurred with digital music. Initially, the DRM restrictions were onerous and gradually, all publishers saw the light and started selling MP3s that were not encumbered by DRM.
  2. Buy a Kindle book: I do not see anything ethically wrong (at the cost of running afoul of the DMCA law) with someone removing the DRM on an ebook to make it work with whatever book reader they happen to be using. After all they have paid for the book, fair and square, and have a right to put it to its intended use (which is, to read it). I do not condone removing DRM and sharing a book. In that scenario, I would be facilitating the use of the book by others, without the author and publisher receiving a dime. While a paper copy of a book can be easily lent, I would not advocate the lending of an ebook because it could then be copied and spread over the Internet.
  3. Buy a paper copy, consign it to one’s bookshelf and read a downloaded ebook: If a book is not legitimately available in eBook form, but is available for download as a bootleg copy, I think that the publisher and author ought to be compensated. In that case, an appropriate option for an interested individual might be to purchase a first-hand paper copy, consign it to a remote section of one’s bookshelf and then use the downloaded PDF for daily reading. Consistent with my guiding principles, I will neither advocate the use, lending or sale of the paper copy (because the reader is using the ebook). In this scenario, buying the book second-hand and then using the PDF is unfair because neither the publisher nor the author receive any compensation from these second-hand sales.

Book writing is a tough business. Many authors receive only 5-10% of their book’s sale price as royalties. It is only fair that the author be appropriately compensated when we make use of their product. A similar consideration is due all the other trades involved in book production (typesetting, proofing, editing, etc), and even the much reviled publishers.

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