The Ethics of Pirating Ebooks You Already Own

Is it ethical to pirate ebooks of texts you already bought in a bookstore? Randy Cohen, the New York Times Magazine ethicist who weekly presides over readers' matters of morality, says yes it is.

Randy Cohen is one seriously ethical fellow. If there's some nook or cranny of an issue that seems a little off color to you, you can be sure that Cohen will find it, seize it, and use it as the basis for pulling out his huge "Unethical" rubber stamp. He does it just about every week.

So it was with some surprise that I read his response to this week's question about downloading bootleg ebooks: if you already own the real, tree-killing version, then go right ahead, he says. The woman posing the question added that no official ebook was available at the time of her hardcover purchase, but Cohen doesn't seem to see that as a necessary circumstance for ebook downloading being OK. His ruling is based on the simple fact that copyright laws don't reflect today's technologies and how we use them. Cohen explains:

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.

Pretty much the only time I think about ethics is when I'm reading Randy Cohen's The Ethicist column. But it's heartening to see that people who think deeply about these issues, and who are trusted to publish those thoughts in prominent places, are increasingly reluctant to condemn piracy simply because it's illegal.

Even if our nation's outdated copyright laws don't change anytime soon, it's always good to know you've got a professional ethicist on your side. Read Cohen's full response in this week's New York Times Magazine.