Ever since book scanning became practical (and long before it got cheap) there’s been an ongoing debate over whether possession of a paper copy of a book entitled the owner to also have a digital copy. (As we all recall, this was even the focal point of several major lawsuits against Google over the past decade.)
This debate will probably be settled right around the time that direct brain downloads first hit the market, but that hasn’t stopped everyone, including yours truly, from weighing in.
The NYTimes ethicist column jumped in on Friday with an argument that is sadly flawed:
Reading a physical book is a different experience from reading that same book on an electronic device, just as seeing a movie in a theater is different from watching that same film at home. If you bought a ticket for the theatrical release of a film and asked if it was now ethical to rip it off a site like Megaupload for home use, I would say no. Your situation with the book is different, but only slightly.
The problem with his argument is that his analogy isn’t just flawed; it’s invalid. A movie ticket can’t be used as a metaphor for a book; one admits you to a performance of a work, while the other is a copy of the work itself. The two are in no way equivalent.
A better analogy would be to compare a book to a DVD, but that would present a serious problem for the ethicist. It is widely accepted that you can rip your CD and DVD collection and carry around a digital copy, and that has led many to argue that one should have the same right to carry around a digital version of the paper books one owns.
Admittedly, book scanning is still tedious enough that few want to do it, but is that any reason that one should not be allowed to download a copy of a paper book one owns?
Just to be clear, I am not presenting an argument either way; I merely wish to point out that I think the NYTimes should have addressed this issue head on. Instead they sidestepped it with a bad analogy, which is unfortunate because I would like to see this question answered.
What do you think?