The ethics of piracy

I recently got a hankering to re-read some of my favorite books. I already own them, in hardcover and paperback. But I'd like to re-read them as e-books. Do I need to buy the e-book versions, or can I download a pirated copy of the e-book for free?

The argument that says it's wrong is pretty simple, and clear-cut: When I bought the books, I bought individual copies of the books. All I own is that one copy. If I lost the copy, I wouldn't be entitled to a free replacement. It wouldn't be right for me to shoplift the book from the local Barnes & Noble. I'd have an obligation to buy a new copy, or borrow one legitimately, before re-reading the book.

On the other hand: I already paid for these books legitimately. They're my books. The shoplifting analogy is specious, because in that case, I'm depriving the rightful owner -- the owner of the bookstore -- of their copy of the book. If I download a copy of the e-book, nobody else is deprived of their copy.

I'm not making a general defense of all filesharing here. If you want to see the latest movie, or listen to the latest music, you should obtain a copy legitimately, and that means paying for it.

But what if you've already paid for it? Are you then entitled to use the global dark Internet of pirated materials as your own backup library?

This is not the first time I've encountered this ethical problem. Every couple of years, TiVo hiccups and fails to record a favorite TV show. In that case, I have to decide whether to wait for the show to come out on DVD, or just download the episode from the BitTorrents.

History seems relevant here as well. I was a teen-ager in the 1970s. My friends and I used to routinely share copies of record albums among ourselves. One of us would buy the album, the others would make copies on cassette tapes. When we started doing this, we didn't have electronic means of making copies, we'd just set up a microphone in front of the stereo speakers and record the output in an analog format. It was crude, but it worked.

Likewise, when I was a teen-ager, radio stations played whole record albums from beginning to end late at night, with no DJ talkover. Many fans recorded the record albums over the airwaves. Everybody knew what was going on, nobody got arrested.

So there's a very long history of society looking the other way at people using pirated copies of media for personal use, so long as somebody got some money for it somewhere in the transaction. In the case of me and my friends, one of us bought the record album. In the case of the radio station, the record company got promotional value for the airplay.

What should I do? Download the free e-books of work I already own in hardcover and paperback? Or just suck it up and buy the e-book where available, and do without otherwise?

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media marketing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

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