The Ethics of Internet Piracy

PRINCETON – Last year, I told a colleague that I would include Internet ethics in a course that I was teaching. She suggested that I read a recently published anthology on computer ethics – and attached the entire volume to the email.

Should I have refused to read a pirated book? Was I receiving stolen goods, as advocates of stricter laws against Internet piracy claim?

If I steal someone’s book the old-fashioned way, I have the book, and the original owner no longer does. I am better off, but she is worse off. When people use pirated books, the publisher and the author often are worse off – they lose earnings from selling the book.

But, if my colleague had not sent me the book, I would have borrowed the copy in my university’s library. I saved myself the time needed to do that, and it seems that no one was worse off. (Curiously, given the book’s subject matter, it is not for sale in digital form). In fact, others benefited from my choice as well: the book remained on the library shelf, available to other users.