The internet has made information available effectively instantaneously to its users at the press of a button. A consequence of this has enabled individuals to circumvent the law in order to share copyrighted material without paying for it. This is especially prevalent in the field of Engineering as the pace at which technical innovation takes place makes wider reading essential to success within the sector, but at a significant monetary cost. While this practice is unquestionably illegal, is it immoral?
Illegally sharing e-books is the moral equivalent of stealing
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates asks to imagine two societies, one immoral, comprised of thieves, and one moral. The thieves continually rob each other until most people’s’ possessions have been collected by a few individuals. The prevalence of justice enables a framework by which property is protected. Although file-sharing does not physically deprive the owner of their property, it could ultimately harm the development and proliferation of educational literature.
Many argue that knowledge should be freely shared to everyone who seeks it, but a scientific textbook does not merely portray information; it provides a unique presentation of certain concepts. Authoring academic textbooks requires a significant amount of time and no matter how altruistic the author’s intentions, the financial motivation and reward for doing so is effectively eliminated by the prevalence of file-sharing. Professor Yunus Cengel, author of several seminal textbooks on Engineering was approached by a publisher in the 1980’s to assemble his exemplary lecture notes into textbooks that would be available to students outside of his University. It is questionable whether publishers would have invested in commercially producing Cengel’s notes if they knew profits would be undercut by file-sharing. From a utilitarian perspective, perhaps the dissemination of copyrighted beneficial may be useful for currently existing textbooks, but at the expense of any motivation to develop and publish new material. Kantian ethics suggest that through good will, it is everyone’s responsibility to motivate these individuals to continue their excellent work and contribution to the world.
Defenders of file-sharing for academic purposes assert that the practice is not dissimilar to sharing a printed textbook. The fundamental difference is the physical book can only be used by a single person at a time. By sharing an e-book, a form of distribution is occurring and this must be entirely controlled by the author and publisher. Sales of printed books have declined by more than £150m over the last five years and this loss has not been to the gain of e-books, which have also declined by 10% in the first half of 2015. This disparity is most likely not due to disinterest but because illegal acquisition has become common practice and morally acceptable to some people.
University libraries purchase the relevant books and journals that pertain to the courses they teach. There is already a compromise taking place on the part of the publisher as the availability of their books in university libraries reduces the number of copies they sell. Universities are still buying many copies and reimbursing the publisher and the relevant books are available to students for free. File-sharing threatens this compromise as the publisher is not reimbursed in any way and students who share e-books not only hurt the author directly, but also indirectly by lessening the acquisitions the university makes.
Sharing e-books facilitates universal and effective education
Information is purely metaphysical and can be shared without the loss of function of the original owner. The information held by each person can be shared openly so that what is a benefit to the individual becomes the benefit of all, which from a utilitarian standpoint, is the optimum solution.
For centuries, public libraries have been available not only to students and professionals but to the general public often for free or a relatively small fee. This enables everyone to practically have access to any book without having to buy them all individually. File sharing is fundamentally no different to the function of a library, it merely takes advantage of the latest technological innovation. It can be argued that it is not the responsibility of an individual to provide protectionism for the status quo, in this case publishers and libraries, any more than the original users of the printing press or industrial automation to protect the livelihoods of manual workers.
The nature of educational literature, whether in the form of textbooks or journals is to educate, not to provide a profit function for publishers. It goes against the very principle of education for all. No individual materially benefits from learning from a free e-book as opposed to a bought textbook but by the thorough training and education of that individual, the whole of society is enriched. Engineers have reshaped society and have made everyone’s lives more productive and safer through their innovations. Having well educated engineers means having safer bridges, aircrafts, buildings and better medical equipment, for example. The benefits of having well educated engineers outweigh the losses in profit for the publisher.
Educators who write textbooks, typically occupy faculty positions and may wish to publish altruistically to fill a gap in educational literature. The publisher is merely the vector by which that book is distributed and the profit is their incentive for doing so. Often publishers only print a limited number of books and sell them directly to universities which in turn purchase a number not adequate for the whole student cohort. It can be argued that downloading the e-book versions would not cause any damage to the author or the publisher but would only make studying more convenient for the students who instead of having to go to a library, can access the books from any location almost instantaneously, facilitating more effective learning. Often, legitimately bought e-books cost a similar amount to their printed version. The cost to distribute an electronic copy is negligible compared to its physical version but this saving is not passed onto the consumer and has no resale value but is tied to the original owner. The value ethics of the publisher must be questioned when students are merely reduced to a profit function.
3: George Blackler, Yousef Shahatit, Arman Badiei Khorsand, James Cronly