Textbooks are expensive. If I want to buy one, I want to make sure that the content will be worth it. The sample chapters on Amazon might not be enough to make a careful evaluation. Some websites offer pirated copies of textbooks for download. Is it unethical to use such services just to evaluate the contents of a textbook, and then buy an original copy if the content is deemed worthy (and of course, deleting the pirated copy after evaluation)?

  • The full text of Flajolet and Sedgewick's Analytic Combinatorics is available free online for individual use. algo.inria.fr/flajolet/Publications/AnaCombi/anacombi.html I wish more publishers of expensive (math) texts would follow suit. Dec 28, 2021 at 1:36
  • I kindly request moderators to consider re-opening this question. Textbooks are a big part of higher education and the ethics surrounding it are equally important. I think this question could fall under academic publishing, which is listed as one of the relevant topics mentioned in the help center. Furthermore, the answers this question has received so far show that the users (two of which have 150k+ reputation) have deemed this question worthy of discussion. Thank you for your consideration in advance and looking forward to a reopening. Dec 28, 2021 at 8:25

3 Answers 3


Lots of nuance required here and these sorts of questions are triggering for some. What you suggest is possibly a violation of copyright law in the technical sense, but, assuming you delete the downloaded copy after a reasonable period it isn't likely unethical. Or not seriously so. Note that law and ethics don't always conform perfectly.

After all, for a physical textbook you can browse it in the bookstore or library. You can also purchase it online and return it (soon) if it isn't suitable. Both of those have the same overall effect as what you suggest and neither is unethical.

There are some, I'm sure that will disagree with me in both directions, either seeing it as inherently unethical or not having any problem at all with pirated content.

Another ethical consideration, however, is whether such a practice supports piracy in some way. Likely not here, but something to consider generally.


This is a tough question. I'm not sure. I think there are some clear-cut subcases:

  1. If you intend to pirate it but then find it on, say, amazon's "look inside" feature, review it there, and decide based on that - no, that's fully ethical. The author (or publisher or other designated person) intended you to have access to this material for the purpose of making a purchase decision, and that's exactly what you did. Whether or not you intended to commit an unethical act, something (outside of your will) affected you and led you to a different course of action fully in line with your obligations towards the creators and purveyors of the content.

  2. If you download it off some sketchy website, start reading it, and decide against buying it but end up reading the entire thing anyway "while you're at it" and get the same impact you would have from a purchase, then, no, that's not ethical. Similarly, if you decide not to buy it but keep it and reference it later anyway, it's unethical. Other people have created something for the purpose of providing it to people like you for compensation, and you have both made use of their product in the fashion intended and have deprived them of said compensation, which is in violation of the social contract we have: that wasn't your material to use in that way.

Of course most situations would lie in the middle. I think we can ask a few more questions about the details:

Have you fulfilled your obligations to the author? Ie, did the author receive compensation from your activity, whether directly or from a friend's or library's purchase?

Have you fulfilled your obligations towards the publishing system and therefore towards all those who rely upon it for access to material? Whether or not publishers are sometimes or always evil, there's very real value in the work they do, from basic copy-editing to content revision to the kind of marketing and curation which connect you to the books you may actually be interested in and insulate you from the chaff. Are your actions consistent with the publishing community's continued health? From a Kantian point of view, if everyone acted as you do, would you all still be able to read good books?

Did the author or other responsible persons intend you to have access to the book in this fashion? There's some level of expected access here; are you "pirating" in name only because the laws haven't caught up to the times to cover the kind of e-purchasing you do, or are you doing something that a reasonable author or publisher would feel is inappropriate? In the physical world, would you be picking up a book at a bookstore and flipping through it, or would you be sneaking it out the door under your coat?

Assuming no further more complicating details, it sounds like you're quickly reviewing the materials for the purpose of purchase, so you're probably clear on the last question, and that you do often purchase books, so you're probably clear on the first few. Of course there are still some interesting questions here... Are you purchasing books from publishers which treat their authors appropriately and provide them appropriate compensation? Does your use of "pirating" mean that you're in violation of enough laws that you're contributing to a general disregard for law in your society, and does that in itself have a deleterious effect on the health of your community by encouraging others to disregard laws which may be more essential?

What an interesting question! Thanks for starting this conversation.


Hmm, interesting and nonobvious question. I’d say it’s mostly ethical.

My reasoning is as follows: if the publisher’s business model relies on a significant number of sales of their textbooks going to readers who buy the book but end up disappointed that it didn’t fit their needs and wishing they could undo the purchase, then that business model is itself somewhat unethical. Your evaluate-before-you-buy strategy simply neutralizes the harmful effects of such a business practice, and therefore increases the pressure on publishers to offer high quality products and better (legal) pre-purchase evaluation options for their potential customers. The only legal right you’ve taken away from someone is the publisher’s right to dupe you into buying a product you don’t need. While they may have that right legally, I don’t think they have it as an ethical right.

Now, there are also several arguments going the other way, which is why I said it’s mostly ethical. For example, violating copyright law encourages disrespect for the law in general, which makes our society less law-abiding and can therefore be seen as unethical in a way. (And one can again counter that by saying that it’s really lawmakers who pass unjust laws that lead people to disrespect the law in such a way, so it’s them who are acting unethically. And then one can further put the blame on the voters who elected the lawmakers. This sort of logic is a bottomless pit…)

Maybe the most compelling argument against your proposed strategy is that it creates a considerable temptation to conveniently “change your mind” after you downloaded the pirated copy or end up “forgetting” to purchase the legal copy, after you skimmed enough material from the downloaded copy during your “evaluation” to gain some particular knowledge you were after. Basically humans have a strong tendency to rationalize much of what they’re doing as ethical even when that’s not unequivocally the case, so that’s a pitfall to be mindful of. But if you are a person of strong enough character and moral fiber to resist such temptations, then we go back to my original conclusion that your evaluation method, if implemented faithfully and literally as you described it, seems mostly ethical.

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