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