Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Caught read-handed... by Nicola Morgan

Recently, the Guardian reported the story of author Terry Goodkind, who "turned to Facebook to name and shame a fan who pirated a digital version of his latest novel".  As usual when a case of theft is revealed, there were arguments on both sides, regarding whether words should be free or authors should be entitled to protect their work and earn from it. Paulo Coelho is quoted as calling on "pirates of the world" to "unite and pirate everything I've ever written". Coelho has every right to say this of his own work - he is exercising the degree of control (or lack of) that he chooses.

However, I do not recall him calling on pirates of the world to pirate steal everything that anyone else has ever written. 

And this is what the proponents of the "words should be free" argument so often forget. Surely the choice should be made by the creator of the content? Otherwise it's theft.

Whether or not illegal downloading increases sales is utterly beside the point. It may well do so. All my self-published ebooks are DRM-free, not because I want them to be stolen but because I want my readers to be able to read them on any device in as many places as they wish, and if the price I must pay is that some people will steal, that's a price I'll pay. That does not mean that I am happy with anyone stealing it, or that I can afford to be stolen from. But frankly, even that misses the point: theft is still theft however much the victim can absorb the loss. 

Recently on my Crabbit At Home blog, I linked to an excellent but long piece arguing why illegal downloading is morally wrong, but to be honest, when will we stop making the arguments so complicated?

Taking something without the owner's permission is theft and theft is wrong. I grant that if you'd die without the stolen item, it's forgivable. But it's still theft. And last thing I heard, books may be important but you don't generally die for the lack of one.

It really is that simple.  

Recently, I downloaded the remarkably wonderful Adblock program, a piece of free software which instantly removes all adverts from my internet experience, including those dreaded "belly-fat" ads on Facebook. After I'd downloaded, I was given the option of paying a contribution, if I wished. I paid $5.

A few days later, I received this email (my bold):
Hi Nicola
I wanted to say thanks for paying for AdBlock at http://chromeadblock.com/pay. I wrote AdBlock hoping to make people's lives better, and you just told me that I managed to do it :) Thank you very, very much!  
It's been over a year since I quit my job, asking my users to pay what they can afford for AdBlock to fund its development. Most users (like, 99%) choose NOT to pay, so you should know that I appreciate your support that much more!

In any case, Katie and I feel that this is important work, so I'll keep working on AdBlock as long as I am able.  Thank you! :D
99% of people choose not to pay? I'm not sure whether I'm shocked or just mildly surprised. I'm sure that the vast majority of these, however, would not dream of downloading illegally. Would they?

Those are quite different scenarios, different choices by the creators, but each is about the struggle of the creator to earn from his or her work.

When we buy a book, we have several choices, of format, of price and of retailer, new or secondhand. Or we can borrow free from a library or a friend. It seems to me those are sufficient choices to make illegal downloading a purely selfish and/or ignorant crime that never has any justification. 

It seems to me that if we value creation, it is morally right to respect the creator and not steal from him. Many creators - Paulo Coelho and the Adblock guy, for example - are being extremely generous in their offering. Many writers, especially those who control their own output, are being similarly generous, trying to offer many options in price and free downloads. Other writers, whose books and pricing are controlled by their publishers, behave generously in many other ways, for example by going to great lengths to give up time to campaign for libraries - including school libraries, where we don't earn PLR, and none of us grudge for one moment a book lent free in a school library

That's what genuine book-lovers do. They do not steal from writers.


Anonymous said...

Well said. A theft by any other name would still be wrong.

JO said...

I think it's about respecting the work of others.

Just because it is relatively easy to steal written material is no excuse for doing it. And I think the same goes for photographs - someone has gone out with camera, done clever twiddly things with it, then played with digital whatnots to make it as wonderful as he/she can, before offering it for us all to enjoy. We don't have the right to appropriate these images any more than we do to steal the written word.

Nick Green said...

Well, I reserve the right NOT to pirate Paulo Coelho's work, or for that matter buy, borrow or otherwise read it by accident.

'Words should be free?' What a disingenuous thing to say. Of course WORDS are free, but that's not what we as writers are selling, any more than musicians are selling vibrating air molecules. What we are selling are the stories and ideas represented via the medium of words in a chosen combination. That is artistry, that takes vast amounts of time and effort, and that (unless the author says otherwise) should never be free. It's WORK.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the internet / digital. When things are physical, no one seems to have a problem with the concept of theft but once online, a lot of people seem to create a ‘moral’ differentiation / justification to take / use work and use as they see fit.
I did a National Crime Survey recently with an interviewer. We spent 30 mins talking about crime in the neighbourhood but there were no specific questions about on line theft and I had to type a mini essay into her computer about my credit card being phished and my photos taken without my permission online.
If the Government doesn’t recognise fully recognise it as crime, it’s no wonder people think it’s ok.

Catherine Butler said...

I'm coming round to thinking that people are quite primitive creatures in this regard, and don't truly deeply regard something as theft unless it involves a physical object. This applies to piracy, but also to tax evasion. Many people who evade tax would probably jib at stealing fivers directly from the purses of pensioners, even though that's effectively what they're doing. Without the physical object, it lacks the moral heft to pull on your guilt strings.

The other aspect is replicability. If you have 12 apples and I take one, you've only got 11 left. Whereas, if I download your book, you're "no worse off than before".

In a world where more and more possessions are in non-physical form, this is an area where people are going to have to catch up fast.

Susan Price said...

Hear, hear, Nicola. My impression is that those who defend pirating - 'everything should be free' - are thieves and know themselves to be thieves, just as pickpockets, shoplilfters and burgulars do. But the downloaders like to hide behind this nice, shiny defence. 'It's about freedom!'
I'll believe them on the day they defend their bosses' right to get a long year's work out of them for nothing - and a book often takes longer than a year to write.

Richie Brown said...

It's very much a conscience thing - that's why 1% of people who find free software useful pay a donation. Sadly, it's this 1% who will agree with what is written in this blog post, while the other 99% won't even read it. They'll be too busy reading their illicitly-gained copy of 50 Shades - not that the 50 Shades franchise is losing out.....

The issue of illegal downloading has affected the music industry arguably much longer than literature and we should look to see how sites such as bandcamp allow bands to distribute their material often on a "pay what you think it's worth" basis.

Of course, this method (the Radiohead method as it's often known as) means you have to rely a lot on self-promotion to even reach those who are willing to pay.

There is now an entire generation online who do not see illegal downloads as theft and it will be difficult to ever change their minds.

In the meantime, the only people making a fortune are those who run those 'Facebook fat' ads which these illegal download sites are plastered in.

Nicola Morgan said...

Susan - "My impression is that those who defend pirating - 'everything should be free' - are thieves and know themselves to be thieves, just as pickpockets, shoplilfters and burgulars do." Absolutely.

Richie - "the only people making a fortune are those who run those 'Facebook fat' ads which these illegal download sites are plastered in." Yes, indeed. That was the powerful aspect i took away from the very long article I linked to. It's very interesting that people are happy to knock big business at the same time as stealing from small people in a way that only helps big business.

Catherine - yes, this is the really hard bit to explain, isn't it? It doesn't look as though it hurts us, especially when people don't realise that this is not a hobby but the way we feed ourselves. So, one theft is a deduction from my income.

Dan Holloway said...

The only issue I have with this whole debate - this specific one with Terry Goodkind, that is - is that there has been too little discussion of the actin he chose to take. Authors - as your post attests - are desperate for piracy to be taken seriously as what it is - a crime. Which means the correct response is to report instances to the authorities. By not doing so (with any other crime, if someone decides to act on their own initiative we call them a vigilante), Goodkind is weakening authors' claims that this is a crime to be taken as seriously as other crimes so the way he has been championed (not here, I should add) really does no favours.

And excellent for you for paying for Adblock

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - when I started writing the post, I was going to go into that but a) I decided that the post was going to be too long and b) I decided that the important parts to me were not the rights and wrongs of retaliation but the wrongs of the thief and the rights of authors. If I disagree with TG's actions, I do so very mildly and on a theoretical level that doesn't really grip me. I don't blame him even if i don't agree with his action; I do blame the thief, and I don't want to detract from that.

Tamsyn Murray said...

Excellent post, Nicola. Great comments, too.

I cannot say this too often; no one claims that car theft is great exposure for the manufacturer. Why should online piracy, whether of books, music or film, be any different?

Gill James said...

I often feel like putting a PayPal button on my web site with the caption next to it: if you've ever sampled my work fro free - found it on a free download site, borrowed form a friend or bought a book second hand, and you value my work, please feel free to make a donation.

I don't do it though. I feel as if I'm begging. Of course I'm not really.