Ethics of downloading ebooks
December 14, 2014 8:19 PM   Subscribe

Please help me decide how to ethically consume books now that I'm the owner of a brand shiny new Kindle.

I have just received an e-reader as a gift. I currently get 95% of the books I read from my local public library, but it does not have an obvious, easy-to-use lending program for ebooks. I don't love Amazon, particularly its approach to the publishing business, so I'd rather not legally buy the books from them.

Meanwhile, even very light googling indicates that there are a litany of places online where you can download almost anything you want, legally for public domain works and illegally otherwise. For example, I've just downloaded copied of two paperbacks that were recently given to me as gifts. I feel like this is fine, since my friends and family have already paid for me to have the experience of reading these books. Is it ethical for me to use these illegal sources for books that I either receive as gifts or would have checked out from the public library anyway?

I am open to paying authors directly for books, but not everyone has a Patreon or a donate link on her site. I think this also cuts out editors, who I know contribute valuable work to the creation of literature. I have also thought of simply increasing my annual donation to my public library. If my patronage there matters from a usage/funding point of view, I could also keep checking out the books and would then just download a digital copy when I got home and return the hardcopy the next day.

I know there are a lot of authors and librarians on Metafilter, so I'm in interested to hear your thoughts, as well as those of the rest of the Hivemind, on whether I'm ethically OK downloading copies of books that I otherwise would not have paid to read.

Please note that I am not in any way interested in the legalities here. I'm really only looking for answers on the ethical dilemma.
posted by Aizkolari to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Is it ethical for me to use these illegal sources for books that I either receive as gifts or would have checked out from the public library anyway?

I say no. You are already capable of reading those books through the two means you cite. Presumably reading them on the Kindle is of some value to you, or else you wouldn't be posting this question. The ethical thing is to pay for that value. Or, if you decide that your opposition to Amazon outweighs whatever value you would get from reading these works on your Kindle, the ethical thing is to not read these books on your Kindle.
posted by AndrewInDC at 8:25 PM on December 14, 2014 [14 favorites]

Are you sure your public library does not have an e-book lending program? The city listed in your profile has a public library that offers Kindle book lending through Overdrive. My local library uses the same system, and it's really very simple and convenient, at least for books they have available in Kindle format.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:28 PM on December 14, 2014 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I could also keep checking out the books and would then just download a digital copy when I got home and return the hardcopy the next day.

Between you, me, and the internet, this is what I sometimes do. I am a librarian. Ebook lending is a mess. Most of the books I actually purchase to read are on the second hand market. There is not a secondhand market for ebooks (for the most part). Your library can use the business, your patronage there really does matter. You can order books (to be purchased or ILL'ed) at your library and "format shift" it. You can use something like Calibre to convert it, depending on what Kindle you have. You can borrow books from Open Library (note: I work there) if your reading preferences overlap what we have. You can buy books from DRM-free places like Tor who publish a lot of terrific writers. This is a topic on which many reasonable people disagree so a lot of this really depends on your personal moral compass and your feelings about paying artists/creators for their work. In many non-US countries, authors get paid based on library traffic as well as book sales. This is not true in the US so there is a bit of lack-of-return to authors which is something I am concerned about personally.

On preview: the Overdrive lending system is actually pretty functional (compared to Kindle lending) and may be able to work within it and is worth looking into.
posted by jessamyn at 8:29 PM on December 14, 2014 [18 favorites]

Is the location in your profile correct? Because the SF library has an extensive ebook lending program (and even if you don't live in SF proper, you only need California residency to get a San Francisco library card, as long as you can get there in person once to get the card, you can then do the rest online).

But no, it is unethical to steal books. Sign up for BookBub for daily cheap/free options.
posted by brainmouse at 8:30 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not setting myself up as the paragon of ethical media virtue over here, but I have acquired a number of free ebooks through various means. I like when authors put small donate links on their websites. I have definitely gone in and directly paid money to authors whose books have appeared on my kindle.

This works less well if the author is dead, obviously.
posted by phunniemee at 8:35 PM on December 14, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all for your feedback so far. I will take a closer look at Overdrive; clearly I did not read the SFPL website closely enough. Also, great to know that I can get Tor stuff DRM-free. Other thoughts on this are still appreciated, both because not everyone has access to such a system and because I think it's pretty interesting.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:36 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Overdrive is easy and fabulous!
posted by harrietthespy at 8:59 PM on December 14, 2014

Overdrive is kind of a hassle to set up, but I have used it successfully to read quite a lot of books on my Kindle. For Free, yay!

There is an argument sometimes made that publishers who sell ebooks should not retain DRM on those books, and that the buyer should have the option to, say, back them up, or read them on different devices. People who feel this way might choose to use Calibre (which is a pretty good ebook-management software application), and a plug-in for Calibre is available to the adept googler which might enable those buyers to, among other things, convert said purchases to other formats.
posted by suelac at 9:06 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Amazon gets paid when you use Overdrive, indirectly, and you're giving support to them by using their system. In your position, I would return the Kindle (since just being seen with it encourages others to use it) or write the authors a polite note to say you pirate their books because you can only get legal .mobi files through Amazon. Another option is to prioritize ebooks that can be bought directly from the publisher's or the author's website. Unfortunately, this isn't always an option.
posted by michaelh at 9:11 PM on December 14, 2014

You can also find an Amazon list of the Top 100 Free Kindle Books, which includes a lot of free contemporary works.
posted by bq at 9:19 PM on December 14, 2014

Best answer: As a traditionally published author, I ask very strongly that you get your ebooks via legal means, be it buying them or using your library lending. (My public library lending system is actually pretty easy and awesome. I am also in California.) I do not and will never have a donate link on my website and you giving money to me directly doesn't help me to continue to get book deals, which is how most authors manage to grow their career and continue to write the books you want to read.

Publishers decide whether or not to continue to work with your traditionally published authors based on their sales, AND on how many libraries chose to buy their books, and how many of those books are bought by those libraries. If people get my books via illegal means, those eyeballs are never recorded, the publishers see no money and believe my books aren't popular enough to pay me to write, someone to edit, someone to publicize, someone to proofread, someone to copyedit, someone to design. My deals get smaller and smaller, and the next thing you know, I can't afford to write books anymore. I know people to whom this has actually happened.

So, unsurprisingly, I vote unethical. I don't ever ask that people buy my books, but I do ask that if they don't want to buy it, that they check it out from the library or borrow it from someone who did buy it. (BTW, if you wrote me a polite note about your piracy, although I would be polite in response, that response would not, I do not think, be the one you'd like to receive.)

Please don't illegally download it. If you are this opposed to Amazon, why don't you return the Kindle and use the money to purchase the books in hardcover or paperback from your local independent bookstore?

Thank you for asking this question.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 9:21 PM on December 14, 2014 [27 favorites]

What about buying the physical book (so that the author gets the money and the sales ding) and then illegally downloading it so you don't have to carry a paperback everywhere? You've paid the artist and satisfied the social contract. Something I've considered, though it's only manifested in me switching from my beloved paper Sherlock Holmes to the Gutenberg version, as of yet.
P.S. Buying new blu-ray movies often gives me a digital copy (I seek out these versions specifically) - would that buying a new book did the same.
posted by Nyx at 9:39 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also check if you can get a library subscription at a different local library - state or university - that uses Overdrive if your local library for some reason doesn't yet have that set up.

You an also set up a GoodReads sync with Overdrive so that it's very easy to quickly add a review of a book after reading it, and I think a thoughtful online review is one of the most helpful things you can do as a reader besides buying/borrowing the book legitimately.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:52 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The ethics of downloading is a thick grey line with the definition of a fuzzy cloud on a very foggy day. Is it ethical to download a copy of Lolita when you can buy one for $8.99 at Amazon? How about if you have previously bought both a hardcover and a paperback? If you live in a country that bans a treatise on democracy would it be ethical to down load that? What if you've read it at the library, returned it, but want to get a quote right for a blog posting (that gives publicity to the author)? Dead authors vs living ones? Dead authors who's aged spouse is living off the income vs dead authors copyright owned by a giant multinational corporation?

It's not like it's anything new that artist compensation is ambiguous and shaky, unless they're a star the author/artist is probably barely getting by or just generally screwed. But if you own one copy I can't see being too ethically ambiguous about a second for personal use.

The ethics and legality of digital copies is somewhat missing the point, we need art, society needs to support some authors/artists/musicians with a reasonable life. I have the answer but that's thread drift so I'll sign off ;-)
posted by sammyo at 10:04 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The purpose of ethics and its rules and boundaries is to prevent (or resist the temptation for) exploitation of an advantage you have over someone you're supposed to deal fairly with; at least that's my definition. I can't say I've had to deal with a lot of high-stakes ethical dilemmas in my life, but it's served me well enough.

I say it's completely ethical to download the books you already own. You have paid for the work. Also, it's ethical (and legal in the US) to make copies of works that you own for working purposes, even if that copy changes the form of the work. Rip any CDs to mp3 lately? Ethical and by the way legal.

The reason downloading books is illegal is because the right to control distribution is one of those "all rights reserved" that goes with copyright. But by downloading works you already own, you are not abusing the author's and publisher's selected method of distribution to gain an advantage you couldn't also achieve using the aforementioned legal, ethical method of converting the form; likewise you are not taking from them any more than what you paid for.

However, who might you be exploiting if you get the ebook? Some ebooks come from legit sources (including Amazon) and the DRM is broken. If the ebook was officially released by an authorized publisher, it's safe to say this is the case. However, there's a whole world out there of pay-for-play (illegal) translators and transcribers who create digital versions of books for which there was no official authorized release. Those people are probably undercompensated monetarily, and certainly not receiving any legit money for doing what they do. I would consider using their work, however voluntarily given (for the love of reading, etc.) to be unethical.

Now, if you'd said audiobook, I'd probably lean towards unethical as well: the audiobook is a derivative work which combines the written work with a vocal performance by the reader, sometimes more than one reader. Buying the hard copy of the book is not the same work as buying the audiobook.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:34 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

If your current consumption of books is mainly from the library, then I'd have no ethical concerns regarding replacing that with torrents, personally.

You weren't paying for the books regardless, thus there is no impact on sales figures/royalties, which is the only substantive ethical issue I can see.

The idea that you should pay solely to obtain it in a different, more convenient format (eBook rather than physical) strikes me as somewhat ridiculous - a simple matter of libraries having not caught up to modern tech yet - given its the content that actually has any value.

I'd consider the library a licence to read a book for free.
posted by Hobo at 2:24 AM on December 15, 2014

For what it's worth, it's possible to buy books from stores that aren't Amazon, break the DRM, and convert them to a kindle format (Calibre can do the latter two steps automatically).
posted by mail at 3:29 AM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Certainly, for books in the public domain, use Project Gutenberg. If your Kindle has a browser, you can download them directly from
posted by yclipse at 4:03 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Library checkouts do affect an author's sales, in that libraries look at usage of books by an author when deciding whether to purchase new books.
posted by songs about trains at 4:37 AM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Mail's option listed above is the compromise I personally use. Not just for ethical reasons, but for price ones. I shop the ebook sales on google play and amazon, or, if there's something I really want but don't see on sale, I try and find it from a third party. Then I run it through Calibre to format it for the Kindle.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:35 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

And by 'third party', I mean an independent seller. Some publishers will sell their ebooks straight from their websites. This is common with tech books, for instance, and smaller fiction publishers like Open Letter.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:41 AM on December 15, 2014

Definitely check out Overdrive through your library, and you also might see about getting library accounts at other libraries. I know every area is different and I'm not sure about where you are, but I have an account in my hometown (where my parents still live) as well as one in the town where I live now, and the two libraries purchase different sets of ebooks, so I can check both systems for copies.

Another option is to purchase books from a non-Amazon source, strip the DRM and convert the file through Calibre, and then load onto your Kindle. For example, if you're okay with Barnes & Noble, they USUALLY have the same eBook prices as Amazon. That way everyone is getting their fair cut--but you don't have to support Amazon. (I'm sure there are other options besides Barnes & Noble -- that's just what I use since I have a Nook.) While technically illegal, I consider it perfectly ethical.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:08 AM on December 15, 2014

If you go the route of buying elsewhere than Amazon & converting, buying through Kobo allows you to link your purchases to a local independent bookstore.
posted by yarrow at 8:23 AM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Publishing a book in paper format involves work. Publishing it as an e-book involves another layer of work. If you say it's okay to pirate a copy of an e-book because you bought it in the paper format, you're overlooking that second batch of work that somebody did.

As someone who wrote books that you can now illegally download, well, I wish that you wouldn't. I want those pennies, and I want those sales figures.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:56 PM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I saw this this morning and spent a lot of time thinking about whether I could write an answer anyone would find credible, as my livelihood depends on people purchasing ebooks. (I manage the ebook production group at a publishing company.) I'm still not sure I can, but I thought I should at least add my perspective.

My first point is exactly what The corpse in the library says: publishing an ebook takes a layer of work (that my group does!) beyond publishing the book in print. Buying a paper book and then pirating the ebook isn't analogous to buying a CD and then ripping to mp3, because making an ebook isn't just a push-button process. Though increasingly there are simple options for making some kinds of books into ebooks (or for making books and ebooks simultaneously), those are for brand-new books that have been created digitally and with clean semantic structure built in.

Many of the ebooks my company makes are conversions of books published before modern XML-structured digital publishing (our backlist predates the U.S. Civil War, to give you an idea), and involve rights negotiations (because the original book contract didn't include electronic rights); reclearing all third-party permissions (every photo, piece of artwork, song lyric, line of poetry, and long quotation has to be reviewed for whether the original contract granted permission to use it in electronic format); OCR of a print book and then formatting and proofreading; changing or adapting any elements that don't work in electronic format (removing references to "facing page"; turning cross-references and indexes into links); creating new covers and updated metadata; and the like. jhc (who, full disclosure, is married to me) once wrote a good comment about all the steps of converting a backlist book to ebook.

Because ebook conversion is not free, not every book becomes an ebook. When you buy an ebook (or borrow one from the library, or get one through a subscription service), you're not only supporting the author and publisher, but you're also telling them that you value having access to that content in digital format (which many of the people commenting in this thread obviously do). It's important for the publisher to know that, because it influences what books we invest in making into ebooks in the future.

On the Amazon point, I would say that one excellent way not to support their approach to the publishing industry is to buy ebooks elsewhere. Because such a tremendous portion of ebook sales go through Amazon, Amazon has extraordinary leverage against publishers and readers (not just at the high-profile contract negotiation level, but also in being able to, for example, require their own proprietary ebook format and to force Kindle owners to buy all their ebooks from them). Having more legal sales go through Apple or B&N (if you like a retailer who uses the open epub standard), through Tor or O'Reilly's own websites (if you're anti-DRM), or through Kobo (if you want to give a slice back to your local indie bookseller) is a way for you to vote on how the ebook marketplace should look, while also giving publishers some space to push back against Amazon.
posted by teditrix at 3:31 PM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I vote unethical. There are only two reasons I download non public domain books :

1. The author has been dead for at least two decades and is costs me over seven bucks to buy.

2. And this is very infrequent, it's literally impossible for me to buy an e copy in Australia because of region crap, and it's published by a major publishing house and done very well for itself, and I really really want to read it. This hasn't happened to be this year at all.

There are so many great books available cheaply and independently of Amazon, all legally, all legitimately. If a broken business model prevents me from reading a particular book there are dozens to take its place, and those authors or publishers get the pricing and availability model that works for me. They get my money instead.

There is really no book that is worth me stealing, when I can get good ones, ethnically, so easily. Do some more exploring, there is a whole world outside Amazon.
posted by smoke at 6:19 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for some excellent responses. I did not know about the various options to purchase ebooks beyond Amazon. I've bought some stuff on Kobo and will keep my eyes out for other sources.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:17 AM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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