The Trouble with Digital Piracy

As if the fact that it exists isn’t trouble enough? 😦

Now, when I say “digital piracy,” I’m not including all of those content creators who willingly put their own work up on torrent sites (which sites, while frequently used for piracy, do not exist entirely for nefarious purposes) or offer it as free downloads from their personal sites and things like that.
Contrary to the way the term is used on TVTropes, I don’t believe those examples are piracy at all, but rather that the person who actually has the legal right to decide how to distribute that work–the only person with that right–is deciding to distribute it in such a manner. That site’s choice of terminology resulted in a considerable amount of confusion that I’ve elaborated on elsewhere.

The problem is that the genuine pirates, and maybe a few ignorant-but-presumably-well-meaning readers, keep touting the same myths to justify their choice to keep on pirating with no regard for the damage they’re doing.

“If you don’t want your work to be stolen, you should—“

I’m going to have to stop you right there. Let’s stop deluding ourselves about that “should,” shall we? What you’re really trying to say is that if I don’t want anything to be stolen, I “shouldn’t” have anything you want to steal.

But that’s not how theft works. You’re the one choosing to steal; no matter what I put online, I am not making that choice for you. Unless you suffer from kleptomania, you and you alone are responsible for whether or not you steal… and if you do have kleptomania, you are fully responsible for whether you seek treatment, so, you know, your choice to steal is still your responsibility.

But let’s return to that “should” for a moment. If I don’t want my work to be stolen, I should continue making the art/stories that I enjoy and sharing/selling the work that I’m proud of, because nobody should be trying to steal it in the first place.

Yes, there are all kinds of things I can do to protect my work. But no matter what steps I take to protect myself from theft, the only person truly responsible for that theft is the person who chose to steal. It doesn’t matter whether the stolen product is as intangible as an ebook, or as physical as the pair of headphones someone had to break out of the Spider Wire to sneak out of the store. We are not responsible for your choice to steal. Only you can claim that responsibility.

This is not a question of having the moral high ground, either. This is simply being realistic enough to accept that no anti-theft measure is perfect, that the only way to completely put a stop to stealing is for people to stop trying to steal!, and that I’m not going to let some thief with a false sense of entitlement victim-blame me into giving up the things I enjoy.

“Information wants to be free.”

Ah, yes, that old chestnut.

To translate for those of you who have never heard the full context, information wants to be available. It doesn’t want to be censored, banned from anyone ever having access to it. It’s a statement that originates from a discussion of hacker ethics and companies that refuse to sell (sell!) software that they also refused to allow anyone else to distribute…. meaning, quite simply, that they refused to allow anyone to have the software under any circumstances.

But even if we assume that “free” in this context refers specifically to money, then we should consider the whole quote as given by Stephen Brand at the 1984 Hacker’s Conference.

“On the one hand, information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life.
On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time.”

And then there’s Woz’s own response:
“Information should be free but your time should not

“Someone who pirates a novel would never have bought it anyway, so it’s really not a lost sale.”

Wrong again!

And for proof, I offer… myself. That’s right, I have made mistakes, too. I have pirated books before. Namely, I’ve gone on torrent sites and the like to find:

  • Anthologies in which the officially available free sample consisted of an introduction, a table of contents, and maybe a few paragraphs of the first story if I’m very lucky.
  • How-to-books in which, again, the free sample never made it far enough past the introduction to decide if the book was the slightest bit useful.
  • Out-of-print books that are only available used and, in some cases, don’t even have a legitimate free sample.

Is any of that justification for piracy? Hell naw! That’s what libraries are for.
The point I’m making here is that my own excuses (and they are only excuses) boil down to pirating for only two reasons: to determine if I like the book enough to buy it–at which point I delete the pirated copy and replace it with an officially purchased one (and delete it anyway if I didn’t like it, because why would I want to keep it in that case?)–or to add something I know I want to my personal collection that isn’t available through official channels (like one saga that keeps waffling back and forth on whether a Kindle edition even exists)–and which, again, I will replace with a legitimately bought copy when a copy is legitimately available to buy.

Either way, the piracy happened on my end with the expectation that I would most likely buy the book.

But for every reader–every pirate–out there of my type, there are likely hundreds or more who would have willingly bought the book but who, having pirated it instead, will simply figure that they already have a copy and thus don’t need to buy one ever. And those hundreds most definitely do translate to lost sales.
Case in point:

“You should be grateful you have readers.”

I’m sorry, what readers are we supposed to be grateful for?

What readers?

The publishers keep track of sales figures, end of story. Library borrows count, regular buys count, gifted copies count. Pirated copies do not count. Ever. As far as publishers are concerned, as far as the numbers are concerned, the “readers” that pirates claim to represent quite simply do not exist. And publishers can and do cancel series and special editions and the like if there aren’t enough readers.

So why, exactly, should authors be grateful that pirates are willing to read their books if the publishers don’t ever see them?

“I can’t afford to buy it.”

I can’t afford a new motorcycle, but that’s no excuse to go out and steal one.

Smarmy retorts aside, there are other options:

  • Libraries
  • Asking your local library to acquire the book if they do not already have it available, either in terms of persuading them to stock new material or simply in terms of an inter-library loan
  • Joining reward programs that grant you money for Amazon and other purchases (Kasasa Tunes at the credit union gives me $10 per month just for spending $10 on the likes of Amazon, meaning come the end of the month I could have literally bought $10 worth of ebooks at no cost to me)
  • Books that are available for free through official channels
  • As a last resort, you might try asking the author—some allow freebies in exchange for honest reviews, and you at least show more respect by asking the author than just taking whatever you want. (You should be prepared to accept “no” for an answer, however; I call this one a “last resort” because many authors cannot afford to give up revenue by offering free copies no matter what your reason for wanting one, and no you are not entitled to demand that they “get a real job” when you’re so dead-set on getting that particular book that wouldn’t even exist without the work they put into it.)

What you should never do is accuse authors of being greedy or egotistical or any other manner of insults that implies that you think they don’t have the right to their own work. Because if that book isn’t valuable enough to buy, it isn’t valuable enough to pirate.

The fact that anyone would actively choose piracy over any of the completely legal options, and rant and rave about the pirate sites being shut down whilst ignoring the existence of those other options, and act like the authors are the bad guys in this equation, comes down to one thing, and one thing only… such a person as that has no respect for the author or their work. It has nothing to do with wanting to read the next book. A real reader–a real fan of the work–would be willing to see the difference.

This entry was posted in Cathartic Writing, Creative Pursuits and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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