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Katie Hambor
Communication Ethics
Dr. Ebo
May 5, 2013
The Ethics of Ebooks: Downloading in the Digital Age
With the rise in the Internet through the years, more and more information is
freely distributed between people and there is a common notion that the information
therefore belongs to everyone. However, much of the information on the Internet,
including electronic books (which will henceforth be called “ebooks”), is copyrighted
under the name of a single party that owns the information. Therefore the contents of
these ebooks are under the intellectual property of the writer and the publisher, and the
consumer must buy a copy of the text in order to read the text, just like they would with
physical books. Though this may seem obvious that one must buy a book—physical or
electronic—to read the text, in practice it is not quite as simple. Instead, many people
illegally download—that is, download without paying for—ebooks every day. In fact,
Google searches for illegal downloads increased by 50 percent between 2009 and 2010,
and it is likely that these numbers have only increased (Oliveira). In some cases, these
pirated copies of ebooks are online before the printed copies are released to the public to
buy, accounting for 20 percent of all ebook downloads as of January 2012 (International
Business Times). Action needs to be taken place in order to maintain the social order for
ebook selling and buying, and doing so will require the use of applied ethics to solve this
moral dilemma.
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When using applied ethics to solve this moral dilemma, some basic ethical
concepts must be applied. A system must be put in place in order to maintain the order of
society in relation to ebooks. As with all societies, there is a need for social stability; a
moral hierarchy; a dynamic moral ecology, by constantly examining the society’s moral
principles and attempt to improve the society all the time; resolve conflicts; and clarify
values, by both the publisher and the reader stating their respective values in the society
(Day).
There is also a need for justice in order to maintain the notion of fairness and
equal treatment in dealing with the rule breakers, also known as illegal downloaders or
pirates. That being said, there should also be no double standards—certain illegal
downloaders should not have privileges over others. All people are aware of their actions
as autonomous individuals, and therefore they should be held accountable for their
actions; otherwise, moral conditions would be meaningless (Day). The publishers should
also not limit consumers’ freedoms and allow them to choose what system of ebook
buying works best for them, so they are not forced to resort to illegal options (Day).
Since the creation of the Internet, there has been an emergence of ongoing
questions of the ethics of cyberspace. With the rise of the Internet, the designation of the
“publisher” usually becomes unclear and anyone can be a publisher (Day), especially
with the rise of social media and blogging. However, in this case, it is clear that the writer
of the book and their publisher are the designated “publishers.” On the Internet, it is not
too difficult to access any information, as long as one has the technological know-how
(Day), and as a result, people can more easily obtain copies of books without exchanging
any money. Lastly, it becomes more complicated when the concept of “ownership” is
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brought into the picture. In the past, the owner of the publication is the “publisher,” and
he or she could sell the material however he or she pleases. However, with the Internet’s
easy access, anyone could find the publication and do whatever they please without for
asking the publisher’s permission first (Day). With these ethical concepts in mind, it is
important to look at what the main stakeholders—the publisher and the pirating readers—
have to say about their viewpoints.
The first argument that shall be held is the publisher’s side, which includes the
writer of the book. Of course, without this stakeholder, the material would not exist in
any form, physical or electronic. In other words, in order to have the material in question,
it must first be created, meaning that an author must have an idea, expand on the idea,
and edit the idea until the work is finished. A publishing company is needed help the
author edit, re-edit, create a book cover, market, and finally sell the material. With this
entire process, there are many people that are involved and therefore need to get paid for
their job. This money can only come from somewhere, and that would be from book
sales, physical and electronic. Therefore, in order for writers and publishers to continue
publishing, they need to continue selling books and making money. “Some people may
think that with some authors they are so successful it doesn’t matter,” explains author
Amanda Craig. “Someone like me makes something like [$15,500] a year from books.
Some authors will simply stop writing if they can’t earn a living from it” (Mansey and
Chittenden). Therefore, illegally downloading ebooks is not a victimless crime.
Of course, basic marketing strategies would suggest that the best way to make
money is to give the customer what he/she wants at the best price that is good for both
parties, making both the publisher and the customer happy. Therefore the publisher wants
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to use John Stuart Mill’s concept of Utilitarianism, which is to have the greatest good for
the greatest number of people. The best scenario that the publisher can then hope for is
the maximum amount of money for themselves and books for their customers at a price
that is reasonable for both parties. The publisher also wants to cater to readers who enjoy
physical books, ebooks, and those who enjoy both, so a marketing strategy that includes
all three types of readers would be the most beneficial.
As a publisher advertising books, there are a few codes of ethics that should be
kept in mind. The first code is that of the Public Relations Society of America, which
indicates that one must “deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors,
the media, and the general public” (Public Relations Society of America). The document
also states that public relations professionals must “protect the privacy rights of clients,
organizations, and individuals by safeguarding confidential information,” such as the
content of publications so that they do not fall into pirates’ hands (Public Relations
Society of America). Another code of ethics that applies is that of the American
Advertising Federation. One of their principles states, “Advertisers and their agencies,
and online and offline media, should discuss privately potential ethical concerns, and
members of the team creating ads should be given permission to express internally their
ethical concerns” (Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics). Therefore any ethical
concerns that advertisers have will be voiced before they are brought to the public eye.
Keeping these codes in mind, the most important code of ethics to be used in the
distribution of books is that of the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition, titled the
Publisher’s Code of Ethics. The code begins by stating, “We sell books in many different
formats, but one thing we have in common is that we sell electronic editions of our
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books. A manuscript, once prepared for publication, is a book, no matter the format”
(Publisher’s Code of Ethics). Therefore, according to this code of ethics, the documents
that are illegally downloaded by pirates are in fact designated as books.
While the publisher is concerned about receiving money, the reader is generally
concerned with keeping money. Economically, society—led by Amazon.com—is
concerned with getting the lowest prices on everything (Johnson). Sometimes, if ebook
prices seem too high, consumers will resort to using illegal downloading websites such as
PirateBay to get the ebook files for free. When this happens, the authors do not receive
any money for this new ownership of their material. There is also the argument that for
years, people have not been paying for books since the 17
th
century as a result of libraries
(Carr). However, the publisher would argue, libraries buy books, are curated by experts,
and promote education and facilitate important services such as free Internet access,
which pirated books cannot do (Green).
In some cases, consumers already own physical copies of books and just want to
have an ebook file for their ereader for travel purposes. In these cases, the consumer may
feel that by already legally owning a copy of a physical book, they feel less ethically
obligated to buy an electronic copy because they do already own all of the material in
some form (Cohen). They did not want the equivalent of two full books, but rather the
equivalent of having a CD in one’s car and the same music files on one’s computer. To
these consumers, it as if the material is all one entity, and like buying a piece of music,
buying a book should allow the reader to enjoy the material on any platform (Cohen). To
this, the writer may argue—as one young adult literature writer, John Green, does—that
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many musicians are able to give live performances and receive a secondary income,
whereas most writers only have the book as their sole source of an income (Green).
It is safe to say that most book pirates know their actions are not fully morally
correct, but one book pirate, Internet codename The Red Caterpillar, writes, “it is more of
a grey area than [some people] may [believe],” (Magee). This pirate’s reasons for these
grey areas are that the “stolen” material is not as clearly defined as it is with physical
copies, as each physical unit costs a specific amount of money to create. Additionally, he
says, by downloading a file, it does not mean that a person would normally have bought
the product, and therefore their download is not replacing a sale. Lastly, explains The
Red Caterpillar, by downloading an ebook, it is not guaranteed that the person will read
the ebook. He concludes by explaining, “I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating
a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing… although that nagging question of
what the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers” (Magee). If by taking
The Red Caterpillar’s ebook pirating status into account—he has created around 200
ebooks and has no intention of stopping—it is clear that the stigma against stealing is not
enough to solely deter ebook pirates.
When looking for a solution to this problem, the logical philosophical platform to
keep in mind would be Mill’s Utilitarianism, which is to have the greatest good for the
greatest number of people. This of course would easily satisfy the publisher’s goal as
well, as utilitarianism is also their goal. Another philosophical platform to keep in mind is
that of John Rawls and John Locke, or “rights-based,” respecting others’ rights. It is ideal
to encourage consumers to respect the rights—or more specifically, intellectual property
rights—of publishers and writers, so that once a better ebook system is put in place, the
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marketing plan is able to sustain itself through trust and not fall apart. There are a few
possible solutions that can help fix the ebook industry, some of which have been put in
place already, some of which have not.
The first solution would be to solely discourage downloaders by “hiding” their
search results for illegal ebooks in search engines such as Google. This would most likely
only deter the casual downloader, as more serious ebook pirates would use their favorite
websites, including Torrent sites, such as PirateBay. According to Richard Mollet, chief
executive of the Publishers Association in the UK, publishers are asking search engines
to change their algorithms so that pirate websites are not at the top of search results,
making it more difficult for the average downloader to find what they may be looking for,
at which point they may just default to buying the ebook (Mansey and Flyn). This change
in algorithms can change in about seven hours (Mansey and Flyn).
The second solution, which should not be a widespread option but occur only in
some special cases, would be to have cheaper ebooks. This would benefit the consumer
but not the publisher, of course, as the consumer would pay less and the publisher would
receive less. Therefore, this would not be a utilitarian solution and should not be put into
place because it would greatly take away from the necessary money that the writer and
publisher rightfully earned. For example, the cost for actually printing a book is only a
few dollars per copy, and therefore theoretically ebooks should not cost so much less than
physical books (Why e-books cost so much). If a reader is buying an ebook as their first
copy of the text, then it is the same thing as buying a physical copy, as this is the reader’s
first ownership of the text material. Therefore ebook prices should only be cheaper for
special occasions, just as physical copies are on sale for special occasions.
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Another solution, which is beginning to take place more and more, would be to
have more electronic libraries, or elibraries. Similar to and usually in conjunction with
traditional libraries, readers are able to borrow books—or rather, ebooks—for a certain
amount of time before they must be returned. For example, at Digital Library NJ’s
website, you search for a book you wish to borrow and then click “Borrow.” The file is
only available for a certain amount of time until it expires (Digital Library NJ). Like
traditional libraries, the ebook is bought once (or however many copies the library
decides to buy and lend out) and readers can borrow the ebooks accordingly, just as they
would with traditional books. The only problem with this concept is not many people
know about digital libraries in this way, and the libraries also do not have many copies of
books yet. However, the more consumers know about and use elibraries, the more
elibraries may grow. With this solution, the publisher does not make any more money
than they already were making, as this process is only a maturation of the traditional
library, but they also will not lose money from consumers essentially creating and
distributing their own illegal copies.
The final solution would be to have book and ebook bundles for readers that want
a physical copy, but want an electronic copy as well. In order to do this, publishers could
include a specified download link inside the cover of the book so that the reader can have
the ebook for free or for a fraction of the original price along with a physical book. For
example, Marvel comics already allows readers to receive free digital copies of certain
comics after buying the print edition (Marvel Comics). To make this happen for longer
books, the solution may be to require the reader to pay a bit more for the electronic copy,
but certainly not the original ebook price. This will be comparable to other book bundles,
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such as box sets, where each book is slightly cheaper than their original price. These
electronic copies could also be linked to an online account, in case the consumer lost the
ebook file and needed to redownload their copy, which would be designated as their own
copy and no one else’s, so no stealing could be involved.
With all of these possible solutions, the most desirable for all parties is the last
choice, to have book and ebook bundles. This keeps the publisher happy, as they are
receiving money for everything they worked for, even though the ebooks are slightly
cheaper than the physical books in this case. Readers who wish to own physical copies
and electronic copies will be satisfied as they will not need to pay so much more to have
both. Of course, the usual buying of standalone ebooks will not cease, but this will just be
another option if both formats are desired. This will of course not solve all of the
problems in ebook pirating, and therefore the use of digital libraries should also be
encouraged so that people can still read ebooks for “free.” Most importantly, publishers
need to stress to their customers the importance and reasons of buying books and not
pirating. By taking all of these important steps, publishers can be on their way to having
less illegal downloaders to worry about and everyone will be content.







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Works Cited
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2013. <http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/23/book-piracy-a-non-issue/>.
Cohen, Randy. "E-Book Dodge." New York Times Magazine (2010): 15. Readers' Guide
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Day, Louis Alvin. Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies. 5th ed.
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Johnson, Maureen. "In Which I Attempt to Explain What is Going On With Ebooks."
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Magee, C. Max. "Confessions of a Book Pirate." The Millions. N.p., 25 Jan. 2002. Web.
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