Is It OK to Take a Free Game When the Company Selling It Makes a Mistake?

As I was packing up for some time off about 10 days ago, someone sent an email to me and others who had review copies of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 that all of the game's downloadable courses were already on Xbox Live, and none of them had a price. It was $67 worth of content, for nothing.

I didn't answer the email but I did download everything, and my silence acknowledges that I knew this was wrong, or at least looked bad. I didn't even mentally make up an excuse for doing so like, hell, I was reviewing the game and got that copy for free, so, why not the rest of the courses? (Answer: Because I was reviewing the game, not its DLC.) When I later found the content was unusable I was almost relieved to delete it.

Then word spread late last week that you could get a full, free copy of Assassin's Creed III from Xbox Live. (The exploit has since been closed.) Had the process not involved creating a Chinese account at live.com, I probably would have done that, too. And I already have the game on a disc.

Why? The impulse may be wrong but it is, I think, understandable. If something of value is being offered for free, even if we already have the product or know that it's being mistakenly given away, the instinct is to grab it. You're getting something for nothing. You're getting away with something. Both instances trigger that high-five-yourself endorphin.

In the five years I've worked here, this kind of thing has happened several times. I haven't played a minute of Fable II, but when it was mistakenly left on Xbox Live for free back in 2010, I grabbed it. In 2008, as Xbox Live was converting to its then-new experience, a bunch of downloadable content for Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty, plus Banjo Kazooie, was left exposed on the Marketplace for free. I posted about that then and realized later I should not have, certainly not with the tone I did, as it sent a full-blown riot to Xbox Live. A Microsoft employee later "thanked" me for the test of the system.

Let's put aside the question of whether I, as a writer covering this subject, am or should be held to a different standard of conduct. Is it ethical for anyone to take a free copy of something, when you know or otherwise suspect the company offering it doesn't mean to list it for free?

I'm not talking about piracy here. That's actively transmitting or sharing a copy of something you already have, or acquiring it from someone who doesn't have the legal right to distribute it. This is taking a free copy from the company ostensibly selling it. I suppose those who have no problem with the former would also have no problem with the latter. But I also know there are gamers who resent software pirates and do not engage in piracy, but would take advantage of this kind of exploit and still consider themselves law abiding citizens. I did.

This isn't meant to be a mea culpa, or a lesson to others, or an act of judgment. However, if it's true that a company bears the responsibility to appropriately price and protect the inventory it offers for sale, it's also true that character is what you do when people aren't looking—knowing right from wrong and acting on that, even if there are no consequences for choosing to do wrong. If there's a bargain bin out in front of a local bookstore with no one minding it, I wouldn't stroll up and walk off with a copy of whatever pleases me. But free Assassin's Creed III? In the comfort of my own home? Sure?

I can come up with a zillion examples of why downloading something erroneously put on an electronic marketplace for free is analagous to something I wouldn't do in person at a physical location. But I'm curious to hear readers' thoughts on the matter. Some may have zero problem with the practice. Others might find it more situational (having no problem taking from a company they dislike, or perceive as wealthy). Some might condemn it altogether. Where do you come down on the question?