Ebooks and ethics in the New York Times

When Chuck Klosterman weighed in on the ethics of downloading ebooks last month, he became the third writer for the New York Times ethicist column to do so in the last four years—starting with Randy Cohen in 2010, and continuing with Philip Corbett in 2012. I’ve enjoyed some of Klosterman’s writing a lot, but I’m not thrilled with his work as Ethicist. This answer follows that trend, forgoing ethical insight for a rigid application of contractual terms.

The question comes from a reader who has purchased the hardcover edition of a book, and then downloaded another copy without authorization for convenience’s sake. Klosterman says he’d prefer that a book purchase were a license to read a book in any format the purchaser likes, but that publishers disagree and they write the rules. From his column:

The publisher ultimately decides if buying a physical copy of my book entitles you to automatically own it across multiple platforms. And in almost every case I’ve encountered, it does not. Publishers tend to view the electronic version of a book as a separate entity.

That’s some awfully shallow analysis: that defying the wishes of a publisher is per se unethical—and despite an ethicist weighing in that it should be otherwise. It stubbornly subordinates readers’ rights to the profit-maximizing goals of publishing companies, ignoring the many ways they have attempted to control secondary uses. (Would a turn-of-the-century Klosterman say it was unethical to sell a copy of The Castaway for 50 cents? What would Klosterman have said last year about re-selling a book bought overseas?)

Contrast that to Randy Cohen’s 2010 answer. Despite being four years old, it works almost perfectly as a response to Klosterman’s recent answer. Cohen:

It’s true that you might have thwarted the publisher’s intent — perhaps he or she has a violent antipathy to trees, maybe a wish to slaughter acres of them and grind them into Stephen King novels. Or to clog the highways with trucks crammed with Stephen King novels. Or perhaps King himself wishes to improve America’s physique by having readers lug massive volumes.

So be it. Your paying for the hardcover put you in the clear as a matter of ethics, forestry and fitness training.

Good answer. An ethicist that won’t prize ethics over non-negotiable one-sided boilerplate rights-grab agreements isn’t much of an ethicist at all.