NickBiltonNick Bilton (author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works) has a piece in the New York Times pertaining to himself and his wife using their iPhones to snap photos of pages from some books in Barnes & Noble, for the purpose of showing them to their contractor as they planned interior design ideas for a new home.

Afterward, Bilton found himself wondering about the morality and legality of what they had done, so he did some research into the matter. He compares the camera phone to the Xerox copy machine and the controversy it engendered in the 1970s over students copying other books and textbooks. Other experts he talked to suggest it might have more in common with MP3 music piracy.

Regardless, this sort of thing is not actually new; it has been going on for years. Back in 2003, the Japanese publishing industry was upset enough by people taking (fairly low-res) camera photos of magazine articles that it mailed out 34,000 posters to bookstores to ask patrons not to do it.

Simply taking pictures of magazines on store shelves generally does not constitute copyright violation under Japanese law if it’s only for individual consumption and not distributed to others.

But bookstores say it is devastating sales.

But cell phone cameras may not be all publishers have to worry about. There are already OCR applications available for the iPhone—and what’s more, a team of Japanese researchers have invented a flip-through rapid laser scanner that they hope to be able to incorporate into cell phones as well. Sooner or later, we might well be able to “rip” books even faster than MP3s.

What are the print stores going to do then?


  1. I’d consider it a violation of copyright, obtaining content without paying for it, and using that material for gain (saving money in interior design by not paying for actual designs or design work, ie, “distributing” the work to a contractor). At least, it is in violation of the spirit of copyright. But of course, most people think no further than their own pocketbooks, so it is also not surprising that they would do this, and later wonder about the ethics of it.

    Or maybe they really didn’t… maybe they knew what they were doing was basically wrong, but later became concerned they’d get caught and punished for it, and “invented” this R&D to cover themselves. Stores are usually clear in presenting content that they want you to use as samples, and that which you are expected to pay for. I think Bilton is being disingenuous and covering his butt after-the-fact.

    No one should actually think photocopying books without paying for them is right, or okay. If they do, they need to photocopy a hardware book, to learn how to tighten down their loose screws.

  2. Steve, there are a ton of ways to obtain content without paying for it. I live on a busy street and hear people’s car radios all the time playing music I am hearing but did not pay for. I have a key to my mother’s apartment while she is out of town and can go over there any time I want to watch cable television I did not pay for. The only way to get every single eyeball to pay would be to surgically implant tracking devices in babies at birth and attach those to credit cards that deduct as a person moves through the world.

    In the days before camera phones, it would be easy enough to look at the book on the shelf, put it back and walk away with all of the content you needed from it. Or to jot down the page number of the interior design you liked, phone your designer and tell him to go look at it. The camera phone makes it easier, but it’s the same thing.

  3. Joanna, in the examples you cited, I’d point out that:
    1. The driver in the car didn’t pay for that music on his radio, either: Advertisers paid for it; Also, music heard out in the open is generally not considered recordable and redistributable at that point, so no one cares if you hear someone else’s music down the hall or across the street.
    2. Your mother’s “license” to watch cable TV fare that she paid for, includes anyone else in that house (legally, of course).

    I’m not suggesting hardwiring anyone’s eyeballs. However, I think it’s quite obvious that a book on a shelf with design photos inside it is clearly intended to be bought, not skimmed through with a camera and left behind. Vendors usually don’t worry about customers simply opening a book and looking at the pictures, but that’s because they know most customers can’t accurately reproduce that image later (not to mention the years of customers’ boldly reading content in the store and leaving it, and vendors allowing it out of fear of losing their business).

    Either way, it still amounts to willfully taking ideas provided by an author whose copyright-stated intention is for you to pay for them. That’s wrong in my book, period.

  4. Why is it ethically wrong? Please philosophically defend the idea that authors have property rights over the writings that bear their names and do so without merely saying that such as system has good consequences. Your tone is very deontological and you should defend copyright on a deontological basis.

  5. Copyright defends itself: And if it states that “no unauthorized copying, reproduction or distribution of this content is allowed without the express authorization of the copyright owner,” well, that pretty much sums it up. At that point, it’s not an ethical issue, it’s a legal one. (We’ll debate fair use at another time.)

    A book in a store with a price tag on it is intended to be bought by the person who uses it… period. Failing to do that is refusing to pay the person who provided a service in good faith, the information you used, against their wishes.

    If consumers don’t want to do that, they should be looking at the book in a library, where it is permitted to copy information for personal use without purchasing the material.

    Those simple facts, established by societal ethics, should be understood by everyone… anyone who doesn’t is simply ignoring society’s ethics by superimposing their own.

  6. You used the term “wrong.” That makes the debate an ethical one, not a legal one. Governments will do as they please, especially when they have mega-corps backing them up. The fact that you admit an exception for libraries demonstrates that this particular example (photographing a page in a book in a store) is not about copyright, it’s about what ethical ties may exist between a business and its patrons. That is something that does bear great consideration, especially given that many of us bemoan the loss of brick and mortar book stores. Please explain this distinction between “societal ethics” and “one’s own ethics.” Ethics is ethics, period. An action is either praiseworthy or blameworthy, obligatory, forbidden, superogatory, or neutral. Determining the status of an action requires moral deliberation, usually with the assistance of one of the major ethical theories (consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, divine command theory, etc.). If an act is determined to be wrong, it is irrelevant whether society condones it. If it is permissible, it is tyrannical of society to forbid it. We may be willing to accept a little tyranny if it is balanced out by greater liberties (i.e. rule of law, social guarantees, etc.) but this does not change the nature of the acts themselves. You could, of course, argue that copyright as a legal structure confers such a good on society that the benefits which accrue to individuals who ignore it are out-weighed in the balance of moral deliberation. Thus individual acts of copyright infringement would be wrong if they lead directly to destabilization of a system doing great good. To argue this, however, you would need a great deal of empirical data to bolster your case, data that in all likelihood doesn’t exist currently.

  7. “Either way, it still amounts to willfully taking ideas provided by an author whose copyright-stated intention is for you to pay for them.”

    Steven, I know you know that ideas cannot be copyrighted. If I look at a picture in a book, and then explain what I saw to someone else, there is no copyright violation, because I have created a new verbal expression of the pictorial idea. I’m not OK with taking pictures of a book in a store, but browsing is a time-honoured tradition.

    BTW, if copyright law was its own defense, there wouldn’t be nearly so much condemnation of the Mickey Mouse Copyright Extension Act or the DMCA, nor so much discussion of the form of Canada’s proposed new copyright bill.

  8. There will always be anally retentive copyright fundamentalists. That is a cross the rest of us have to bear.
    What Bilton did was photograph a couple of pages with probably interesting designs.
    Firstly he did not make a copy of a substantial or significant portion of the book, only a couple of pages from several hundred. Secondly he did not use it to replicate the design from the book into his kitchen.

    It is ridiculous to say that what he was doing is either wrong legally or morally.

  9. All right, Steve, how about this? The book costs, say, $20 and is about 200 pages. That’s 10 cents a page. Can he cameraphone two or three pages and then paypal 30 cents to the author? Would that be fair to you? Honestly, I do respect copyright and author’s work and all this, but I am also a realist and I apply a filter of common sense to this whole thing. I don’t think you always do 🙂

  10. The fact that we can debate this subject so extensively is evidence enough that “ethics is not ethics.” Societal ethics, ethics based on the good of society, regularly conflict with personal ethics, ethics based on the good of the individual.

    Society usually requires of us to put its ethics before personal ethics: “Do not steal this candy bar.” However, individuals often take their own ethics (“I’m hungry,” “that candy is too expensive,” “the store owner is a jerk,” etc) and superimpose them over society’s ethics… and steal the candy. Our prisons are full of people who have done exactly this.

    This is a case of individuals superimposing their own needs (“I want this image”) over copyright law (“Don’t take this image without paying for the book”). Every exception made to the copyright law (“it’s only 1 picture, not the whole book,” “browsing is a time-honored tradition,” “you’re being anal-retentive,” etc) are personal ethics being superimposed over societal ethics.

    Oh, and one of them is insulting.

    So, some of you are arguing that “my personal ethics trump society’s ethics.” That’s obviously your choice, and for the record, it’s not mine… I wouldn’t have done what Bilton did. When I said I considered it “wrong,” I meant that, whatever my personal ethics might say, the ethics of society don’t want me to do that, and I consider the good of society to be worth more than my personal good, so I wouldn’t do it. My position also happens to be the legal position, as it is supported by copyright law, which is a construction of an ethical society… and again, I believe the ethics of society are more important than the ethics of individuals like me, so I support society’s laws.

    I note that Bilton didn’t just satisfy the question of his possible immorality by simply buying the book, and ending the debate right there. I guess he hopes that, before someone comes after him, “…we might not even have bookstores anymore.”

  11. Copyright law does not say you can only use an ‘image if you pay for a ‘book’ Steve 🙂 And there are tons of instances of fair use where you can take a part of something without paying for it—for example, a reviewer can quote or display part of the book without paying for it, or a teacher can photocopy an image for use in the classroom. There is a ton of leeway for interpretation—if it were as black and white as you say it is, there would be no need for courts or case laws or precedent. I notice you never did answer my question, btw 🙂

  12. That’s okay… no one addressed my original point, either. (See if you can find it.)

    And I’m not going to get into the nitpick game: “You can’t shoot this guy.” “Oh, well, what if I only want to shoot him in the foot?” “That’s still shooting him.” “Well, what if I just graze him?” “You’ve still shot him.” “What if the gun just magically went off in my hand?” “Sorry, you’re holding the gun, so you shot him.” “Well, what if I shoot the wall, and the bullet ricochets into him? Technically, that means the wall shot him, not me …”

  13. Joanna,

    While there are indeed plenty of appropriate instances of Fair Use in the world, do you really think this is one of them? How is the author using the content for “commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving or scholarship”? It’s clearly none of those and your willful ignorance to learn about the positions of people who disagree with you hurts this website.

  14. How is it not ‘research?’ How is it different from someone going to a museum and buying a print or a postcard of a great work of art in lieu of spending thousands on the real painting? Anon, I am plenty willing to learn about the positions of people who disagree with me—engaging in a debate with them doesn’t mean I am not listening. If I wasn’t listening, why would I still be asking Steven questions to calrify his position? (which he is not answering, btw) I am listening—I just disagree. In this instance, anyway 🙂

  15. You really want me to answer whether it’s okay to copy 2 pages out of a 200 page book, and just pay the author 1% of the book’s price?

    Sorry, no, I’m not answering that.

    And how is your example different than paying for a print of an old master? Uh… the fact that the print is authorized, and you did indeed pay for it instead of stealing the postcard.

    I believe I’ve clarified my position to a fine degree. But I don’t have the time, nor the inclination, to debate every last syllable as someone else looks for their “Aha! Then I can take this much!” moment.

  16. Excellent post Joanna. Anon you need to come down off your perch , and while you’re at it offer a real name behind your views ..
    I see no legal support or ethic support for the views that Bilton did anything wrong whatsoever and it is this kind of patronising and fundamentalist copyright interpretation that turns the public off the copyright laws. I have a lot of sympathy for them.

  17. I get a laugh when I buy an e-book that has the standard copyright statement that no part of the book may be copied, stored, transmitted, etc. It should be obvious that I have already done that by the time I got the book. First it was transmitted through various computers on the way to me, then it was copied once again by me when I filed it using Calibre, then again when my computer backed that file up.

    I used to bring paper and pencil to copy URLs I wanted to look up when I got home, but now I just bring a camera. Does anyone think the company reaching out for my business cares whether I copy it via pencil, memory or a camera?

    Lastly, if a book is out of print or otherwise unobtainable then I think we should change the copyright laws to stop protecting the unprotect-able. Disney is wrong and Disney is greedy. Disney is the culprit here, not the kid who draws Mickey Mouse.

  18. So … let’s look at eRetailers who display several pages, even a full chapter, free. Let’s look at Film Review television programs that show scenes from films in their reviews. Let’s look at web sites like this that quote sections exceeding 1% of original posts elsewhere. We could go on and on and on….
    And even these uses are being done for gain. Mr Bilton did not actually use the designs he photographed to recreate the designs. He only used them as illustrations of the styles he wanted.

  19. There is nothing moral about copyright. Originally it was a legal framework designed to provide a balanced set of benefits to society. Creators were encouraged to create by the grant of a very limited monopoly on reproduction.

    Today copyright has been totally co-opted by corporate money and power. Twenty-eight years was a reasonable term for copyright. But the current 75 years past the life of the creator is obscene. We as a people have surrendered our common culture to the corporate desire to monetize everything in perpetuity.

    I’ll respect copyright when copyright returns to it’s original constitutional concept and the right of the people to enjoy the fruits of our common culture is respected more than the insatiable urge of corporations for control and profit.

    So I really have to laugh in the face of anybody who expects me to be outraged that some people copy pages out of a book with their camera phone.

    I’ll tell you what I’m outraged about. I’m outraged that millions of out of print books are closed off to scholars and readers because somebody somewhere still “owns” their rights. I’m outraged that people can’t freely make documentaries and scholarly studies about 50 year old movies and TV shows because they would have to secure the rights to clips and sound-bites.

    There’s plenty of outrage to go around concerning copyright. But it’s certainly not over the actions of a few idiots in bookstores with cell phone cameras.

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