I live in Bangladesh. In my country, I don't get authentic, high quality foreign books about science, philosophy, psychology etc. Even if some bookstores sell those books, the price due to import tax is too high to afford. For this reason, it has become quite a culture for nerds like me, to download free PDF of those books from internet, read them directly or get them printed in local printing house and then read them.

But, I am concerned about the question of morality of my action. Few arguements can be drawn about the conflict of interest:

  1. By downloading free PDF of books with copyright, I am straightforwardly disobeying copyright laws and causing loss to both the writers and publishers. So, my action is unethical.

  2. But, as these copyright laws of foreign countries doesn't exist in paper in my country, I am not morally obliged to maintain these laws.(?) Therefore, my action isn't unethical.

  3. Besides, by reading those books I can know more. Even I share this knowledge with people, as a result, many people come to know new facts and new writers, scientists, philosophers, psychologists etc. In this arguement, my action is benefitting not only me and my buddies but also writers and publisher indirectly by gaining fame.

I think there is a moral dillema here. As I know a solution according to different philosphers would be different, I am asking: What is the solution according to Kant?

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    Distinguish legal from moral and ethical. You may or may not want to obey the law, for all sorts of reasons (and there are few reasons to worry about another country's laws). The ultimate ethical question is whether you think it is permissible to read a text if the author has explicitly not given you permission. I don't know if there's a consensus on that. Jul 20, 2017 at 17:00
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    what if the copyright laws are immoral?
    – user20153
    Jul 20, 2017 at 20:09
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    item 1: no. you only cause a loss if you then sell the pirated copy. if you would not have paid for a copy in the first place (for your own use), then the seller incurs no loss if you download a bootlegged copy, since the cost of producing that copy is effectively zero. a paper copy is a different matter - the publisher paid to have it printed, so if you steal the publisher suffers a loss.
    – user20153
    Jul 20, 2017 at 20:15
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    I usually try to make titles more "self-explanatory" so that users can decide if they are interested by browsing the queue, and also include keywords that would group questions with similar questions when somebody does a search. But if it conflicts with your intention you can change it back or revise.
    – Conifold
    Jul 21, 2017 at 17:42
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    Yeah! I think.your edited title is good. Jul 22, 2017 at 4:49

1 Answer 1


The Kantian criterion of ethical is whether one would wish such behavior to become generally practiced (there are delicate differences between "wish" and "will", which I leave out).

"There is ... only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

So disobeying a law, in and of itself, is not immoral, it could even be immoral not to do so, if it is particularly unjust (probably not in this case). But also conversely, if the law is ethically sound the fact that it is not legally binding in one's country does not make breaking it ethical.

On whether copyright violations becoming a general practice is a good thing opinions differ, some argue that abolishing, or at least scaling back, copyright would on balance be beneficial. Your circumstances might be particularly favorable to such arguments: if we restrict the practice to individuals who have no alternative access to the books through no fault of their own the case for making it universal becomes stronger ("universal" does not exclude qualifiers, as long as they can be generally applied).

Since Kant wrote an essay titled Of the Injustice of Counterfeiting Books (1785) he may not concur. However, Kant did reject the notion of intellectual property, his defense of copyright is based on different considerations, see Pievatolo's Freedom, ownership and copyright: why does Kant reject the concept of intellectual property?:

"As most scholars, in the field of humanities, take intellectual property for granted, the representation of Kant like an intellectual property forerunner is still a dangerously mistaken commonplace. According to Kant's Architectonic of Pure Reason the philosopher is closer to a lawgiver than to an artificer, if philosophy is considered in its Weltbegriff or cosmopolitan concept (AA.03: 542.23-30). Because such a lawgiving is based upon that reason with which every human being is endowed, the laws of reason should be thought as public laws and not as individual, private creations.

How could a public law be consistently viewed as an object of private intellectual property? Kant avoids such a contradiction because his justification of authors' right does not rely on intellectual property, but on the meaning and the function of both authors and publishers in the world of the public use of reason. Therefore, Kant's theory of copyright is compatible with the Weltbegriff of philosophy."

Kant did not address poverty, etc., specifically, but given his justification of copyright in terms of public use of reason one can imagine a Kantian defense of the practice when it is a precondition for including individuals into this use. One could perhaps even invoke Kant's "formula of humanity", a second formulation of the categorical imperative:

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."

See also Barron's Kant, Copyright and Communicative Freedom on Kantian subordination of authors' rights to the "public sphere":

"For Kant, progress towards a fully emancipated (i.e. a ‘mature’ or enlightened’) culture can only be achieved through the critical intellectual activity that public communication demands: individual expressive freedom is only a condition, not constitutive, of this ‘freedom o make public use of one’s reason in all matters’. The main thesis defended in his article is that when Kant's writings on publicity (critical public debate) are read in relation to his writings on the legal organization of publishing, a necessary connection emerges between authors' rights – as distinct from copyrights – and what Jürgen Habermas and others have named the "public sphere"."

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    Thanks for the answer. I would appreciate more if your blockquotes used more simple words. Jul 21, 2017 at 3:52
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    Could you elaborate on your last blockquote? Jul 21, 2017 at 4:10
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    @Mockingbird This is how Kant and his scholars express themselves. Kant is too nuanced to be expressible in simple words, I am afraid, that is why we can not be entirely sure where he would have stood on this issue. My interpretation of Barron's characterization of Kant is (oversimplifying) that the legal organization of publishing, and therefore the authors' rights under it, should serve the goal of facilitating rational public debate. Kant does not see copyright as a kind of natural right to property. So presumably it could be overridden when there is a genuine need to serve that goal.
    – Conifold
    Jul 21, 2017 at 4:19
  • This isn't correct: "The Kantian criterion of ethical is whether one would wish such behavior to become generally practiced." A sociopathic leader might wish that deceptive propagandizing might be come more generally practiced and accepted. Kant would reject such behavior, not accept it. Aug 10, 2017 at 18:27
  • @ChristopherE I know, but given the OP issue I did not want to get into the weeds of Kantian distinctions between commands of practical reason and personal wants.
    – Conifold
    Aug 10, 2017 at 20:27

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