Are People Who Read Magazines Without Paying ‘Stealing’ Their Content?

At the local Barnes & Noble, the in-store coffee shop is next to the vast selection of magazines for sale. Many coffee drinkers grab multiple magazines and take them to their table with their coffee and read them. After coffee, most, but not all, put the magazines back in the racks without paying for them. They are “stealing” content that is meant to be purchased. Is this a form of shoplifting? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Usually, retail thieves — even ones eager to justify their behavior — know they’re thieving: They’re stealthy about it. But what your coffee drinkers are doing is out in the open. They evidently don’t think that they’re breaking the rules; you’re not so sure. The norms and expectations here are ambiguous, then. In the end, it’s up to a vendor to set the rules about what people can do with the items on display. You ask if the conduct you observe is acceptable. Maybe the real question is: What does the store think?

We can make inferences from its actions. Bookstores have always allowed some consumption of unpurchased content — you flip through a book and size it up before you buy. And a Barnes & Noble with a coffee shop is going for a certain vibe; there are business benefits in being welcoming. That’s why the company website encourages you to sit in the coffee shop, use its Wi-Fi and read e-books free on your Nook. Nor are the unpurchased magazines a loss, exactly. The store pays the publishers only when magazines are sold to customers. Unsold copies are recycled.

Store managers could, if they wanted, crack down on the behavior, but — aside from cases of egregious abuse — they generally don’t. And, of course, the store has chosen to locate the magazines near the seating area. In sum: It isn’t just your coffee drinkers who are acting as if what they’re doing is OK. Barnes & Noble is, too.

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