Monday, 16 September 2013

The Right to Copy - John Dougherty

I really shouldn't look at the comments on the Guardian website. Too many of them seem to be written by clever people being wilfully stupid.

Take some of the comments on this article, for instance. If you can't be bothered to click the link: Philip Pullman, currently president of the Society of Authors, is cross about internet piracy.

I have no doubt that there is a debate to be had about copyright legislation and whether in this digital age we need to take another look at it. But what annoys me about many of the arguments below the article is that they appear to be made from a position of either ignorance or selfishness. Let's take a quick look at a few:

  • Why should I worry about ripping off rich people? Leaving aside the questionable ethical standpoint that it's okay to rip off people if they have more than you (though I do wonder if those who put forward this argument are okay with being ripped off themselves by others even less well off) - most authors aren't rich
  • There's no difference between illegally downloading something and borrowing it from the library. Actually, there is. When you borrow it from the library, the author is recompensed
  • Authors should write for love of their art, not for money. My personal view, actually, is that in an ideal world nobody would work solely for money*. But I wouldn't be so pompous as to tell anyone else that they should work for free, whatever other joys their work brought them, and I object to anyone telling me the same
  • If I'm not going to buy it, but I download it and read it, the author hasn't lost anything/It's not like stealing; the author still has his work, I've just got it as well. I think these two arguments are really the same, and for some reason this is the argument that winds me up most of all. If you download it for any reason - even curiosity - then it has value to you. If it has value to you, pay for it - and you don't get to decide how much to pay**. If I've made something, it belongs to me and I get to decide under what conditions I share it with you
Writing's a job. If I do it well enough that other people want to read what I've written, I should get paid for it. So if you want to read my work, please don't tell me that you should get it for free and I should be grateful for your time. The world, as one of the wiser Guardian commentators put it, doesn't owe you free entertainment. And neither do I.

*I'd love to unpick this further, but I'd wear out your patience before the end of the post
**unless that's the model the seller has chosen

John's next book:  

 Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, illustrated by David Tazzyman & published by OUP in January 2014


Nicola Morgan said...

I share your pain. It needs to begin in schools, which is why I'm delighted to be writing an article at the moment (well, if I wasn't commenting on your great post!) for ALCS about just that. There is, as you know, no mention of copyright in the new national curriculum guidelines, and there should be. Catch 'em young. Also, today's young people are tomorrow's creatives and need to be able to pay the bills while doing their creative work.

Nicola Morgan said...

PS Forgive me if I don't go and read the comments of the article you're referring to...

JO said...

Agree entirely. There's no debate about paying to watch musicians in a concert, or footballers dribbling a ball around. I know museums are free but we pay to get into all big exhibitions. So how come there's a view that writers should do it for love?

Stroppy Author said...

Couldn't agree more. And no one ever suggests the editors/proofreaders/layout people should do their work for free because they love it, so EVEN IF that were a valid argument for writers (which it isn't), it STILL wouldn't hold up as those people lose their jobs through piracy, too

Richard said...

It's illegal and immoral, but it isn't stealing, and I think it is counterproductive to call it such. If you build a wall for me and then I don't pay you for it, I have not stolen the wall from you, I have defrauded you.

But of course fraud is a white-collar crime, and maybe doesn't hold the same stigma as theft.

Heather Dyer said...

If authors don't get compensated somehow for the work they do, they won't have time to write, so the supply of free 'entertainment' will soon dry up.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, it isn't theft? A book is a product. If someone takes one of my books without paying for it, that is theft. An illegal download of a book is exactly the same as stealing one from the publisher's, so that it can't be sold and add to the author's royalties. But as for musicians, they are also suffering from illegal downloads and people believing they have the right to get their work for nothing.. I seethe with you, John. I shan't go to the Grauniad site either, but I can imagine the kind of comments...

Susan Price said...

Dear Richard - 'Fraud' is theft by another name. That's why it's a crime. Fraud always, as end product, permanently deprives someone of something valuable - the definition of theft. It may be money, or an item of value, (as with a downloaded book) or the legal deeds to something - but the end object of fraud is always theft.
If I build a wall for you, and by some finagling you manage not to pay me, you have defrauded me, yes - but that is a crime because you have stolen from me my just payment for the work I did. You have the wall I built, and I don't have the payment for my time, skill and materials.

Richard said...

Interesting vehemence.

I thought we agreed more with Mark Twain than with Humpty Dumpty.

Fraud is punishable by up to ten years, theft only up to seven. It would seem that fraud is the more serious crime.

They are similar to each other, and both have significant differences from copyright infringement, not the least being that the latter is not a crime, but a civil tort. However I still say that fraud is closer to copyright infringement than is theft.

Theft is the removal of property with the intent to deprive the owner the use of it. If I steal a book from you, then you can't sell it. Fraud is an abuse of trust which deprives someone of value. If I download a copy of your book, you can still sell the same number of them, but I have deprived you of the ability to take money from me, and if I upload it, then I have diluted your market.

There's a balance to be struck between using the right terms and making a powerful point. You could call it murder and make a more powerful point, but your argument would fail because clearly nobody died. The pirates
argue that it does not deprive us of use, and the theft comparison is vulnerable to that. If we compare it to fraud instead, that closes down that line of attack.

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, all, for your comments!

Richard, I can see your point about the difference between fraud & theft, and in terms of a counter-argument it's a good one. That said, I didn't say in the post that illegal downloading was theft, just that it's wrong to argue it isn't like theft, and I stand by that.

But I think Sue's right that fraud is a type of theft, and I suspect you're right to suggest there may be a class basis in the way we regard the two differently.

Nicola Morgan said...

Interestingly, I've just been researching for the article I'm writing and here is a direct quote from the ALCS notes for teachers about the laws of copyright: "It is theft to take and use something which belongs to someone else without permission. The principle applies to writing just as much it does to other forms of property such as a wallet, bicycle or necklace."

I think we're all on the same side here and the disagreement is about semantics - always fertile ground for disagreement but it shouldn't take away from the fact that copyright abuse is stealing something from someone else.