Is David Pogue Bourne to be Wild, or a Bourne Loser?

Columnist David Pogue has just posted a brief but sure-to-be controversial entry to his New York Times blog. Wanting to give his son some good e-books to read at summer camp on his iPod Touch (you go, kid!), he recommended the late Robert Ludlum’s seminal spy novel The Bourne Identity. But when he went to buy it, it was nowhere to be found—it seems that the Ludlum estate and the publisher have not been able to agree on e-book royalty terms.

So, Pogue did what a good many frustrated e-book-desiring fans would do in a similar situation (and, indeed, what untold thousands of Harry Potter fans did do over the years pre-Pottermore)—he torrented it. But then he sent the publisher a check for $9.99. That makes everything kosher, right?

Well, no, it doesn’t. And I imagine, as soon as soon as his post makes the rounds of the blogosphere, angry authors and publishers will be lining up to tell him so. (The obligatory cries of “thief!” and “no no, copyist! copying isn’t ‘stealing’!” are already resounding like wild bird mating calls in the comment thread below the blog.)

It remains to be seen whether this will draw the same kind of reaction as the column by a New York Times ethicist I wrote about when I was at TeleRead, in which he advised his readers that, in his view, it was perfectly ethical to download an illicit copy of a book you had already purchased in print form. Pogue is going a step farther here: he thinks it’s justified to download a book you don’t own in print and pay the publisher afterward. (Though, to be fair, Pogue could own at least one copy of it in print already as well, if he likes it that much. He didn’t really say in the blog post.)

(One commenter suggested that he should have cut his check to the estate instead, given that they actually own the book and the publisher hasn’t e-published it yet. On the other hand, the publisher is the one who put the effort into polishing the book and readying it for final release, so you could sort of see it cutting both ways.)

What it really boils down to is frustration versus “entitlement.” It’s an interesting question when you think about it, irrespective of whether Pogue is right or wrong. Twenty or thirty years ago, the question could never even have arisen. The only comparisons would be of stealing a book from a bookstore and then paying the publisher (not really valid here since no bookseller is missing a chunk of its inventory from what Pogue did) or, more aptly, xeroxing a complete copy of the book and then paying the publisher (which is similar, but nobody would ever have done that because if they had the money to pay the publisher, they’d just buy the book and not futz around with a copy machine).

But then the world got all digital, and in the effort to entice people to buy more things, content owners made those things available in so many different ways as to make buying easy. We can buy almost every song we want from iTunes or Amazon, almost every or e-book we want from Amazon, B&N, or all the other stores, so many digital movies through Amazon, Netflix, CinemaNow, or other such services, that when we find one we can’t get, we get indignant about it. In the case of e-books, Amazon and its 3G Kindle made sure we can buy them almost literally anywhere, at any time.

So perhaps power corrupts. Because we can have almost anything we want at any time, it feels like a personal affront that we can’t get that one particular thing we want right now dammit. So some folks feel entitled to reach out and take it. Even Pogue is doing this, though he’s trying to salve his conscience by sending the publisher a check afterward.

Is there a solution? Well, time, for one thing. Sooner or later all the books people want will be available as e-books, because when people want to trade money for something, the smart content holders will figure out ways to oblige them (as J.K. Rowling eventually did with Pottermore). The only ones left out will be the ones no one wants anyway, because without demand the publishers won’t be moved to make them available. Eventually, the days of people pirating out of frustration with unavailability will be a thing of the past, just like outhouses, or hitching posts and watering troughs in front of businesses. That’s not too helpful for today, of course.

That being said, Pogue’s post could spark some interesting discussion on the ethics of downloading with or without payment, and the frustration of being unable to buy the things you want when you want them.

If people can stop their cries of “thief!” and “no, copyist!” long enough to focus on the issue, anyway.

image by spaceninja

About Chris Meadows (90 Articles)
Chris Meadows, Editor of TeleRead, has been writing about e-books and mobile devices since 1999: first for ThemeStream, later for Jeff Kirvin's Writing on Your Palm, and then for TeleRead starting in 2006. He has also contributed a few articles to The Digital Reader along the way. Chris has bought e-books from Peanut Press/eReader, Fictionwise, Baen, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the Humble Bundle, and others. He is a strong believer in using Calibre to keep his library organized.

16 Comments on Is David Pogue Bourne to be Wild, or a Bourne Loser?

  1. Timothy Wilhoit // 2 August, 2012 at 8:12 pm // Reply

    There is no rationalization that covers giving support to pirates. None. If I HAD to have an ecopy of “Identity,” I would have considered using a VPN to purchase a copy from WHSmith or At least they sell legitimate ebooks…even though they are supposed to be sold to residents of the UK. I would never support pirates…much less brag about it.

  2. How is downloading something for free from them “supporting” them? It’s not as if he’s paying them anything. If anything, it’s actually costing them a little of their bandwidth allowance, which a lot of ISPs meter for. It’s taking, not giving.

    I’m not saying that downloading illicitly is right. It’s not. But claiming that downloading from them is somehow “supporting” them is silly. It’s using them. Maybe it’s “support” in the same sense as saying, “woo-hoo, go them.” But so what? Pirates have enough cheerleaders and detractors already that one more for either side isn’t going to make a difference.

    • Timothy Wilhoit // 2 August, 2012 at 8:34 pm // Reply

      When he posted this column on the NWT, complete with a winking caricature, he gives legitimacy and support to pirates. That causes far more damage than the simple act of torrenting.

      • I think you overestimate the effect of one person with one article. I seriously doubt that it is going to change all that many minds.

        And as for the moral support, eh. The hardcore pirates didn’t need any justification. They might seize on this as making piracy okay but you know and I know they were going to be pirates anyway.

  3. Pogue is an absolute idiot. A copy of the print book sells for .75 cents on, and even if you figure in the 3.99 shipping cost, that’s still $5.25 cheaper than what he expected to pay for the Kindle version.

    The reason why it’s not an ebook is that the copyright owner is afraid that it would cannibalize print sales. If the ebook were priced at $4.99, there would be no reason to spend 9.99 on the print version.

    • But he didn’t want the print book. Nor, I imagine, did his son, who wouldn’t have the room in his luggage to haul a bunch of print books around.

      Also, I’m pretty sure Pogue did this at least in part for the express purpose of Making A Statement. $9.99, as the standard “Price People Want To Pay For Kindle Books If It Weren’t For That Gosh Darned Agency Pricing,” seems about right for that.

      Again: not condoning it. But able to see why he did it.

      • Pogue’s article is the kind that someone deeply ensconced in New York Big Media/Big Publishing writes. The issue is not whether the digital edition should be available, but what is cheapest. Most consumers assume that ebook prices will be saving them money, and if the print book is cheaper, then the ebook is not really providing much value (and certainly not $5.25 of value).

        • Sorry that his son is going away to camp and can’t have all his favorite books on his ipod to read. Must be tough way to live.

  4. Just to be clear: is selling HUNDREDS of used copies of the book for 75 cents…. It’s not a fluke — that’s the market revealing itself..

  5. In Australia making a copy of title already owned and using it as one might have used the original (excluding sale and public distribution) is no breach of copyright at all and is no form of piracy) that would include sending a copy to his son, which is what you would expect to happen to book.

    Those that have jumped to the conclusion that it is piracy have used an absence of evidence to support their case.

    Copyright is also morally infringable if the work is being kept out of circulation in this case a digital version. I regularly copied books that were out of print, openly and cover to cover — I cannot see why this is not applicable to forms of “print” as well.

    Profiteering is another morally justifiable reason for copying. And many publishers are guilty of that. Let them hang by their decisions for huge and excessive profit margins over costs of 1000s of percent cannot be justified nor should they be tolerated — this is the public domain and works are circulated in it under copyright for a public purpose; it is not a license to assault the public good and hurt culture in general in order for publishers to line their pockets excessively — it is and always has been a balance between law and social activity.

    I hate panders, no one can support the prices of electronic literature being so excessive (the authors don’t receive any more!) The publisher should get a reasonable profit for the costs of production, the author a reasonable royalty. If publishers cannot do this they should be driven out of business — it is capitalism.

    • He didn’t make a copy though. He downloaded someone else’s copy of the book. There is a distinct difference. Plus, he determined the value of his book. It could have sold for $12.99 or more if the price was set that way.

      I do think it is stupid that there is not a legitimate version of the book available but it does not give anyone the right to download a free copy of the book. That is what he did. He did not contact the publisher, author’s estate or anyone else with rights to the book and ask them how much do they want for the book.

      There are books that I would like to have for my e reader that are not yet available. I was looking to get Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke tonight and it is not available. Amazon at least has the option the option to tell the publisher that I want it. I am not going to download it for free and send a check in for it.

      • Who exactly is this “someone else” you mention? Torrenting grabs small bits from everyone offering the book (could be in the thousands). So, in this sense, there is no *one* person who is offering a copy. That is another difficult point to get around, there is no person-to-person anymore.

        • It doesn’t matter if someone is one person or a thousand. It was never a copy of his book to begin with. He, of course, is not going to do that because it requires a lot of work. Either scanning the book to a PDF or copying it by hand.

          He is not entitled to a copy of a book that is not his.

      • Let us get into the real political economy involved in this. There is a technological revolution which has been under-way for decades, I started putting literature onto Bulletin Boards back in the 1980s. It has been a long wait for decent formats and readers and there is still some way to go. I very much want authors paid, I do not want a “free system” but I want and end to the tyranny of publishers and their regional monopolies — it is old world.

        They have had long enough, fumbling with restrictions, and the profiteering has been gross in a lot of areas. They have had the opportunity to get on board, some are, some aren’t but the whole industry has squandered time, tied to old capital and distribution rights they should never had had in the first place.

        I suggest people stop protecting the interests of dinosaur publishers and hiding behind the “law”, The authors royalties need to be a higher proportion of the cover price — 50% and the price needs to come down (present royalties plus the same amount for publishers and retailers as a general rule). Authors need to insist on this and publishers need to be forced to comply.

        Cambridge, a publication house which I admire for its scholarship and dedication sells its ebooks at the price of print over $128 for the latest translation of Hegel’s Science of Logic. The cost of print especially for these long term slow turnover titles is necessarily high — but not the ebook, that has very little printing costs, practically no storage costs or distribution costs.

        I hate the thought of hurting Cambridge, but play time is over the world needs to read, kids in villages need books, places that have never seen paper books should have whole libraries of digital books. No publisher no matter how good should stand in the way.

        This is not about laws but what underlies them the political economy of a changing world — the tails should not wage the dog.

  6. I read in one of the comments that ebooks are freely available for a lot of books. This might be true for Americans but with those @%=++-*//(()) geographical restrictions it is not so for all Europeans.
    If an ebook is available in part of the world it is stupid to hold on to old publishers rights to long. As long as they don’t find a solution for that @&%=+-**/() problem, publishers can also expect illegal downloads to continue.

  7. I read what I want. I watch what I want. I listen to whatever music I want to. I’m happy to pay for all of this, but if you choose not to give me the option of paying you easily, then too bad — you don’t get my money.

    Yes, this makes me a bad person. But that fact hasn’t gotten you my money. How ’bout just entering this century?

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