A problem comes up, however, when one wants to purchase content, but said content is unavailable.
Infrequently, this is because the author or creator of said content wants to make sure that the content is never again available for purchase. For example, Isaac Asimov discovered once that the plot and details of one of his short stories had been unintentionally plagiarized from another story that he had read but then forgotten about. Asimov passed his payment along to the other writer and refused to let that particular story ever be reprinted.
More often, though, when one wants to purchase unavailable content, such as a book or a TV show, the content isn't unavailable due to the choice of the creator. Usually, the content has just fallen out of print (or OP for those of us in the biz), and the creator has no easy way to bring it back into print again, even if there is a small demand for it.
For example, I remember that in the early 1990s, I wanted to get a copy of J. Michael Straczynski's book on screenwriting. The new edition didn't yet exist, but the old edition was out of print and the Internet had not yet grown to the point where it would be easy to track a copy down. The local library in Forest Hills, Queens had a copy of the book, however, so I checked it out and photocopied the whole thing for myself.
But before I did that, I had run into Straczynski at a convention and secured his permission to do so. In that case, I made sure to do the right thing because I could.
In another case, I wasn't able to do the right thing until last year. I was a fan of the 1982-1983 TV show Voyagers!, which was shown on television before my family had a VCR. When I discovered that someone I knew had copies of all the episodes on VHS tapes, I asked her for a set and she generously provided me with one. It wasn't until 2007 that the current owners of the show released it for purchase (in DVD format). I made sure to buy a copy of the series as soon as it was available.
The fact is that I wanted to own the series, and I would have rather contacted the copyright owners for permission to make copies, but here's the rub – I had no way of knowing who the copyright owners were. Whereas, if the series had been available for legal purchase before 2007, I would have bought it.
I mention all this because yesterday's New York Times included an interesting Ethicist column by Randy Cohen, Flight Risk. To summarize: a group of pilots in an online forum wanted to purchase copies of a book that was out of print and was going to remain so despite their inquiries. So one of the members of the forum posted an electronic copy for people to download, and another member suggested that they send checks to the author as payment. The question, of course: was this ethical?
Cohen's answer was that it might be illegal but not necessarily unethical. However, he did suggest that if the author or publisher of the book had chosen not to reprint the book that they ought to secure permission for their online posting.
As it turned out, the author of the book returned all checks that were sent to him and through Cohen gave the pilots blanket permission to post the book and make copies. So there's a happy ending
But at the same time, the whole situation got me thinking. The publishing industry exists on many premises, one of which is that it's simply too much trouble for "content providers" (i.e., writers) to print and distribute copies of their own work in an appealing form. But if a writer has already become well-established through previous publication, and has an OP work or new work that readers might want, the writer now has options that were heretofore unavailable to serve as his or her own publisher. And readers now have an opportunity to see more of their money flow to the writer, and not to the middleman.
I know much of this has been mentioned before, and it probably will be again. I was just amused to find the issue pop up in the Ethicist.