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The NYTimes Uses a Flawed Premise to Argue Against Owning a Paper Book Entitles One to a Digital Copy

QuestionMarkEver 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?

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Timothy Wilhoit September 30, 2014 um 1:14 pm

I agree, that’s a dreadful analogy…at the risk of being rude, it’s moronic to suggest a one-time performance is at all analogous to a hardcopy book. I wouldn’t say a DVD or CD is analogous because they are already digital on a physical medium. I’d say this is closer: does having a vinyl LP entitle me to a free download? I can digitize an LP but the results would be disappointing, much as a scanned book to digital would be.

Nate Hoffelder October 1, 2014 um 7:49 pm

Okay, that would be a better example; the content quality would suffer equally during conversion.

But this doesn’t change the point that you can digitize that vinyl without anyone blinking.

Andrew September 30, 2014 um 1:40 pm

"A book is like a photo. You cannot scan it to …. no, that’s not right."

"A book is like a DVD, you cannot copy it to your computer for … hmmmm, no."

"A book is like a CD, you cannot … damn it!"

Perhaps they wanted the answer to be no, then worked backwards from there.

Patrick Watson September 30, 2014 um 1:45 pm

You can legally copy a CD to have a digital backup. DVD copying is still illegal under the DMCA.

Doug September 30, 2014 um 6:23 pm

To be more specific, you can legally copy a music CD (for non-commercial use). Copying of non-musical CDs is still illegal (in the US).

Music gets a special pass in the US because of the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (17 USC 1008): "No action may be brought under this title alleging infringement of copyright … based on the noncommercial use by a consumer of such a device or medium for making digital musical recordings or analog musical recordings."

Laurie September 30, 2014 um 2:53 pm

The comparison to a DVD works even legally. Most companies now offer a bundled version that includes an electronic copy – usually for a few dollars more than the basic DVD version. I don’t see why that couldn’t work for books too.

Andrew September 30, 2014 um 4:29 pm

This seems like a no-brainer to me. The publisher can charge an extra dollar for the digital copy code, and it may reduce used book sales.

Jon Jermey September 30, 2014 um 4:41 pm

Book scanning is not really tedious if you have the equipment to do it properly. With a sharp knife, a cutting board and a page feed scanner, I can convert a standard paperback into digital form in around twenty minutes.

puzzled September 30, 2014 um 5:29 pm

Maybe the New York Times ethicist column should do a story on disguising commercial content as editorial content.

Nate Hoffelder September 30, 2014 um 5:33 pm


Gary September 30, 2014 um 6:44 pm

A couple of points:

If you replace a paper book with a pirated eBook you should destroy the paper copy. Selling the paper copy at a used book store is wrong.

Say that you have a paper copy of a book that was published by ABC publishers 20 years ago. Does this entitle you to download a pirate eBook version of the same title that was published 1 year ago by XYZ publishers?

Rashkae September 30, 2014 um 7:11 pm


In the US, copying a DVD or CD for backup or format shifting is de-facto fair use. DVD’s are a bit complicated, however, because you can’t copy the DVD without breaking the encryption, and tools that break or work around the copy protection encryption are forbidden, per DMCA. However, if, by some means, you manage to get a copy of your DVD, that copy is perfectly legal to own.

You can not tranfer that copy to another person without first deleting all your copies. Business that offers to make copies on behalf of individuals can keep the question tied in court for the foseable life expectancy of the lawyers invovled.

In either case, putting those files on net net with some kind of disclaimer that "you can only download this if you alreayd have legal rights to the file" is …… I don’t even know why they bother putting that disclaimer there.. that won’t hold up as defense for 10 seconds.

William D. O’Neil October 1, 2014 um 1:48 am

I have scanned a number of books nondestructively on a standard flatbed scanner so that I can more readily search for specific material, mark them up in a more sophisticated way than is possible with a physical book, and readily copy passages for quotation. It doesn’t have to be especially tedious if done properly.

Generally a standard flatbed can copy two pages of an 8vo book at once. If you use something like ABBYY FineReader to drive the scanner then you can set it to scan repeatedly at a set interval. I usually find 6 s to be a reasonable interval in which to turn the page and replace the book on the scanner bed. Thus I can scan 20pp in a minute, making quick work of even a fairly good-sized book. And since the scanning is not a high workload task I can listen to music or audio at the same time.

After having done some research I’ve come to the view that in buying a book I am acquiring the right to access its intellectual content and not simply possess its physical form, and hence that I have the right to change the form in which I access the content. If I sell the book then I may no longer hold the scan, but if I destroy the physical book (e.g. to reduce library space) I can keep the scan.

I have also on a few occasions scanned a library book when it was impractical to buy a copy. I see this as a matter of making a copy for personal scholarship, permitted in the United States under fair use. I also apply this logic when I give away a book to charity after scanning.

Richard Dean Starr October 1, 2014 um 8:10 pm

You wrote: "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."

Actually, it is legal and accepted that you can BACK UP your CD collection. As another poster pointed out, it is still illegal to rip copies of DVDs. Backing up for safety purposes (in case the physical item is damaged or stolen) is not the same thing as making a digital copy and then using it, essentially, in tandem with the physical copy or as a replacement for the physical copy.

William D. O’Neil October 1, 2014 um 8:35 pm

I’m not sure whether the subject of this discussion has shifted definitively from music performances to books, but it is worth recalling that they’re subject to substantially different legal regimes and what can be said of one does not necessarily apply to the other.

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