Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Question of Ethics

A question of ethics, or not. While working on the new Web page on weather and snow data, I ran across the USFS National Avalanche Center (NAC), which works with the Amercian Avalanche Association (AAA) to work with all the agencies, companies, organizations, researchers and others working to study, understand and control avalanches in the US.

We have some of these folks in the Washington Cascade Mountains monitoring avalanches, including Mt. Rainier NP, which has occasionally closed the road between Longmire and Paradise this winter due to avalanche dangers in slopes above the road, namely in the vicinity the bridge near Christine Falls and along the road up the hill after the Glacier Bridge.

Anyway, I learned there are national standards for the collection of data on the snowpack and assessment of avalanches, in the publication, "Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observational Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the United States", recently updated (2010, previous edition in 2004), which is available on their store and on their Website, except the free PDF's are deceptive.

Why if the PDF's are free? Well, for one they want to sell you the print edition from their on-line store, which is the issue with the PDF's. They're in sections of the chapters, appendices, etc. but no single, complete PDF file of the publication available to download. And should you decide to download them, please read the caveat on the Web page.

"This electronic copy is not printable, and is meant to be a resource for folks to check out the guidelines, view the contents, and do electronic searches."

This is because the PDF's are password protected from any use other than display, meaning no printing, no copying, etc., and especially no compiling into a single volume for easy reading, searching, extracing parts, or download to tablets. Yes, how really dumb and stupid. All they have to do is offer a single user license, complete PDF at an alternative to the print version for a reasonable price.

Like the market doesn't do that already? Well, in communications with the NAC, I was informed it wasn't something they thought about since the 2004 was a print edition only. Like the technology, demand and market hasn't changed? To them apparently not very much that they decided to attempt to protect their intellectual property in electronic form.

I can understand and appreciate that, but thinking even their members and other interested people might want a single user license, complete PDF for their personal use on computers and tablets? Their response to me was that it was something they would consider for their next edition in 2015. Really, that's thinking ahead.

And they can't just bundle the existing suite of PDF's into a single PDF and remove the password to sell for a fair price? Like that wouldn't be a marketable product? Or do they do that for members and just not the public? That I don't know so it's just an open question. Remember this publication is the guidelines for the national standards followed by everyone working with snowpack and avalanches.

Well, not to sit and wait, and yes I bought the print edition for the library and be a decent customer, I decided to see what was possible, and I discovered anyone can produce a complete, open (unsecured) PDF of the publication using just two easily available and affordable software applications.

The first is standard commercial PDF security/password recover/removal software commonly used by companies to decrypt PDF's employees lock and forget the password or leave the company. For all of $15-30 you can get a password removal application which strips the password from PDF's.

The second is Acrobat Pro, which I have, or any similar PDF editor or production application which will compile any series of PDF's into a single document, provided of course it's not protected, or use the password if it is protected. See the first software application, above, when you don't know the password.

All in all, it took about 5 minutes to download all the sections, strip the password and compile it into a single, free use copy. Now what exactly doesn't the AAA understand doing that once and charging say $10 or $5 if you also buy the $20 print edition, would do what they want, bring income?

And that is what baffles me. If I can do it, they can because they have the master copies to remove the security, compile it and release it for single, personal use only. I have what I wanted to buy but they didn't offer. So that's the ethical question, is it ethical to do that?

And yes, I informed that that their goal to protect their intellectual property was short-sighted and ill-thought. Technology can simply undo what they do with their files. So what's the ethical choices? Or is ethics here irrelevant, just the reality of the world. And if someone has one of those free, open, complete PDF's for their personal use, are they wrong if the AAA offers the same publication in a different way?

In short if an entity refuses to provide a product you want to buy but they offer all the stuff for you to create it for free, is it unethical not to act for yourself?

And if the person only uses it for personal use, and it's under the fair use doctrine (after all they offered it for free, just differently), can the entity challenge the person for their actions to create the document they refused to produce but provided all the stuff for free to create it?

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