This week, New York Times tech blogger David Pogue admitted to illegally downloading a copy of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity for his 15-year-old son after he discovered he couldn't purchase the book through traditional channels. He admits he knows what he did was wrong, and says he sent the publisher a check in compensation.
Pogue's blog post has generated a lot of discussion among readers and authors. But let's not be naive. Pogue stole the book and then wrote about it not so his son could read it (I'm sure he could have found a used copy somewhere or borrowed the book from the library), but so he could write a column about what he'd done that would generate discussion.
The fact is, people hold to different standards of morality, and talking about pirated e-books and debating whether it's right or wrong to download an illegal copy isn't going to change that.
In this instance, the issue is the morality of stealing. What, exactly, is stealing? At its most basic, it's taking something from somebody that isn't yours.
But what kind of something? While most people would agree that car theft is wrong, a lot of people steal cars and think nothing of it. A lot of people don't think taking pencils from work is stealing, either. Their employers, however, are likely to see it differently.
If I find a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk, I'm going to do my best to find the person who lost it before I consider it mine. Others would stick it in their pocket and congratulate themselves on their good luck and never think about the person who's now $100 poorer.
Is stealing ever justified? Some people will say yes -- that it's okay to steal food from the grocery store if your children are hungry, for instance. Others would disagree.
The debate generated by Pogue's blog post isn't about why the pirate sites exist, or whether it's the publishers' fault that they exist because their e-books are priced too high, or whether ultimately it's a good thing or a bad thing for authors that people download pirated copies of their books for free -- it's whether or not stealing is ever justified. I happen to believe that it is not.
So by my standards, the person who downloads pirated e-books is a thief. By their standards, they're not (or possibly, they'll admit they're stealing, but they're okay with it).
All I ask of these people is that you please don't steal my books. I know as an author, I'm supposed to feel flattered that somebody went to all of the trouble of making pirated versions of my books available for free. But seriously. I'd rather you never read my books at all than have you take my intellectual property without compensating me for it. Really.