A husband and wife send their kids to a camp for three weeks each summer. They like the camp and their kids will choose to go there for at least 10 years.
In addition to the fee they pay to send their kids to this camp, the couple pays an additional $100 to be able to send and receive emails from their children. Since the camp is, as their mother reports, "a technology-free place of fun," the emails the parents send are printed out and given to the children. The children then hand write replies that are scanned by camp emloyees and emailed to the parents.
"I can get a picture printed from Walgreens for 19 cents," the mother wrote me. "This past week I realized that I could pull pictures off the website without purchasing them." Even though she says she is not really a tech-savvy person, she notes that the procedure is as easy as "copy and paste."
The mother has expressed her concern to the company providing the photographs. The latter would not negotiate the price. "Customer service is not a strength they have," she explains.
She's quick to acknowledge that the company should make a fair profit for the product it provides and charge accordingly. Copying photos from the site without paying anything is not an option for her, since she would consider that stealing. But she wonders whether it would be unethical to pull the pictures off the site and then also purchase enough so the photographer gets a fair profit -- "say, 50 cents per picture."
"Or is it just outright stealing?" she asks.
She is considering the action, but it just doesn't sit right with her, not passing her own "gut test."
I could quibble that it seems nuts for the camp not to embed the cost of a $1.65 photo or two and the email "service" into the general fee charged to attend the camp. I could also ponder why a photographer wouldn't protect the photos online so that they couldn't be copied and pasted without purchase. But the convoluted way the camp chooses to provide this service has no bearing on whether it's right to simply take the photos off the website without paying for them since they are deemed to be overpriced.
The mother's gut test serves her well and she's right to avoid taking the photos without paying for them. The right thing is to pay for the photos they take and continue to talk to the camp about changing this process. The alternative is simply to get enough parents to refuse to pay the $100 fee and to refrain from buying photos at the marked-up price until the camp recognizes that there's a better way to service the needs of the parents who send their kids to enjoy a technology-free three weeks every summer.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing(at)comcast.net.