Chuck Wendig, a creator I don’t personally know but with whom I share oodles of Facebook friends, decided today, February 6, 2013, is something called “International Don’t Pirate My Book Day.” It’s meant to provide a forum, “where authors and writers and creatives of all types hop online to share their thoughts about piracy.”
Well, then, why isn’t it called “International Authors Talk About Book Piracy Day?” Why is a hard-line position taken in the very name of the thing, especially when Wendig himself acknowledges that the issue is not at all black and white?
Probably because nice declarative headline-level statements of position make for better search engine fuel. Can’t blame a guy for that. Gotta get those unique visitors, after all. I’ve done the same thing.
Heck, in the same spirit — and since its been a while since I’ve written on the subject — I’ll join the band and jump on the wagon to share my thoughts about “piracy.”
First, Stop Calling It Piracy
Piracy is an act of robbery. Robbery is defined as “The felonious taking of personal property from someone using force or the threat of force.”
(Another definition is “Unashamed swindling or overcharging.” Looking at you, entertainment industry in all its forms!)
Making a copy of a digital file against the wishes of the creator / rights holder of that digital file is not robbery. Personal property hasn’t been taken, by force or otherwise. The duplication of a digital file doesn’t invalidate anyone’s possession of that property, or remove anyone’s ability to use that property.
Calling the unauthorized duplication of a digital file “piracy” is worse than an over-simplifying soundbyte. It’s an overblown attempt at vilification.
So stop it.
Art Has Value
I believe a creation is not art until that creation is made available to be experienced by someone other than the creator.
I’ve been making art — in the form of music, zines, stories, novels, and other stuff — since 1985. I’ve been making art on the Internet since 1998.
I believe art is a kind of transaction. The creator provides an experience, usually packaged as some kind of media, and the consumer takes that media and experiences it. Usually, this results in some kind of emotional response on the part of the consumer.
In return for that experience, I believe the consumer should compensate the creator in whatever way the creator indicates they prefer. Often, but not always, this compensation takes the form of money because the creator requires money to exist in the world and, ideally, make more stuff to be experienced.
Based on those beliefs, I would like people who experience my art to compensate me for that experience. Usually — almost always — that means “give me money equal to the cost I have assigned to the thing.” Sometimes, it means “give me permission to contact you.” Sometimes, it means, “tell other people about the things I make.” These are all forms of compensation for the art.
The De-Valuing Argument
Chuck Wendig thinks “file-sharing expresses the value of… art at baseline of almost zero.”
I think that’s bullshit.
Generally speaking, if I were to put myself in the head of a person who actively shares digital files without the permission of the rights holder, I think I’d only share the things I think are valuable. Why would I waste my time and take the effort to share things I think are worthless?
Chuck says file-sharing is “simple, so effortless, even careless it feels like it dismisses the entire thing we do.”
Nonsense. Compare these two activities:
1) Buy a Chuck Wendig e-book from Amazon.com and start reading:
- Visit Amazon
- Search “Chuck Wendig”
- Find “250 Things You Should Know About Writing“
- Click “Buy Now”
- Read right now on my desktop computer, Kindle device, or any device with the Kindle reader app installed.
I just did it (you’re welcome, Chuck). It took longer to type the steps than to actually get the product and start reading “The Internet is 55% porn, and 45% writers…”
2) Find an unauthorized duplicate of a Chuck Wendig e-book and start reading:
- Visit Google
- Search “Chuck Wendig” and “torrent”
- Browse the results. Note that one result has been removed by Google after a DMCA request
- Click “chuck wendig torrents” at the Pirate Bay.mk
- Wait. No, seriously, as I type this, I’m waiting for the site to resolve. It’s taking forever.
- Give up and go directly to http://thepiratebay.se/
- Type “chuck wendig” in the search box
- No results found.
Damn, this file sharing business is, like, the farthest thing from simple and effortless! Who knew? It’s a lot of work! If I was billing for this time, I would have cost the client, like, five bucks! You know: five times the cost of the book.
Let’s assume I wanted to make unauthorized digital copies of the e-book I bought from Amazon and distribute it on a torrent site. Do you think that’s a simple thing?
Thanks for working through that little exercise with me. My point, of course, is that you have to really think something is worth sharing to get an illegal copy of it and try to share it. It’s (comparatively, usually) much easier and more cost effective to simply buy a copy.
So it’s likely that the people who are actively participating in file-sharing are doing so because they see the value in the thing they’re sharing.
Is that the best way for the file-sharer to support the creator? Certainly not. But I don’t think the idea that file-sharing diminishes value holds any kind of water.
The Convenience Hypocrisy
Art has value. All artists — all creators — deserve to be compensated for the art they provide. Period.
In response to Chuck’s post, I saw a comment from Luke Turpeinen on Facebook. Luke says:
Book piracy is odd to me. While I have no qualms pirating software needed for side projects or freelancing (I don’t have $3000 laying around for that specialty program), I do have $6 for a paperback or e-book. Finding and buying books authentically is easier and more convenient than pirating (which are other reasons people pirate games, software and movies)… I just see no reason to pirate books.
In other words, it’s okay to not compensate a creator if you don’t have the money but really, really need the creator’s work so you can make money as a freelancer. But, hey, I’ll drop six bucks on a book any day of the week, so long as it’s more convenient than pirating.
Hey, Luke, it looks like you’re a 3D artist. Y’know what, I could use some 3D art right now. It’s a big job — probably take you hundreds of hours. I can’t afford your rates, whatever they are, but I need you to do this stuff for me right now so I can turn around and sell it. I’m sure you’ll be fine with that. Looking forward to your contacting me.
Also, fuck you.
Now, some folks will complain that they really want a certain video game, or the ability to watch a TV show, and that they would gladly pay money for it, but due to licensing, digital rights management, territorial restrictions, or some other bar put in place by the content creator or their distributors, it’s impossible or very difficult to do so. They will turn to an unauthorized digital copy to consume that work.
I’ve done this. In the past.
Really, though, if one really wants to send a message to content creators about the inherent anti-consumer nature of DRM, the ridiculous and arbitrary practice of regional restrictions, and so on, the best practice is to not consume the thing at all. That’s how capitalism works, pretty much.
So do that.
My Position On Unauthorized Digital Duplication and File Sharing
If you were to buy one copy of everything I have available for sale at, say, Amazon.com, as of this writing it would cost you less than $75.00 for 17 books, ebooks, CDs, and mp3s created, written, performed or edited by me.
My gross earnings from Amazon.com in 2012 were $1057.94. A drop in the bucket, you might think… but I’m here to tell you that income was critically important to me last year. 2012 wasn’t what you’d call a feast or famine kind of year of me… no, it was more like “barely sustainable or famine.”
Small though it might be, I could not do without the money I make from my creative endeavors.
So I prefer that, given the choice, you purchase my digital content and not obtain it in an unauthorized fashion. Buy my stuff. You make a difference in my life when you do; no exaggeration.
If you do acquire my digital works through an unauthorized source… so it goes. Apparently you wouldn’t have spent the money anyway, because my stuff is super easy to get and isn’t restricted by DRM. So it’s no loss for me.
Do me a favor, though: write a review, or Tweet about it, or spread the word about my works in whatever way you see fit. Maybe your evangelism will result in someone else exchanging their money from my effort.
At the End of the Day…
Look, unauthorized file sharing doesn’t hurt me. It doesn’t help me in the ways I most need the help, either. It’s a zero-sum game at worst.
That’s why I don’t really worry about it when it comes to my own work. So long as I’m making stuff people want, and I’m providing that stuff at a reasonable price with no unreasonable restrictions, in a way that is easy to acquire, I’m doing everything I can.
Fretting over unauthorized file sharing is more trouble than it’s worth.
What Do You Think About International Don’t Pirate My Book Day?
I’m eager to talk about this with creators and consumers alike. Let yourself be heard in the comments!
I have read this post, and now yours, and I’m still on the fence.
When people go through the trouble of pirating your stuff, and it is a minor trouble
as it’s time consuming, they deem your work worthy. And the more people get access to your work,
the more attention you get which always leads to more sales in one form or another.
I remember Neil Gaiman saying that piracy helped increase his sales in Russia for example,
where his book piracy was pretty high.
So, I do believe that you should support an artist (in the widest sense) in order to help him create more work.
But in the internet age, attention is the highest currency, and if you get it, even though
pirated versions of your work, I’ll prefer that over no attention.
Thanks for the comment, Mars!
I don’t think there’s a fence at all… in other words, the issue of unauthorized digital file sharing isn’t a binary one. It’s not black and white… and yes, I recognize that intellectual property laws exist, but even those are subject to broad interpretation and are often abused (usually by the intellectual property owners.)
The “attention is the highest currency” argument is a strong one, and it’s certainly the case for someone at my level. But for some creators at a certain level, the value of the attention from unauthorized digital content sharing is greatly diminished. Neil Gaiman isn’t at that level. J. K. Rowling is. Stephen King is. It’s a fluid thing.
Can you clarify what you mean by “in the widest sense?”
I agree with your idea that people pirating things weren’t going to buy it anyway. The idea that a pirated copy of a $5 product cost the creator $5 is ridiculous.
Bottom line, I agree with Scott Sigler’s idea that any exposure can only help you.
I’m not sure that “any exposure can only help you.” I think (limiting ourselves to a discussion of digital content) at worst, it doesn’t have any impact one way or another. At best, it leads to a new fan who may one day spend money on your content.
Thanks for the comment, Chris!