Robot 6

Is there such a thing as an ethical pirate?

At Comics Worth Reading, Johanna Draper Carlson makes the argument that it is ethical to download “pirate” comics if you have already bought the hard copy, but you want a digital copy for the sake of convenience.

My husband, an old-school comic fan, is a fanatic for keeping the periodical comics in near-perfect shape. Me, I’m not quite so careful with them (since for me, they’re to be read and probably forgotten before the next chapter comes out). My graphic novels are sturdier and hold up better to sloppy handling. So to keep the peace, and avoid having an unhappy husband, I’m contemplating downloading versions of the comics we have already bought. That way, KC has the paper objects, and I have versions to read without worrying about what condition they’re in or if I’m stacking them too high or piling things on top of them. Plus, I can take comic books with me while traveling, something I’d otherwise never do with individual issues. (I read them too quickly to justify the space in packing them.)

This argument has the endorsement of Randy Cohen, the Ethicist columnist for the New York Times, who wrote:

Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.

But is that really so? Suppose I paid top dollar for a hardback novel, and then I wanted a paperback to read on the subway. Am I entitled to walk into a bookstore, pick up a paperback, and walk out without paying? Both ethics and the law say no.

Furthermore, while Carlson and Cohen don’t seem to think anyone is being deprived of income by scanning or downloading comics you already own, I’m inclined to disagree. If the comic is available digitally, then yes, you are depriving them of income. My own solution, for a comic I don’t want to keep, would be to buy it digitally in the first place.

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When I buy a cd from my local record store. I always — immediately — rip it to iTunes. That’s a far stretch from buying a comic book and then downloading it again from a pirate site. Her argument would be more “ethical” to state she scans it to her computer for personal use rather than pull from a site that specializes in circumventing payment.

In a perfect world, every one downloading the digital copy (scanned in by someone who also bought a physical copy to do so) would have bought a physical copy themselves. (Of course, it’s not a perfect world) but that metaphor of the paperback/hardback is a little silly, dude. The time, effort and money involved in printing a paperback (and then sending it to a store staffed with employees) is leagues different from one person scanning in a comic and hosting it on a free downloading site. The cost footprint is significantly smaller as to be almost zero.

“Am I entitled to walk into a bookstore, pick up a paperback, and walk out without paying? Both ethics and the law say no.”

That is a weak argument. In that situation, you’re depriving the store of physical goods they paid for. They paid UPS to ship it, UPS paid the driver to bring it, they paid for the gas, and they can no longer sell the product since they don’t have it. If a million people pirate a book that 1,000 people bought a digital copy of, does their piracy deprive the purchasers of the product? Does it deprive the seller or artists of the income they got from the 1,000 sold copies? No. I’m not justifying piracy, but I’m saying that walking into Best Buy and stealing a CD is different than downloading an mp3 because Best Buy paid to have that CD in their store for sale and they no longer have it.

Personally, I think comics as floppies are an anachronism; they just don’t know it yet. I’ve purchased way too many half-told stories, arcs that suddenly have a dramatic change in narrative due to a new writer or artist, etc. Paying for a comic is like buying a novel chapter-by-chapter as it is being written. I’ll admit to piracy because of those two reasons, but since I’m so anal with what I pirate, it’s more “I want to read the story now but the trade will take a year”, sort of things.

In 5 or 10 years, when all media is available across all devices instantenously from 1 central location, this won’t matter, but for now, I pay money for content, not method of delivery, and I’ll be damned if I’m going do triple-dip on a floppy for immediate reading, a digital copy for on-the-road reading, and a trade for collection.

If comic vendors want to follow and interesting path, if you buy the regular comic on the store, you arrive home, take a picture with the computer’s webcam. Each comic will have a code to download the digital version to your HD. It can also be like a digital extra code that you can pay 50 extra cents. There are options for this, but companies need to be open to these.

I think that companies should probably follow the example of the record industry. Most records these days come with a “Digital Copy” that you obtain on a website with a certain code. The code can only be used once, though blank discs could easily be burned and shared. The canadian nostalgia band Zeus actually recorded the record for the digital copy to make it unique from an iTunes download. Records are an example of the ideal digital counterpart, both legal an ethical.
PS My uncle, who is a trained Ethicist, says that the New York Times ethicist never had any lessons in ethical philosophy, and is basically an amateur.


August 20, 2010 at 9:58 am

I like the concept of a trained ethicist. For what it’s worth, I’m a recent Philosophy graduate, and let me tell you: studying ethics will do nothing to help you get along in situations like this.
That said, I think a sequence of questions is always the best (that is: annoyingly smug) way to look at this sort of question:
1. Is it OK to take a CD you own and rip it to iTunes for your own personal consumption?
2. Is it OK to take a comic you own and scan it in for your own personal consumption?
3. Is it OK for you to hand the comic to a friend and ask them to scan it and email it back to you?
4. Is it OK if your friend responds “I already have that comic, I’ll just scan my version and email it back to you”?
5. Is it OK if your friend responds “I’ve already scanned my copy for myself, I’ll just email it to you”.?
6. Is it OK if your friend responds “My friend has already scanned his copy for himself, I’ll get him to email it to you.”?
7. Is it OK if your friend responds “Someone online has already scanned his copy. Prove to him you bought the comic and he’ll let you download the scan”.

I think if you accept the first proposition, you have to accept the last one. I can’t see any categorical shift between all of those propositions, and so I’m not sure you’d be able to give a reason why (say) 4 was OK but 5 wasn’t.

8. Is it OK if your friend responds “someone online has already scanned his copy, you can download it here”?

This is a trickier one, because there is a categorical difference. The person putting up a copy for anyone to download is enabling unethical piracy; the question is, does your consorting with them tar you with the same brush? I think not; if that were true, buying a scanner would be an unethical move as well, since scanners enable unethical piracy.

If the person putting up the downloads has ethical motivations (essentially, enabling people to engage in the sort of piracy we are discussing), then it seems ethical to download from them. If the person putting up the downloads has unethical motivations, then the ethicality of downloading from them is proportional to the degree to which performing ethical actions aided by someone with unethical motivations is itself unethical.

Personally, I’d say this still remains on the right side, ethically, but it’s clearly not a cut and dry case.

@paulnewmanseyes I would stop you at point seven and ask if there is such a site. Go a step further and ask if by downloading a comic from a torrent is okay if you are lending your bandwidth to distribute the comic to those who haven’t paid for it.

Given enough time, one can argue anything is ethical.

Brigid, I haven’t checked actual numbers, but I would guess 80-90% of what we’re buying every week isn’t available digitally at that time. If it was, this conversation (and my position) would be very different. And you’re not quite grasping the whole of my argument, as I posted — it’s not that we aren’t going to keep the print comics, but that I’m not going to keep the digital copies. Plus, your assumption, that my having a scan of a comic I own for my own purposes is depriving someone of income, is simply wrong, since I never would have paid for that digital copy.

Now I want to know what Anonymous’s uncle, the Trained Ethicist, says about the situation.

Brigid Alverson

August 20, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Fair enough, Johanna. And as someone who is lugging a big bag of graphic novels on my vacation right now, I definitely see the practical merits of your argument!

But is that really so? Suppose I paid top dollar for a hardback novel, and then I wanted a paperback to read on the subway. Am I entitled to walk into a bookstore, pick up a paperback, and walk out without paying? Both ethics and the law say no.

No, but you’re entitled to photocopy the entire thing and bring that with you.

I think if you want to make it “ethical” then scan it yourself and take it on the trip. Or pay for the download legally from the company. Or join Marvel or Archie’s monthly-fee systems. But people will justify whatever it is they want to do.

Woah. I… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “would you steal it from a store” argument.

I think i have to sit down now…

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