Is Pirating Books Ever OK?

I stumbled upon a blog post this morning that gave me pause (pauses). The author had recently purchased an e-reader and was pirating digital copies of all the paper books he owned so he could get rid of them and just have the e-reader. The author justified downloading the books by saying he had already paid for them once.

I mentioned this on Twitter and the reaction I got was largely “that’s not really ok,” and that was my initial reaction, as well. But then Andrew Shaffer (@andrewtshaffer) pointed out that people regularly rip CDs or DVDs they’ve purchased and load them onto their iPods or hard drives or whatever and don’t feel any guilt about it. He’s right- I do that without compunction, based on the same logic of the blogger I read this morning. I already paid for the content, so I should be able to do with that content whatever I want (outside of altering or selling it).

So why does someone doing almost the same thing with books make me all squirmy? Well, for one thing, the blogger wasn’t taking the physical book that was purchased and scanning it onto his device like people do with music or movies…but that seems like splitting hairs.

I think it has more to do with how much some book people (I’m totally including myself here) have a tendency to idolize physical books and traditional publishing in a way that is resistant to the demands of technological advances. I don’t want publishing or reading to evolve because I like it the way it is- that’s my first reaction. The music industry must change with the times or die, but books! Books should never change! Long live books and the traditional publishing model! Or something.

If you haven’t paid for a book and it isn’t available in the public domain, downloading it without paying is wrong. You’re stealing. That’s what I think. But my easy-breezy, beautiful black-and-white ethical pronouncements get grey if you’ve paid for the book in one form and expect to get it in another form for free when the industry hasn’t caught up with your changing reading habits yet. Is it the same as walking up to a register with two copies of a book and only expecting to pay for one (as one Twitter respondent said)?

I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of pirating or digital media or the evolution of publishing, and I don’t have a straight answer to the question asked in the title of this post. I’m just a reader with a Nook and a slowly developing willingness to become more digital in my reading habits–but what about the physical books I already own? If I want to read them digitally, should I really have to pay for them again?

What say you, internets?

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