If I purchase a book on a kindle, is it wrong for me to let a friend install it on her kindle after I am done reading it?
May 20, 2009 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Ethics question: If I purchase a book on a kindle, is it wrong for me to let a friend install it on her kindle after I am done reading it? People do this with paper books all the time... is it ethically wrong to do it on a kindle?

Ignoring the technical limitations (DRM etc) or legal limitations (what is/isn't against the user agreement), I'm just curious about the abstract ethical arguments here.

Let's say I purchase a book on my Kindle, read it, enjoy it, and decide that I want a friend to read it. My friend also has a Kindle. Would it be wrong for me to let her install the book on her Kindle, providing she deleted it after she was done reading it? (Please ignore any technical limitations such as DRM). Taken to the logical extreme--say, posting the book on bittorrent--seems very clearly to me like stealing from the author. But what about sharing with a friend? We do this with books all the time, so why would an electronic book be different? A few nuggets for thought:
* Does the amazon pricing structure implicitly take into account a single-user model (i.e. they would charge you more if you could share with others)?
* Would it be any more problematic if my friend and I were to read the book simultaneously rather than serially? (This limitation would make it more parallel to paper books)
* Would it be less ethically challenging if I deleted the book from my device immediately after installing it on my friend's device? (So that there is only one copy rather than two).
* Would there be anything wrong with me loaning my device to a friend and letting him/her read the books from there? This would ensure that only one person is reading at a time, but would still mean that my friend would no longer purchase a book that he/she might otherwise have purchased.

Very curious to hear everyone's thoughts.

Again, I'm NOT looking for technical solutions here (e.g. don't tell me about syncing multiple kindles to a single account). Just curious about people's opinions about whether this is ethically shady. I currently have no plans to share Kindle books with others, but I was engaged in a hypothetical discussion with a friend a few nights ago, and am curious to hear others' thoughts.
posted by stilly to Technology (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You aren't allowed by the agreement (which you agreed to) to share books, so ethically, I think you're SOL.

Morally, I think sharing is still OK with [insert god here], if you care about that sort of thing. But they're doing everything they can to make it hard to do so.

This is why ebooks suck.
posted by Aquaman at 10:07 AM on May 20, 2009

Here's an easy and, I think, ethically acceptable solution: just swap Kindle's with your friend in the shortterm.
posted by zerokey at 10:13 AM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think it's ethically shady, but you've worded your question in a way that only allows people to agree with your premise that it's not ethically wrong.

For example, you don't want to hear about the legal aspects. But, is breaking an agreement, contract, or law ethical?

And, your question doesn't allow looking at the ramifications behind the action. For example, you don't want to talk about bittorrents, but only want to focus on letting your friend borrow your book. By framing it as if it's a paper book, and limiting the question to just a conversation about friends sharing books, you eliminate some of the very concerns that make people believe it's unethical.
posted by Houstonian at 10:14 AM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you ignore the user agreement, treating it as though you never agreed to anything, it seems you're left with pretty open-ended opinion, speculation, and chatfilter.
posted by kidbritish at 10:14 AM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ignoring the technical limitations (DRM etc) or legal limitations (what is/isn't against the user agreement)

Accepting legally-binding terms and then planning to break them has everything to do with ethics, in my opinion.

You accepted the limitation, therefore it would be ethically wrong to do what you're proposing to do.
posted by splice at 10:15 AM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I believe that treating the Kindle e-book as something you own is ethical.
posted by zippy at 10:21 AM on May 20, 2009

As long as you delete your copy while your friend has a copy on their Kindle, I don't see how it would be any different than giving them your paperback.
posted by reformedjerk at 10:22 AM on May 20, 2009

OP here. To clarify a little, since I seem to be getting a lot of pushback:

I have no intention of breaking any legally-binding terms, and I agree that doing so would be totally unethical. My friend and I both purchase our own books and have no intention of copying/sharing at this time. I guess I'm asking a different, more hypothetical, set of questions: if there were no restrictions in the user agreement would it still be ethically shady? Is there something inherently different about an e-book that makes it more wrong to share with a friend, as sharing with a friend would involve making a physical copy (more akin to xeroxing a book)?
posted by stilly at 10:26 AM on May 20, 2009

If there are no restrictions, then it's not shady; it's the existence of rules that causes ethical dilemmas about breaking them.
posted by pdb at 10:28 AM on May 20, 2009 [12 favorites]

Yes, it's wrong, because the contract between you and Amazon regarding the e-book is based on an exchange of promises. Amazon promises to deliver you the e-book you specified and in exchange you promise to abide by the terms of the license. It's not like you bought the e-book outright in fee simple - you don't have absolute rights to use it as you see fit (for instance, you couldn't republish it as your own work.) Your rights are limited by the contract. If you break that contract you are breaking your promise. If you consider breaking promises to be unethical, then yes, what you are doing would be unethical conduct.

Print books are not an apt analogy because you are merely limited by copyright laws and the like when you purchase one. You haven't signed a contract that gives you a limited license or anything of that sort.
posted by Happydaz at 10:31 AM on May 20, 2009

If there are no restrictions, then it's not shady; it's the existence of rules that causes ethical dilemmas about breaking them.

Yes, the key factors here that make it ethically different from sharing physical books are the rules outlined your agreement with the seller and the laws around digitally copying copyrighted works. The other ethical issues involved (such as whether ebook sharing would decrease demand and therefore drive down revenue) would be the same as the ones that exist for physical book sharing.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:34 AM on May 20, 2009

Well, is it ethical to speed? Yes, most drivers exceed the speed limit. Is it ethical to trade kindle books? I don't know. If most people are okay with it, then it's ethical. Whether it's moral or not is a separate question.
posted by malp at 10:35 AM on May 20, 2009

Is there something inherently different about an e-book that makes it more wrong to share with a friend, as sharing with a friend would involve making a physical copy (more akin to xeroxing a book)?

Sort of. Basically print books are books that have certain legal traits including, most importantly, the "right of first sale" This is one of the things that allows libraries to lend copies of books that have purchased with no issues. in the US. This right is not present in ebooks, or there is a lot of debate about that point.

So I know to a lot of people a book and an ebook are basically containers for the same content -- and ebooksellers would like you to confuse the two as much as possible -- the law in the US (and probably elsewhere but I can only speak to the US law) gives certain protections to the buyers of books that are not given to the buyers of ebooks.

I think swapping Kindles does put you on better ethical footing, but this example you've created serves to highlight what a strange new world this book-leasing thing propels us in to.
posted by jessamyn at 10:38 AM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ethics are not the same as Legalities. Does your personal Moral code say that it is wrong to do this thing (breaking the agreement you made when you bought the Kindle/eBook)
posted by Lord Widebottom at 10:58 AM on May 20, 2009

pdb: If there are no restrictions, then it's not shady; it's the existence of rules that causes ethical dilemmas about breaking them.

Untrue, IMO. If you're going to look at this from a purely abstract moral standpoint, you'd have to look at the question of harm. Does copying an ebook cause harm?

I'd say the answer is clearly "yes". You're denying a sale, and thus revenue for work performed, to the author. This is somewhat greyed by the issue of how many people who copied it would have bought it otherwise, but what's true is that none of them will buy it now. Unlike things like music, which can be licensed any number of ways aside from direct-to-customer, book authors don't have many options for revenue other than... selling the book.
posted by mkultra at 10:59 AM on May 20, 2009

(I'm assuming, btw, that you're holding on to your copy of the ebook when you "share" it with your friend)
posted by mkultra at 11:13 AM on May 20, 2009

It's ethically wrong to enter into an agreement you intend to break. If you "buy" an ebook from amazon, fully intending to lend it to a friend, you are lying when you agree to the contract.

If there was no contract or rules, NOTHING would be unethical.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:25 AM on May 20, 2009

I think another consideration (DRM aside) is that when you have a printed book, it's much harder to reproduce/distribute it. If I loan a paperback to a friend, she may read it, she may not; she might have bought it if I hadn't loaned it to her, she might have not; she's definitely not photocopying it and making it available to multiple people. If I somehow passed on a digital copy of a book, it would be an easy matter for her to make a copy and possibly share with someone (or a group of people) who I don't know who might then distribute it. I think the potential for unethical behavior is much higher.
posted by Kimberly at 12:05 PM on May 20, 2009

If most people are okay with it, then it's ethical.
That view could land you in some sticky philosophical situations. How could you ever judge whether or not a society's laws were ethical if the only test was whether or not most people agreed with them? Say a poll showed that the majority of Americans were OK with the CIA carrying out torture: would that make it ethical?

OP: The ethics of this one don't seem terribly confused to me either: you just have to work out what the proper equivalent of sharing a physical book is. I don't think it's sending the digital file: the file is ultimately a set of instructions for "printing" a book in a digital device. Sharing that with your friend seems (in a somewhat strained way) like giving her a copy of the printing plates to a book.

The real equivalent is more like lending her your Kindle. And nobody would have a problem with that, I don't think, even though in practice it's going to mean lending her your entire library.
posted by fightorflight at 1:35 PM on May 20, 2009

It is a good starting position to think about a contract as the overriding factor in determining the ethics of a situation, but I think that there are issues beyond any one contract between buyer and seller that may apply to a discussion of ethics, in this case, whether it is ethical to uphold all aspects of the contract in the face of its effect on society.

I think the eBook example is complex, so I will take a simpler example to illustrate the point. Let's say that someone is born to a country that filters internet access. Would it be unethical for this person to attempt to circumvent these filters? What if instead of being born in the country, they chose to live there? Would their choice to live in the country change the answer?

I realize that dealing with an e-book merchant seems like a less portentous arrangement than the above, but I feel also that ownership of (e)books and the individual's ability to share books with friends leads to many benefits for society - a more educated and informed populace, for one - that should be a part of this ethical consideration.
posted by zippy at 2:03 PM on May 20, 2009

If you bought a real book you are free to physically do whatever-the-damn-hell you want to it. This includes setting it on fire, dressing it in diapers, selling it, loaning it, giving it away, or eating it. You don't even have to read it first. You are not allowed to start publishing copies of course.

If you buy an ebook, why should it be any different? You bought it, it's yours, go nuts.

Publishers don't see it that way because they think they can make more money, not because the form of the content has anything to do with morality or ethics. What they are doing with DRM and other licensing crap is eroding the first-sale doctrine and smacks me of odd creeping corporate socialism.

I need to start drinking again. Things made more sense back then.
posted by chairface at 2:32 PM on May 20, 2009

I have to agree with Zippy. In any case, we're not talking about personal contracts negotiated in good faith. We're talking contracts of adhesion.

Finally, I'm sure we can all think of occasions when deliberately breaking a contract, or a law, is *the* ethical thing to do - so pointing to a contract alone isn't really an argument.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:42 PM on May 20, 2009

the individual's ability to share books with friends leads to many benefits for society - a more educated and informed populace, for one

I think this is true at first, but then the opposite would happen.

Let's say I'm an author, and I make $1 for every book I sell. I would be ok with one person sharing my book with another person... my potential loss is $1. It would be nice if I made that decision instead of my customers making it for me, but I'd be ok with it. After all, better society perhaps!

But what if one person shared my book with 1,000,000 people? I'm no longer ok with that. Sure, better society and all, but that means I'm making no money! It's an art and a calling and worth suffering, perhaps, but writers have to eat.

With that in mind, I wouldn't write books. I'd pick up a job that would pay me money, so I could pay my bills. And many authors would do the same: Faced with the choice of writing and starving, or not writing and living, we'd have fewer quality writers. And ultimately, a loss to society.

That's why I think it is not correct to compare e-books with paper books. Sure, someone can Xerox a book, but that takes more effort and labor than it's worth (although people do it). People also scan books into PDFs, and you can download them into your Kindle... but again, the effort and labor is not really worth it. Scanning or copying 200 pages is not something most of us would do, to save $10 (average cost of a Kindle book). So writers continue to make a living. But with ebooks, you could take one copy and distribute it to an unlimited number of readers.

To me, that's one reason why it's a bad choice (and potentially unethical, in light of doing what's best for society): It will decrease the number of quality books and quality authors.
posted by Houstonian at 2:43 PM on May 20, 2009

Well, obviously the ethics of this are not established yet, but here's my vote:

-Giving it to her and then deleting it from yours is totally fine. One copy was paid for, one copy exists.
-Loaning your entire Kindle is fine. One copy was paid for, one copy exists.
-The contents of Amazon's user agreement are irrelevant. The accepted ethical standard for books is: loaning is fine, giving is fine, reselling is fine, copying is not. If you are buying a "book", then those are the rules that apply. If Barnes & Noble made you sign a contract agreeing that you wouldn't lend out any books you bought there, it would not be unethical to ignore that agreement. Merchants don't get to dictate the ethics for their products. We decide the ethics, they decide the price.
posted by equalpants at 3:24 PM on May 20, 2009

But what if one person shared my book with 1,000,000 people? I'm no longer ok with that.

Of course, libraries do just that, in theory in anyway.

This question of ethics is tricky, because there's a lot of backstory to this which precludes an easy answer.

Here's why. I can buy a printed copy of Kunstler's The Long Emergency at Amazon for $10.98. As anyone knows, I can pass this copy around endlessly for others to read. (This probably benefits authors, as it increases exposure and the likelihood that their next book will sell to one of the people who borrowed the previous one, especially if one considers that real exposure is the most elusive of things for the overwhelming majority of authors.) At the end of the day, I'll still have this nice, physical product.

A Kindle version of the same book costs $9.60. One saves $1.38, or about 13%. But that's not a huge savings, and you lose the physical book, its superior durability and the ability to share it. easily. Amazon and the publisher, on the other hand, save far far far more than you. They don't have to print the book. They don't have to store it or ship it or incur expenses for defects. They don't have to risk paying for all that stuff for books that don't sell. All things (author royalties, printing, extra overhead, shipping, storage, remaindering and so on) considered, the people who profit from this (who aren't the author) make SEVERAL TIMES more money from the digital version than they would from a print version.

So here's the factual stuff:

1) The author makes the same amount of money from each sale, but loses big when it comes to increased exposure.

2) You, the reader, just about break even. Yes, the book costs a little less, but that savings is about the same as what you'd get after selling the book to someone else - and you've got to figure in the per-book cost of the Kindle. So your possible price is roughly the same, or maybe even higher! And you get what many people would consider an inferior version of what you could get at the same ultimate price. "Convenience" is the only conceivable advantage of the Kindle, and that's one that's debatable according to individual needs.

3) Amazon and the publisher may make three times as much money on a Kindle version than a printed version, due to much much lower costs.

So, the author gets nothing extra and loses exposure. You, at best, kind of break even in costs and end up with no physical object. Amazon and publishers RAKE IT IN.

Is that ethical? One could argue that they're begging to be cheated!

If Kindle books cost $3.50, it's possible (outside the scope of the relatively small number of authors with big advances) that authors would make *more* money (by making the same per book, but selling more books due to the low cost), that readers would be able to buy more books (which is great for them, Amazon, publishers and for authors) and that Amazon / the publishers could do *at least* as well as they're doing now, and maybe even a reasonable percentage more. because why not?

Record labels made the same mistake; the refused to lower prices to a reasonably level even when they could have ended up controlling digital distribution. Now they're sinking, and folks can get almost anything they want for free, online. When this happens with books, then the authors will be really screwed.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:08 PM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

But what if one person shared my book with 1,000,000 people? I'm no longer ok with that.

Just to be clear, I was thinking of sharing in the context of physical books, where 'sharing' means giving my ebook to a friend, rather than duplicating the book and giving away copies.
posted by zippy at 8:32 PM on May 20, 2009

When you buy a book you're making an agreement with the publisher (one which includes the doctrine of first sale). When you buy an e-book, you're making a somewhat different agreement (which doesn't). What you're asking is "is it OK to, post-facto, alter the terms of that agreement to my advantage, without the permission (or indeed knowledge) of the other party"? Ordinarily, one would expect the answer to be 'No', but you've cleverly avoiding this with your stipulation: "ignoring... legal limitations".

So, given your preconditions, it's entirely ethical. Of course, given these same preconditions, so is the bittorrent case, or just setting it up on a printing press and selling copies.
posted by pompomtom at 10:45 PM on May 20, 2009

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