Ebook piracy and why I’m okay with itPosted: January 25, 2013
I’m a content-producing novelist trying to make a living. Despite this, I don’t think piracy is evil.
No, really. One time, a convention attendee joked about pirating my book to his friends (then quickly insisted he wouldn’t do that) — and I laughed and gave him permission. Seriously, I wouldn’t mind if that attendee copied the Remedy ebook and emailed it to 500 of his friends and acquaintances. I might make thousands of dollars if every one of those 500 people purchased Remedy, but I don’t think the issue is as simple as that.
There are some existing cautionary tales, like Napster and the anime industry. Historically, people sold art, music and stories in a scarcity-based model. The only way to get these things was to purchase them through legitimate venues, which were sometimes hard to find and often priced steeply. When the Internet came along, people began downloading the things they were interested in but couldn’t buy legitimately. There was suddenly a way to circumvent the gatekeepers. Is that wrong? Well, the free market is clearly expressing its desires, and I think the onus is on businesses to keep up with demand. No one gets to order the world to stop changing. But is it just a matter of stealing things you haven’t paid for?
Physical ownership is clear and easy to enforce. A car is a three-dimensional object and we treat it as such. This object is valuable because it performs an action, and it’s made of materials with a calculable worth. You could sell a car for its parts or its metal content, but that car has greater value when it still works as a car. We know how fast a make of car can drive, and we can predict how many years it’ll be useful for. It might have social connotations (ie. driving a car as a mark of adulthood), but that’s not the primary reason a car is a valuable object. Forcibly taking that car away from its owner — so you can drive it or sell it instead of them — is therefore wrong.
Information, though? It’s trickier to control, and I don’t even think it should be held hostage for money. Information is a basic right. Everyone gets to learn skills, hear stories and experience art. That’s because we are enriched by ideas in ways we can’t always fathom. You can charge for your time and effort in distributing information — that’s reasonable. You can ask people to support you so they’ll get more information in the future. But I don’t think written stories are comparable to an object, be it a luxury car or a stick of gum. Stories have a word count but they’re not truly measurable. You can’t look at a novel and know that you’ll get so many grams or ounces of joy from it.
Why is a paperback book valuable? We know that paper, glue and ink are physical resources, and that someone needed to print and transport the book. Those books originally sold for a price the publisher needed to keep their New York rent paid up. If you resell old pulp paperbacks you found moldering away in your basement, you might get a few cents each for them if you’re lucky. What about the purpose of the book, though — the story? There’s no telling how valuable that story will be to any given person. I’ve read plenty of classics and bestsellers that I thought were boring and terrible, which meant they had very little value for me. Those old basement books might contain a story you end up loving. And people might read Remedy and think it’s a waste of their time: that’s a risk I take as a writer. I hope people will find value in the characters and ideas I present, but I can’t force them and nor should I.
If people read a pirated copy of Remedy, they’re trying out what I do. Taking my writing for a test drive, to get back to the car example. Determining if my work is worth their money. And I’m okay with that — because as an independant author, awareness of my work is more valuable than a payment of pocket change. I do charge dollars and cents for my books, but that’s basically just an assurance that I’ve worked hard to make a product I believe is worth money. It’s a request for token support of what I do. I understand Internet culture and I’m not stupid enough to put myself in a position where piracy will ruin me financially.
Old perspectives tell us that everything must be policed, enforced, and sold for money. That’s a system that takes failure hard and doesn’t acknowledge its own flaws — especially when trying to sell something as mercurial as ideas. It also makes people overly obsessed with money and ownership, in such distasteful examples as jacking up ebook prices when public libraries are looking to buy. I’d rather operate on a system where people enjoy my work and support me when they think I deserve their token support. Maybe they pay me in the form of reading my work for free, then telling their friends to check me out. That’s cool. I think we can all live with that.
- Why The Government Will Lose the War on Piracy (usahitman.com)
- The Middling circle, an aemet tradition (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- The value of sloppy work (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)