Responding to a reader question about the ethics of downloading a pirated eBook after having purchased the same title as a physical book, Randy Cohen, writing in the online New York Times Magazine, concludes that it is OK saying, "Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod." Entitled "E-Book Dodge," the author points out that although this behavior is ethical it is also illegal.
This piece was widely quoted in online blogs and elsewhere but few commenters seemed troubled about the idea that something can be both ethical and illegal at the same time. I'm not questioning whether this is the case because obviously it is if you agree with Cohen's reasoning. My question is whether both assertions should be true. When the law condemns ethical behavior, something is wrong with the law and that should be changed.
Commercial entities are simply acting normally when they seek to leverage any and all means to maximize profit. Thus, it is quite natural for them to seize upon copyright law as one way to achieve this end. They will interpret copyright law in self-serving fashion, they will attempt to convince law enforcement and the general public of the correctness of their position and they will lobby for statutes that further reinforce their interpretation. This is the nature of the beast.
There are countervailing forces. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation draw upon the support of those who understand that society in general and they in particular would be harmed if commercial interpretations of copyright law were not challenged at every opportunity. The larger question, then, is whether the ratio favors the whole of society or some oligopoly or another. As the Internet becomes more and more central to the lives and fortunes of more people, the importance of this question will rise.