Randy Cohen: Ethical Fail
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.
The problem with Mr. Cohen’s rationale for legitimizing the downloading of pirated content in the above case is that Mr. Cohen omits both the do-it-yourself requirement of producing the copy, as well as the inevitable downstream carnage this supposedly ethical behavior visits on content creators because of the undermining of copyright law. Had the reader said, “I used my own scanner to create a digital copy of a book I own for personal use only — is that okay?”, I would have agreed with Mr. Cohen’s rationale. But that’s not what the reader said. What the reader said was:
“…I found a pirated version online, downloaded it to my e-reader and took it on my trip.”
What’s the difference between doing this and downloading ripped MP3 from Napster, even if you already own the CD? Nothing.
Nobody has ever argued (with a straight face) that it is against the law to make copies of CD’s for personal use, and nobody argues that now. Not only can I rip any CD I buy, but Apple’s iTunes store allows a single-song purchase to appear on up to five different machines. But even if you owned a CD that you downloaded from Napster you were committing a crime and a breach of ethics because you were profiting from someone else’s labor, you were allowing someone else (either the person who ripped the CD, or the Napster corporation which hoped to profit from content piracy) to profit in both tangible and intangible ways, and you were denying the legal copyright holders their right to control their property.
The idea that copyright law has failed to keep up with the go-go attitude of Generation Y, as well as a world champing at the bit to free itself from content slavery, has an odd way of consistently dovetailing with the desire to not spend money. The idea that this commonly-accepted behavior might be out of step with society’s greater needs or ethical interests (see also: slavery, child labor, civil rights, women’s rights) doesn’t seem to register with anyone, including the New York Time’s own ethicist.
I don’t really mind when the average consumer is confused by these issues, because they are not easy to grasp. When someone calling themselves an ethicist gets it wrong, however, I’m not of a mind to be forgiving. Randy Cohen is not qualified to offer an ethical opinion in this case. Should he care to get up to speed on the ethical issues surrounding copyright theft, he might want to start here, here, here, here, here and here.
– Mark Barrett