Do Libraries Give Us the Freedom to Steal?

CDsI am interested in the morally ambiguous realm of music/video/book piracy, a place where everyone has something to say and no qualms about saying it. A couple weeks ago, over a chocolate croissant, I was having what was probably my 5,637th conversation on this topic, and my new friend (for his own protection let’s just call him Steve — apologies to all the Steves out there) began voicing his opinions: he was vehemently against illegal downloading, but fine with checking CDs out from the library and making personal copies for himself.

The conversation went as follows:

Me: “You know that’s illegal?”

Steve: “It’s a gray area.”

Me: “According to the law, it is not.”

Steve: “I still think it is kind of gray. And I need to put the songs on my iPod to listen to them, so I have to copy them anyway.”

After this conversation I was left wondering whether Steve was a criminal anomaly or if the rest of America was on his side. So I divided a sample of Americans into two groups and had them rate the moral “wrongness” of the two types of piracy. Group A) was told that Steve downloaded an album online without paying and Group B) was told that Steve checked out the CD from the library and made a personal copy.

The Conclusion:  America agrees with Steve. People generally viewed Steve’s actions as significantly less morally adverse when he made a copy from the library.  From a legal perspective, Steve had committed an equally unlawful act, but Americans still viewed the crimes differently.

So how could (illegally) copying from the library be viewed as less wrong than (illegally) downloading?

Illegal downloading has a sting against it while copying does not. Copying does not feel as much like stealing. There’s also a fellow person or institution (like a library or generous friend) to share your sin with. Pirates are a tainted outgroup, but anyone can be a copier of media.

Libraries make it okay. It can be safely assumed that libraries know that we have the ability to copy CDs but make no efforts to stop us; by providing us with the opportunity, they are more or less condoning piracy.

It’s so easy to copy CDs.  For this study our sample consisted mostly of people who do not know how to illegally download online (e.g., they were not particularly aware of cyber lockers or torrent clients). In other words, they probably know how to copy and burn a CD but not illegally download music.  I believe that most of the moral qualms people have against piracy would be wiped away if they just learned a virus-free, super-easy way to pirate high quality media.

I think the “easy” factor is partially why people view streaming illegal content (watching the content within browser without downloading it) as different from illegally downloading. Many illegal streamers say they are okay with streaming but not downloading because streaming is just “borrowing.” I think that, in actuality, people choose not to download because they do not know how, they find downloading to be a hassle, or are scared of viruses rather than because of their high moral standards. To avoid looking incompetent, they say (and believe) that the reason they don’t illegally download is because that type of piracy is morally wrong. But the kind they can do and easily benefit from (like copying from library CDs) is okay.

If you would like to help us out and provide any strong (or morally gray) opinions, please share them with us

~Troy Campbell~

12 thoughts on “Do Libraries Give Us the Freedom to Steal?

  1. I’ve heard the “it’s a grey area” also from bloggers confronted about their habit of using photos “found through Google” without checking copyright first. It seems that no matter how many times you quote law or give them links to good information, some people are determined to keep repeating the mantra “it’s a grey area”. I’ve seen similar responses when pointing out to people that it isn’t actually legal to copy and paste a whole newspaper article from the newspaper’s website onto their blog, even if they cite the source and link to it.

    I think there’s a human tendency to want to regard ourselves as generally good guys, and therefore ignore anything that tells us otherwise. There’s not many people who can look themselves in the mirror and say: I break the law every now and again. But there are some situations where the individual might feel that obeying the law is not really all that important, in fact it would be extremely inconvenient, as with that guy who said “I have to copy them anyway”. it’s the same “logic” as those who park where they’re not allowed to because they “have to” drop someone off or pick someone up (you don’t really expect me to walk all that way?) – and of course the “everybody does it” excuse also helps to make us feel like it’s not really such a big deal.

    oh, and it’s not only in America…

  2. One could play the devil’s advocate and say that laws are set in place to protect people, their rights, property, etc. Also, for the purpose of avoiding chaos.
    If this is the case, one could rationalize, whether correctly or incorrectly, that although they are violating the property rights of another individual, they could also be helping them. This would be the case if someone were to add a source to their blog, as was mentioned above. The argument being that through their blog they are bringing traffic to someone else’s site in the hopes that the viewers will appreciate something that they would not have otherwise seen.
    It’s possible that certain areas are seen as being gray because the individual is ignorant of the intricacies of the law, or they may indeed rationalize their behavior as was implied in the prior comment about individuals not seeing themselves as law breakers.
    Psychologically, it’s easier for us to see ourselves as good or as having justifiable reasons for our actions, while seeing others as having evil motivations.
    Btw, I appreciate the closing comment asking for comments that are strong or morally gray…. Beautifully subtle. ;)

  3. I personally am not sure that uneasiness alone can explain why people believe that downloading films- as oppose to streaming them- is illegal. I would rather agree with the idea that people consider downloading as illegal to avoid looking incompetent.

    I would even go further and claim that people consider downloading illegal because of what Dan Ariely and others call “self – herding” – that is, the tendency of people to remember and follow blindly their past decisions and, I would add, forget the reasons that lead them to make these decisions in first place.

    How is this idea related to the post? Well, I believe that when people are asked whether they think that downloading is legal and moral they look at their past and try to find an incident in which they, themselves, downloaded some content. When they find there isn’t such an incident, they conclude that their “past-self” probably had a good, moral reason not to download and therefore they think that it is more illegal than streaming. In reality, the reason they never downloaded is solely because they had no idea how to do it.

  4. On streaming vs downloading – I look at it as the temporality of streaming, vs the permanence of downloading. One act “feels” like borrowing, the other “feels” like taking. Once you’re offline, you can’t stream anymore, but the downloaded file is still on your computer. While content laws are similarly broken, the translation to virtual bit from the physical world is viewed differently in the two use cases.

    On copying content from the library – it my be illegal, but it’s not enforceable (difficult to do so) and there aren’t well publicized cases of agencies going after offenders. Jaywalking is illegal in NYC (I would assume) but nobody thinks they’re breaking the law because it’s not enforced. Same holds true in other metropolitan areas. I think what was mentioned in the original post about the ease of ripping CDs vs the perceived difficulty of downloading music may be true (should be tested), but I believe that the potential for getting caught, and for getting reprimanded is probably just as big a deterrent of downloading/sharing copyrighted content.

    • “the potential for getting caught, and for getting reprimanded is probably just as big a deterrent of downloading/sharing copyrighted content.” – yes, I’m sure that’s a significant factor in many people’s choice whether or not to break the law. But the issue here wasn’t about people choosing to break the law, it was about people talking as though a certain action isn’t illegal, so they aren’t (at least consciously) choosing to break the law, they are doing something which they have somehow convinced themselves is not against the law.

  5. Thanks for this post!

    This is a valuable and important angle to the discussion. I have discussed it on my own blog ( — with reference, among other things, to studies YOU have done!) and in many conversations.

    The discussion here seems to be missing the acknowledgement that legality is not necessarily morality. There are plenty of examples of laws that have been or are immoral. Anyway, it is arguably fair use to copy library items to one’s music player because that is necessary for listening in that format. Keeping the copies indefinitely is where it gets illegal. If they are deleted when the original is returned to the library, then it is almost certainly legal. But again, legal judgments do not necessarily equal moral judgments.

    The bigger point is: if we accept the premise that illegal copying (assuming long-term saving) is wrong, we are still left with the question of normal borrowing-type library use. If it is both legal and moral to borrow temporarily from the library but not legal or moral to copy or file-share copyrighted material, WHY? Is this judgment justified? If I borrow an item on multiple occasions from the library versus download the material from the internet, what is the moral distinction? What difference does it make? Again, it isn’t moral or immoral purely because it is legal vs illegal, there must be a moral distinction if we are to judge the actions differently on a moral ground.

    I think the real answer is that once we accept the value and morality of libraries generally, this perspective devastates most of the arguments against file-sharing. For the most part, file-sharing serves the same function as the library. If the only distinction is legality, then the law has no moral basis. I think there may be some distinctions, but these need to be identified. Furthermore the distinctions between library use and file-sharing are the only legitimate distinctions for the moral discussion of copyright — if we accept libraries as positive and moral.

    Let’s just put it this way: Is anyone suggesting libraries are ok only because they are inefficient or under-utilized? If the library system were more widely used and even more efficient, wouldn’t we all cheer that and see no moral problem? So how would that be different from online file-sharing?

  6. He guys i have just launched a webtise with information about all kinds of downloading. Torrent, youtube etc. Beginner and advanced friendly! Still didn’t find what you were looking for? Write a comment on the forum and i will answer your question as soon as possible. Plz take a moment to check it out: downloadupload.yolasite .com/Thanks

  7. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this,
    like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do
    with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that,
    this is fantastic blog. A great read. I will certainly be back.

  8. What a bout an elderly lady who found and old cd
    with Guy Lombardo, and took it home and ripped and
    burned it to a cd, so she could listen to it and enjoy
    it while knitting a sweater.. Is she a criminal..?
    Just seems to me that if the creators did not want these
    Cd’s copied they would have invented a way to stop it
    with something on the Cd itself.

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  11. I was just thinking of a similar topic a few months ago, except I was thinking libraries violate copyright laws by loaning movies. Especially, since in they charge large late fees on such movies. As for the topic- My belief is that if sharing a copy of one’s personal property through digital means is illegal by violating copyright laws, Then Libraries in general are illegal and violate copyright laws by sharing a physical copy. Every author, actor, or singer loses money on each book, movie, or cd checked out that could be purchased.
    Right now I’m reading “The boy who came back from heaven” from a library. If I had to purchase it digital or paper it would cost $6 to $26. Is it right that the author misses out on his fee or royalty, because its at a library?

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