Ethical Frugality Week: Sampling Content

Over the upcoming week, I’ll be posting a series of articles on the ethics of frugality. How far can you take things without crossing an ethical line or diving into seriously socially unacceptable waters? I’ll be recounting some of my own stories – and some stories from readers – along the way.

A long while back, in a post entitled “When Is Frugality Stealing?“, I wrote about how I would sometimes jot down notes out of books when I was in a bookstore. This was completely allowed – and even encouraged – by the store’s owner (perhaps in part because I was a regular customer there) and would often result in me deciding to buy the book once I found that the information was accurate and useful.

This leads to a bigger question about frugality: when is it okay to sample content without buying?

Take, for example, music. Some people find it completely appropriate to download and keep mp3s, offering up the reasoning that the content is overpriced for what you get or that they might buy the music someday if they listen to it enough. Personally, unless these are given as free downloads by the people that recorded it, I find this stealing. There are many, many ways to sample music without just taking what you want – thirty second previews, Pandora radio, and so on. Access to such recordings isn’t really an issue, either, unless you get into highly obscure recordings.

This is a topic that’s endlessly debated online. There’s a significant group that argues that information was meant to be free and that anything that can be reduced to simple information should thus be free. Thus, content creators should find other ways to earn an income and treat their content as an “advertisement” of sorts for their other endeavors. For example, they might argue that I should give my books away for free and then charge a price for my live appearances or for “deluxe” versions of the content.

Here’s the thing. Content has a cost. Someone had to invest a significant amount of time creating the material you enjoy. It’s reasonable to think that the creator would want to be compensated for the time and energy invested in it. When you step back and look at a broader scale, there’s an enormous amount of people involved in making a film, showing it in theatres, and then making it available for you to easily rent or buy. The same is true for any creative work.

When do I think it’s okay to sample such content? It’s fine to sample if the person who created it or the retailer says it is. So, if I want to jot a note out of a book, it’s fine if the bookstore clerk says I can. If I want to listen to a particular song, I can go hear that thirty second sample or listen to a streaming source like Pandora. If you want more, pay for it. That “pay” might mean enjoying it with ad support for free (like on Hulu) or enjoying it by paying for it without ad support.

Some people might go further and just completely give away their content, and that’s fine. They’re choosing to give it away because they believe they’ll build a bigger audience for their live events that way. However, just because one person is doing it doesn’t mean that consumers can then treat every person producing anything in that same fashion.

All that being said, I think most content companies make it ridiculously hard (even now, with the internet) for people to adequately sample the content. How do I know if I want to watch this movie or not? Well, I can probably find a trailer for it (maybe) or a review here or there. How do I know if I want to listen to this album? I can hear some thirty second samples of the chorus and (maybe) a full song or two on a service like Pandora. At least with bookstores, readers are encouraged to read the first part of a book in a bookstore so they can make up their mind – I think that’s one of the reasons why bookstores aren’t having the difficulty that music stores are having.

What do you think? Where’s the line between sampling so you can make an informed decision and stealing just so you can save a few bucks? Where is the line of right and wrong?

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