Ethical considerations of illegally sharing e-books

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


14 thoughts on “Ethical considerations of illegally sharing e-books

  1. While I agree with the point of view that as an author, I would be annoyed that my work is being shared online without me being financially rewarded. However, as a student I have to be pro ebook sharing as it has saved me and provided me with vital information for assignments many times. I believe that knowledge should r free for all who wish to pertain it. It’s good for society as it helps produce well trained and educated engineers and thus is morally ethical to share ebooks online free of charge.


  2. Being a student myself I can agree this is an issue which needs to be addressed. Every student is aware of the first point of view presented by the article which suggests sharing and downloading e-books is equivalent to stealing. However, the dramatic cost rise in text books and ease with which an electronic copy can be downloaded and shared makes every student look past this moral dilemma. The obvious solution would be dramatically reduced the cost of e-books to an amount which would be affordable to every student. The approach I am suggesting is very similar to music apps like Spotify which promote legal music at a low cost and is hence extremely popular. Such an approach will attract large volume sales.


  3. With the price of textbooks on the seemingly ever increase, students must fork out or obtain reading material through other means – often illegally. Obtaining digital versions of textbooks has been made easier for students through the use of cloud sharing sites, but the real question lies here – have these students taken into consideration the true consequences of their actions? Of course, some may argue that knowledge should be an entity that is unbound from money and should be shared freely. But at the end of the day, it is up to the discretion of an author to publish his/her work for free access or at a cost. This leads on to the balance of morals – is it moral for an author to put a price on knowledge? Is it less moral for a student to illegally obtain textbooks and create a loss in economic welfare for the author? My personal belief is that knowledge should be free but if an author has put in considerable effort to create a book, students should acknowledge this effort and pay the price of the textbook.


  4. This is a sequence of laissez-faire capitalism that has spread out to education. In a utopian world, all the academic textbooks would be subsidised by the government using tax money instead of wasting it on multi-billion weapon research projects that are unlikely to be ever used. Since we are not living in such a utopia, the students -who are almost all on tight budgets- have every right to download free ebooks. And please save the “morality” argument. Morals are a social construct after all.


  5. I do agree with the fact that the authors must have a right to earn profit from their published scientific work, otherwise there would be no motive on most of the occasions to publish any book or do any research at all unless one is very enthusiastic on tat reserch field, however the right of many students on receiving knowledge should be ignored and the profit should not be only taken from the people who are merely interested in the gaining of knowledge in order to enhance novel technologies at the university, while paying a significant amount of money on tuition fees or taxes. The governments, universities and big companies, who are mostly benified by enhancement of technologies and earn millions, should fund and subsidise books so that the readers can access them easier without spending a lot of money; this will contribute to the aim of education for all. I personally think the government should be the biggest body concerned in terms of educating people, and it can play a crucial role in order to reach this aim.


  6. I do agree with the fact that the authors must earn profit from their scientific work published in form of books, otherwise there would be no motive in publishing new scientific papers; but it should not come from the university students who have a right to access sources of information in order to enhance their research projects, while paying loads of money for university fees and different form of taxes. The profit should come from the big organisations who will be mostly benefited by enhancement of university research: governments, universities and different companies. They should fund and subsidise the books in order to make it easier for the researchers to access them. I personally think, the government is the main and biggest body concerned with this issue and by providing public fund for books they can overcome this issue and open doors for more advanced technologies.


  7. I agree with the argument that illegally sharing e-books is the moral equivalent of stealing because the author(s) has spent time in composing information in a certain way to make learning easier for students and therefore should be rewarded. As a student I understand that not everyone can afford the prices of such books and I believe it is the down to the departments of the university to provide the textbooks to all students on the course regardless of their financial backgrounds.


  8. The matter is merely about the legal protection authors receive through law (under copyright) and the economic benefit they receive by sharing their knowledge! One main worry of making documents free of charge is a possible decline of authors sharing their knowledge for the benefit of others. This is even more important when authors pay large sum of fee to research a topic as a PHD level. Despite being a student who constantly pays a large sum of money for textbooks, I personally believe we should encourage authors to share their resources or we may sleep-walk into research level declining in our society.
    Whilst this article is very formative and strong in forming a view regarding on sharing our resources for free of charge, however I wish it was written much simpler for any audience to form an opinion on.


  9. The increasing number of students and articles everyday raises the issue of free-sharing e-books and articles and discussions around it. If we argue that materials related to studying and education should be free for students, then it would be really hard to draw the line between what book or article should be counted as educational and necessary for students and what should be limited. On the other hand, arguing that education should be free for all, and no credit should be given to author or publisher, could undermine the value of the article and their work. Taking into consideration the limited budget of students, availability of articles through libraries and university account should be considered and the prices of articles could be lowered to match the potential of students.


  10. Being a final year student, I find more and more that I need access to a variety of resources. As ebooks are a fundamental access point for most university students in their research, it would be a shame to see such a service disappear. However at the same time, losses made by the author (from a material view) may outweigh this. it would be good therefore if some form of service could be made such that instead of copyright infringement taking place, students could access a globally recognised ebook facility which actively contributes to the author and his/her work


  11. I think that university textbooks are more than just a panic buy to help pass an exam. Material covered at university, especially in engineering, is used again when working as an engineer after graduation, and textbooks can be kept and referred to again and again whenever needed. It’s understandable that students do not want to pay full price for e-books – I prefer to buy the physical copy second-hand as it is a lot cheaper, and I prefer to study from books rather than look at a screen, but it is considerably more convenient to be able to carry around all the textbooks you need on a portable drive. I think that as long as you buy a physical copy of the textbook, then you can justify downloading the e-book version for free to carry that around, as you have already paid for the right to own the content.


  12. The discussion is very long and lasts eventually since Gutenberg invented the typing press in the 1450’s. But why ethical and moral argumentation? From my point of view, there are of course such aspects, but the matter is above all legal. Ii is called copyright law. Some jurisdictions (among them Greece) are very protective for the author and form a paternalistic model of intellectual property protection. On the other hand, others are more lenient and liberal and support the free scientific research. From my point of view, de lege ferenda (i.e. as a legislation initiative) the legislator should always take both interests into consideration and try to make both ends meet.


  13. The argument that something of benefit to the general good should be freely accessible to all without incurring a cost is a logical fallacy. Medical services, policing and national defence carry no inherent charge (at least in the UK…for now…) at the point of use, but they are paid for indirectly through taxation. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. A system whereby an author is not even marginally rewarded or even acknowledged (how would you know how many people find your work useful?) is not sustainable. The extent to which an author should be reimbursed is open to debate and subjective based on the users needs and resources. Market control could be an answer where there is a reasonable price ceiling for academic users. But any suggestion of market control in a neoliberal economy is considered tantamount to starting a communist insurrection. If medicine and the military can be socialised, education is surely just as important and could weather the same treatment.


  14. I think that it would be immoral to illegally download a textbook as it will deprive the author of money that could otherwise have been paid to them. Ideally this information would be available freely and would benefit everyone, however if an author publishes a book and charges for it, then to download said book illegally is stealing and should be regarded as such.
    The comparison that a library is the same as online file sharing is incorrect as libraries still purchase the books that they have, as such the author will benefit unlike with file sharing.


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