Thursday, September 22, 2005

Dialogue on the Ethics of Replication (vs. "Grubb")

By Dave Armstrong (9-22-05)

Grubb's words will be in green. My older words will be in blue

Regarding a library book, the borrower only has access to the book for a short time, and then no longer has access to it, even though he retains the benefit of having borrowed it (the knowledge). This is just like a messaging chair (the vibrating kind); it may alleviate my back problems for an extended period after I borrowed it from my neighbor and then returned it, but I no longer have access to it.

Well, no, the analogy isn't exact, because the vibrating chair only works as long as you possess it, and then it can be of no more use, but as you said, one can't retain the knowledge gained from a book.

A library book can be loaned by one borrower (not lender) to many others (there is no law against that; indeed, the very idea of a book in a library is so that many can read it). He could also, e.g., read the book to a class of children or adults. Each person who reads it now doesn't have to buy it. So the author is potentially deprived of all the book sales, up to the total number of persons who read it. As an author myself, obviously I don't care for this scenario. Ideally, I want to see each person who reads my book buy it. But I can't make a compelling argument against libraries and folks loaning books. So see, this is a complex issue; not simple at all, as you make out.

Your argument is simplistic because it overlooks all the possibilities made possible by the library lending system, and all the potentialities that it eliminates. You are thinking of just one person, who gets the book, reads it, and takes it back. But no law (that I know of) says that he is the only one who may read it while it is loaned out. Therefore, there are implications of more than one person getting benefit from the material, too.

Replication is the key. When ever you replicate something that isn't put out publicly (like tv shows or songs on the radio), you're stealing.

Not quite. Again, you neglect to take into account the rights of the person who has purchased a product. That person can loan me a CD, which I can listen to. It's his property now; he can do with it what he wishes. I might have it for a week and listen to it 10 times over that period. I may listen to it enough times to feel that I now have no need to purchase it myself.

A large amount of listening or reading something is no different from replication. One can replicate an album and listen to it once, or borrow an album and listen to it ten times. Therefore, the latter would have to be regarded as "stealing" also. Since this is absurd, the case collapses, or else has to be restated in a different form.

You can make no ethical or legal argument against that, and if you tried, it would be a reductio ad absurdum. No one can ever borrow a book and read it? No one can ever sell a book used, and make a profit (whereas the author makes no further profit)? In cases where I wouldn't have bought to book or album anyway, I have not affected the finances of the author or musician in so doing.

But the person I borrowed the material from can sell it in the used market and make a profit himself. So now we get rid of all used bookstores and used CDs and movies, etc., because they are all "stealing," according to you?

If you don't replicate something, then the one who made it has been compensated for what he made, and his product is just being passed on until it's no longer useful. Whether you're copying a cd from a friend, copying an entire book at Kinko's, or "borrowing" computer software, if you replicate something not put out to the public, you're stealing.

Again, this reasoning breaks down by the very fact that these things are allowed to be (ethically and legally) borrowed. Since many instances of such borrowing or lending are no different whatsoever from the end result of replication, therefore, at least in those instances, you would have to forbid a simple lending of something, too. That proves too much and is absurd; therefore, this argument fails.

Christians are called to be above reproach. We should be doing everything we can to compensate the rightful owners when we get a copy of their product, not leading the way in figuring out how to justify stealing it. Anytime you have to justify what you're doing, you probably shouldn't be doing it.

The entire used market undermines authors and musicians (and other producers of some product) getting a one-to-one ratio of compensation for their product. So are you unalterably opposed to all used sales whatsoever? Bookstores, used CD shops, yard sales, church rummages, used car lots, used Christian bookstores (where I have built up much of my own library), gifts of an album collection to a sibling, etc.?

And make no mistake, someone being rich beyond imagination (i.e. Microsoft) doesn't justify stealing from them.

Absolutely; of course. I'm not trying to justify stealing at all. I'm trying to make a case that stealing is not taking place in these disputed instances, or that (worst case scenario) if it is, it is because of the confusion and ethical inconsistency (sometimes downright absurdity) of existing laws (which would also lessen the culpability of the person stealing).

My case all along has sought to be a reductio ad absurdum: taking a hard line on this replication business would wipe out too many things that we all take for granted as perfectly acceptable (and they are legal too). I've tried to show that if your logic is followed through consistently, VCR's and tape recorders and libraries and all the rest shouldn't exist at all, precisely because, as you say, they undermine compensation of "the rightful owners when we get a copy of their product."

When a hardgood product is made, it has a lifespan, and the original owner pays the producer for the entire lifespan. He may then sell you the product and collect money for the remaining lifespan, but the manufacturer has already been paid for the lifespan of the product, so there's no stealing in doing this.

You make my case for me again. Thanks! If one can do this for a car, and even make a profit, then one can do so with a book or CD and make a profit. If he can make a profit, then certainly he can loan these things. And if the person replicates it while he has borrowed it, but seeks to make no profit, arguably, he has committed less "wrong" than a person who sells a product used, to make money off of it. Why shouldn't the author get a cut from that? Why should someone be able to buy my book new, and then sell it to someone else and make $5.00 or something, while I get nothing? He then makes far more than I make (royalty for one book sale). Furthermore, the guy who bought it used for $5.00 (or who borrowed it and read it) will not then buy the book new (which he conceivably might have done).

If a person couldn't afford to buy a new car, then he won't be buying one, anyway, and the new car dealer won't lose income from his not buying what he can't buy. But if a person can afford to buy the new car, but instead opts to buy a used car, then a sale is much more likely to have been missed, perhaps unethically. This raises another complex set of issues: the matter of the means a person has, and the proper use of it.

Virtually everything I obtain used, I could not afford new, or would not buy new because of budget and principle considerations (which gets into stewardship of resources, what one willingly gives up for a higher purpose, etc.). So no one is deprived of anything, profit or royalty-wise. Since such purchasing cannot be distinguished from various forms of replication (nor can borrowing and repeatedly listening or reading or using), I conclude that no wrong has been committed. It is neither wrong ethically nor legally.

But in using Word 97, you DID replicate a copy of it and have therefore stolen it. If he just gave you his copy or sold it to you, and wiped it off his computer, it wouldn't be stealing, because he already paid for the lifespan of the product. So he can give or sell the remaining "life" of the product to you, but he must get rid of it completely.

A friend of mine gave me a gift of a computer, which had Word 2000 and Windows XP and other programs installed. That's no different from a used car sale. All of this was bought (as such programs are routinely part of buying a computer these days), and now I am getting use of it as a gift from a friend (also a charitable contribution and a donation to Christian ministry, seeing what my overwhelming use of computers is devoted to). There is no difference here. As soon as you have used products and libraries and personal lending, all of this follows, and trying to make lots of stuff that follows, "stealing", just cannot survive scrutiny. At least all the arguments I have seen thus far have not persuaded me at all.

Did I steal the movie? Did I deprive Blockbuster of their due recompense because I didn't rent the movie from them, or did I deprive or steal from whomever puts out the movie on video (MGM or whatever), or from some movie theatre that may show it again?

No stealing again as long as he didn't make a copy to keep before giving it to you. Taping off public air waves isn't stealing either since public airwaves have been ruled everyone's. Musicians, producers, and artists put their stuff on public airwaves (knowing that anyone can copy it), because 1) they make royalties from tv stations, and 2) as an advertisement to get us to buy the rest of their cd.

Again, this proves too much and is simplistic. You can't stop someone from making a copy of the product that they bought anymore than you can stop them from lending it. If they lend it to someone, he may not buy the same product because he "obtained" it (again, he could watch it many times in that interim) through loan. In this sense, the line between owning and borrowing becomes very fuzzy.

I think "experiencing" or "retaining knowledge of" or "having received lasting benefits from" are more meaningful ways of expressing what goes on there, as opposed to a simple, legalistic "owning" or "borrowing."

As for Gone With the Wind, that is often on TV anyway. So it is odd to say that a person can't even tape his own copy that he bought, when he could easily have rented it from Blockbuster (and not bought his copy) or off of the TV. It's as if the arguments that all these activities are "stealing" have to be made in some abstract realm which is not the real world: it denies the reality of what is.

The inconsistency and absurdity of much of this is always brought home when you watch a show on public TV and then they offer to sell it to you for $29.95. You just admitted that it is okay to tape such shows. So I do so. I would never have bought such a show for $29.95 anyway, so they are not missing anything.

But do they think that no one is out there taping the show, in this age of VCR's? What sense does it make to offer the show, and then even those who say much replication is stealing, agree that it is ethical to tape it, and offer the thing for $29.95? Are the ones who tape it off the TV stealing? You say no. But then some buy it.

Clearly, then, what is happening is that there are two ethical things occurring: not one ethical act and one unethical act. The person with less money tapes it off the TV. The one with more money buys the tape or CD and increases the profit of whomever sold it.

But as long as no one replicates it, the book may be passed around legally and ethically.

Again, this is a distinction without a difference, as shown, and is absurd. One person could buy one copy of my book. It could then be passed around to 1000 people: one after another. I would then be deprived of about $1800 in potential royalties. This obsession with "replication" doesn't make any difference to the ethics.

If someone copied my book on a photocopier and turned around and sold it, would you say that is immoral simply because he copied it? Or because he made a profit? Yet many make such a profit by re-selling a book that they read. So that seems to be where the issue lies, and it lies there irregardless of whether something is replicated or loaned around. The end result and the ethics are the same, as far as I can tell.

Therefore, your sole criterion of "replication" as somehow an unethical thing can only stand if you wipe out all used purchases and secondary profit, too. If you don't accept that accompanying result, then your case utterly collapses, in my opinion

You also continually fail to see the distinction between what one receives for one product, and the potential for deprived future royalties, based on how that one purchased product was (legally and ethically) used. It is entirely possible that my book could be passed around to 1000 people. Not likely, but possible.

So 999 people got to read my book and got whatever benefit was obtainable therein at no price to themselves. But I'm trying to live in part off of those royalties, and I have lost all that income. This is perfectly legal, but is it ethical? Is it right that I should lose all those royalties, when I produced the product that people are enjoying?

I see this as a difficulty for your position, as presented. For myself, I don't regard this as unethical or immoral. But I think it is a paradox with no easy answer, as I have said. I can't rule out borrowing and lending. Since I can't rule that out, because it seems intrinsically absurd to do so, therefore, by logic, I can't rule out the very lending which would deprive me of my own royalty. So I live with this dilemma myself.

You may talk about this in the abstract, but as an author I am living with the lost royalties that are made possible by photocopies and loaning. It's bad enough that publishers make far more per book than authors (even after you substract their expenses). But used copies take away even more potential income. We authors get soaked from all sides. I can't really complain, though, because I have built almost my entire 2200 or so volume library by purchasing used or on-sale books. So I have benefited from that availability and saved many thousands of dollars.

In any event, I try to be consistent ethically and logically, and I have not been able to totally resolve the matter. That being the case, I am not convinced that all these instances of replication are "stealing." Not at all. I don't think people have thought through this issue properly. It's not simple; it's complex.

Napster has an agreement with record companies; that's why paying $9.99/month is legal and acceptable.

You say that. Many musicians would not. I have not bought many potential sales of new CDs because of that. But then, before Napster, I bought mostly used CD's and records.

One thing I forgot to mention last time around is the factor of the record and CD companies playing this game of having vinyl records, knowing that CDs would be coming out. Then they came out, and many folks (including myself, very much so) knew that the early CDs had a crappy sound; far inferior to records. We know this to be a fact now (since everyone talks about it). CDs had, e.g., less frequency range than LPs had. So now we have the new CDs (since 1998 or so) that have a vastly-improved sound because of the new 24-bit technology.

Now, these companies, of course, knew all this all along. It's called planned obsolescence. Do you see them expressing any remorse at having exploited music lovers and collectors like myself for many years? No, of course not, but you hear plenty of complaining about Napster and CD burning.

In my own case, I have spent almost 30 years building up my music collection. I had many cassette tapes, which wear out after so many plays, since friction is involved. I should have figured this out, but I didn't. Yet the music companies weren't exactly shouting that from the rooftops.

Then when CDs came out, I tried to trade away many of my several hundred records. I made a pittance, while the used record shops made lots of money. Soon, that market went to pot and I couldn't even trade my records in (subsequently I have decided to keep most of them and sell them 20-30 years from now as collector's items).

After that, I find out that the new CDs were far sonically-inferior to my old record albums. So now in some cases, I had bought a record, then a cassette, then sold the record, and bought a lousy-sounding CD. Then I had to buy a second remastered CD to get something like the sound I already had on the old record.

Now, this is a consideration in the ethics of this, too. Ethics are more than just laws. It's fine and dandy for these record companies to do all this, knowing that CDs would be coming out, and cassettes and records disappearing. That's all simply capitalism and the free market; so we are told.

Meanwhile, a music collector and lover like myself gets shafted all along, because I have had to buy the SAME ALBUM up to four times, when once should have been sufficient. No one is talking about THAT. These companies made profit four times in those instances, by keeping the knowledge of future technology away from the public.

Yet when we consumers try to avoid buying albums for the 3rd or 4th time at full price, by utilizing Napster, then all hell breaks loose, because now the consumer has a decent choice and can't be exploited, for a change. I'm not stealing from anyone. Even you admit that Napster is perfectly legal and ethical. But it saves me tons of money, doesn't it, if I don't have to spend $19 for a new CD (an album of which I may have bought two or three times before already)?

20 years ago, if you didn't have enough money to buy a song, you listened to the radio station until they played it. Now, even Christians will go out to Napster (before it was reformed) or Kaaza (sp?) and take the song without paying for it.

File-sharing services are simply technologically-advanced ways of loaning music to others, which cannot be shown to be immoral, in my opinion. You've never loaned a CD or record (if you're that old!) to a friend? You've never sat and listened to something with someone else? Of course you have done that. We all have. So to get such a file from the Internet from a person willing to share it is the same thing. If the person isn't trying to sell it, he has not stolen. Yet on the other hand, people make profit from selling a used item all the time. So on and on the paradox goes.

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