The Moral Gymnastics to Justifying ‘Free’ Downloads of Classic Texts

Bought for £3 in the Amnesty International bookshop in Newcastle.

Bought for £3 in the Amnesty International bookshop in Newcastle.

Not long ago I searched online for a free PDF copy of The Theatre and its Double by Antonin Artaud. My motivation was curiosity. For years I’d looked out for a physical copy in the theatre and film section of an enormous secondhand bookshop that I’m lucky enough to live within commuting distance of, but to no avail. The UK-centrism was always apparent. There were regular appearances by Gielgud, Tynan, Shakespeare etc. etc. – you get the scene. But this collection of essays by one of the 20th century’s most influential European dramatists eluded me for over 10 years.

So the thought occurred to me that there might be a free copy to peruse online. Sure enough, there it was, cover and all. Pretty soon I found myself testing the relative merits of browsing it with both iBooks and Kindle apps. Then the guilt set in. How come this rip-off hadn’t been found by the publisher and been taken down after legal threats? And most importantly, what justification could I muster for downloading it? One justification might be that I was simply putting into practice the communism that Artaud himself might have approved of, given his attacks on the distinctions between performers and audiences. Another might be that I’m not as well-off as those who rake in all those royalties from publishing. There were probably more ways that I justified the download to myself. Yet my justifications left me with the inescapable feeling that I was doing something wrong: why get into them were this not so?

And then, sure enough, after all those years of looking out for a secondhand copy, along one came a few days after my download. The timing seemed ironic. So much so that after wrestling with justifications, I found myself wrestling with whether I should bother with the long-awaited secondhand copy at all when there was a free and searchable copy at home. So I put it back on the shelf. Then I took it off again. Then put it back on again. Then I finally took the damn thing. If buying this book was going to be about justification, then it would be about justifying all those browses for it over all those years. I was damned if I wasn’t going to make my copy a patiently found one just because someone put the sodding thing up on the web for free. Besides – all that vacillating was making me look like a shoplifter.

And yet the moral questions didn’t end. The next consideration was, and still is, why I should remove the digital copy from my iPad when I’ve got a legitimate copy? And then, on top of this, there’s the twist. Has buying a secondhand copy denied a small publisher that much needed income that a new copy would have furnished?

I thought that finally finding a copy would be a very different experience. The only way to shake off the despoiling influence of that download was to sit down and start reading the thing it imitates in every respect except a capacity to hold personal significance.

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5 Responses to The Moral Gymnastics to Justifying ‘Free’ Downloads of Classic Texts

  1. Stefanie says:

    Since Artaud has been dead for a very long time you are not taking bread out of his mouth by downloading a free PDF or by purchasing secondhand. You don’t need to feel so terribly guilty. Glad you got the print copy though when it did finally turn up. If you had passed it by you may have regretted it eventually.

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    • Jeff says:

      He has been dead a long time, but copyrights do enable deceased authors to carry on contributing to their families in what is a precarious trade. And keeping their books alive does require publishing professionals. I don’t know as I feel that guilty – I sense I’d be rather alone if I was. Piracy seems to depend for its onward march on the kind of moral aversions I talk about in the post. I wonder where publishing will end up with less and less funding from legitimate purchases?
      I hope that the secondhand market is a help more than a hindrance. It might not directly support fresh books, but it keeps authors and their ideas prominent long after book launches, and even longer after fashions have passed. So, for example, posting about Artaud’s book in its legitimate, physical form is a sort of service. I don’t mean that to sound too grand.

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  2. Ste J says:

    If it’s out of copyright then there is no problem and I suppose from a legal standpoint, that you have a physical copy the onus would be on proving that you downloaded it before getting your copy which would be nigh on impossible.

    Although I don’t download book unless given to me for review, I don’t think I would feel any guilt downloading titles from major publishers as they probably get enough money from the celeb autobiographies and what not. Is the illegal download eroding the industry, yes without a doubt and I would hate for bookshops to be struggling until Christmas like HMV but since the advent of the e-reader it seems to be the way it’s going.

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    • Jeff says:

      I don’t expect a call from the police anytime soon! Yes, I remember the ‘they’re probably rolling in money’ argument when I worked in the games industry. Few people were. At the same time, there was once a Michael Jackson gala night on TV in the 1990s in which the Prince of Monaco made a speech attacking music piracy as something that denied hard-working people like Jacko their living. It was hard to feel that sorry for him! Perhaps there could be a relativist ethics here where we illegally download big sellers and then go out and buy obscure books like The Theatre and its Double?
      I find it amazing how little talk there is in publishing trade about illegal downloads. It strikes me as a combination of ostrich-like behaviour mixed with a salesy hyper-optimism about how illegal downloads should be seen as a promotional tool for legitimate copies. Every time I read that I look closely to see what evidence there is to support the view.

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      • Ste J says:

        That is a strange promotional tool indeed, I can see many people enjoying a book they forking out £18.99 on the hardback to go on their shelves…I would probably do that with the paperback to be fair but I love to own the real thing but I think only bibliophiles would do such a thing.

        I think Christmas is the only time book companies really make a profit, I have noticed that certain genres have become less popular recently which is an interesting trend, having said that the bestsellers that come out seem all of a type and a little bit tired if my usual WH Smiths is anything to go by.

        I like your idea of buying obscure books and pirating bestsellers, it would be great to see some obscure books suddenly appear on the shelves of train station newsagents because the public had forced a reprint with their enthusiasm for something akin to the mythical J. R Hartley’s Fly Fishing.

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