This blogpost is adapted from an article by Andrew T. Forcehimes, published in the Summer 2013 issue of Think: Philosophy for Everyone.

Public libraries are a wonderful resource. However, not too long ago I realized that I could greatly supplement the service libraries offer. To put it bluntly, I steal books online. I believe this practice is justified. To explain, consider the following two questions: ‘Can one give an argument in favor of public libraries (in the bricks and paper sense) that is not also an argument in favor of stealing books online? Or, can one give an argument against this kind of stealing that would not also be an argument against libraries?’ I contend that the answer to both questions is no.

Let’s begin by looking at what public libraries are exactly and the arguments in favor of them. Libraries get to buy a copyrighted book, the content of which is the property of either a publisher or author, and then allow members of the community to freely borrow them. Not only this but the person borrowing it, under fair-use law, can photocopy the book or article in its entirety and keep it forever. Recently, in order to meet rising demand with decreasing budgets, libraries have started engaging in interlibrary loan. This process gives the members of one library free access to the books purchased from different libraries.

It is important to keep in mind that all of this material is someone else’s copyrighted property, so what would justify libraries in providing this kind of service? The standard argument hinges on the claim that no one should be deprived of information because of morally arbitrary contingencies such as race, sex, class, and age. But one might still ask, why should individuals have public access to information? The responses here may vary, but at the core all seem to hold that open access to information plays a pivotal role in a well-functioning society. An informed citizenry seems to be the best (if not the only) way of holding lawmakers accountable, which is why effective tyranny requires propaganda, silencing of dissent, and information distortion. Libraries’ anti-copyright practices are justified, on this view, insofar as they facilitate in meeting the twin goals of promoting a well-informed and equally-informed citizenry.

It seems, however, that the thought driving the justification for libraries equally applies to stealing books online. But to see if the parallel holds, let’s examine the argument from the other direction. Is there any argument that could be leveled against stealing books online that would not also impugn libraries?

With few exceptions, it is considered morally blameworthy to steal another’s property. If you own a pear and I come along and steal your pear, then I have deprived you of some good that was rightfully yours. Intellectual property is relevantly different. If you work to write a book and I copy it after its publication, I have not excluded you from selling future copies the way I could exclude you from selling your pear. But, it is argued, if you write a book, then you should be entitled to profit from it. So copyrights step in and legally provide exclusive rights. This idea rests on the notion that an author would be unable to secure royalties and hence overall production of work would decline because of decreased incentives.

It seems intuitively plausible that increased economic incentives are linked to increased production of new works. However, there are a host of incentives that motivate authors, arguably taking primacy over royalties – e.g. fame, tenure, and humanitarian ends, among others. And even if this is not convincing, here I am willing to focus only on those books that would be produced regardless of the incentives provided by copyright. Although one may think there are few books that meet this criterion, virtually all academic books do.

And this nicely connects up to the argument that libraries are justified in the first place by the educational benefits they provide, for it seems uncontroversial to assert that academic books (whose purpose it is to educate), fulfil this requirement much more than books whose primary aim is royalties (e.g. romance novels). In short, it seems there is an inverse relationship between the information that would be useful for a well-functioning society and a book’s creation hinging on royalties.

Perhaps, one might challenge again, even if most (academic) authors are not in it for the money, the publishers are, and in the same way that one makes her holdings less secure by stealing from others, stealing and copying books make the production of future books less secure. But here’s the rub, if this argument succeeds it is also an argument against libraries. If it is wrong to upload a book because the unlimited number of downloads that might follow could jeopardize future publishing, then it should be equally wrong for a place to exist where anyone is allowed to walk in and do effectively the same thing. Or, to put it differently, how is a library buying one copy of a book and then distributing it to multiple individuals any different from one individual buying a book and distributing it to multiple individuals online? The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t.

Access the full article here.


  1. Let me see – you say that libraries buy books, which means that the author receives at least a nominal payment. Do they receive anything when you steal?

    Further, if it is ok to steal a book, presumably it is ok to steal other things. Why should a book be any different? If a tv show is available to watch for free, then there is no problem with me stealing it from the copyright holder. If I can listen to a song on the radio for free, then there is no problem with me stealing it from the producer.

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