Thursday, 9 May 2019

Is piracy mainstream now? (Anne Rooney)

 Every now and then over the last 10-15 years, there has been a little flurry of panic and outrage as another author discovers there are free downloads of their book(s) available somewhere online. Seasoned authors point out that they can send as many take-down notices as they like, the sites will just ignore them and be unprosecutable because they are always under the non-jurisdiction of some bit of the cyberhinterland. Google some of my books and there are TEN THOUSAND links to illegal downloads.

I could spend my whole life sending pointless take-down notices, so I send none. Lots of those sites don't even have any books; they are just harvesting email addresses or depositing the digital equivalent of doggy dung, not in a plastic bag but on the gullible consumer's device. This style of piracy is part of the landscape. Like shops trying to stop shoplifting, it's a fight that will never be won, though we can possibly pick off a few of the more amateur attempts.

But this year has seen something rather different,involving large and generally respectable organisations from public libraries to the BBC.

The Internet Archive Open 'Library' has been scanning any physical book it can lay its hands on, uploading the files and offering them as a free digital 'loan' through its worldwide library. It's hardly the first attempt to make all books illegally available, but as it doesn't require the potential pirate-reader to register a credit card or any other details, it's probably more attractive to a wary book-thief. It also brazenly declares that it's legal under US 'fair use' rules. Firstly, it isn't — that's just a lie. (The Trumpesque stance of saying something untrue and browbeating people into believing it doesn't actually make it true.) And secondly, not all the world is the US. It most certainly is not legal in the UK. Boston Public Library (shame on them) have been providing physical books to OL to facilitate the theft and defended the practice to the Society of Authors. But it's still illegal.

Another, similar, illegal e-lending site appeared in March. With a little coy request that people don't upload copyright material it claims to have done its bit for protection, though of course it takes no notice if people do upload copyright material. And they are probably perfectly happy with that, as the site would have little appeal if all it hosted was books by long-dead people that have either vanished without trace or are available to own from Project Gutenberg.

Even this is not the worst. At least these are contentious sites and although the public might be duped into theft by spurious and grandiose claims of legality and open access, they are still on the fringe of public engagement and discourse. The last couple of months have seen widely respected organisations — the BBC and LinkedIn — taint themselves.

The BBC news website published a story (in distinctly admiring tones) about teachers live-streaming themselves reading entire picture books for their pupils to listen to at bedtime. Excuse me? Would that be the same BBC that kicks up an almighty fuss when bits of its programmes appear, unauthorised, on YouTube?

I have written to the BBC asking them either to take down the story or at least to amend it to point out that this is illegal copyright violation and harmful to the very writers and illustrators that the teachers presumably admire (or they wouldn't be using their work). So far, they are finding it tricky to resolve. Funny, that. If I were spotted encouraging someone to put unpaid-for goods in their bag at a supermarket and bypass the tills, I don't imagine the supermarket would find it tricky to resolve. I fully accept that primary school teachers may not realise they are breaking the law (though really, they SHOULD know how to use the tools of their job legally). But for the BBC to endorse and applaud criminal abuse is a sad sign of the times.

And LinkedIn. It has a service called SlideShare originally aimed at professionals with that PowerPoint malaise that means they are incapable of talking to more than one person at a time without breaking out in bullet points. If it were for $$geeks to share their 50 points about worthwhile investments or whatever, and they chose to do it, fine. But it's now full of 'slide shows' that are five slides 'about' a book with a link to an illegal download on one or more of the slides. Do LInkedIn care? No reader, they do not. If you wade through their intractable site and find the link to complain, they suggest you send a take-down notice to the original poster. If you write saying 'I don't want to hear your advice to send a take-down notice', they still suggest you send a take-down notice to the original poster. Again, it's a legitimate and respected company endorsing or turning a blind eye to crime on their patch — indeed, hosting it on their platform.

This, by the way, is why we need the new EU copyright legislation. It would make LinkedIn and their ilk liable for these infringements and so give copyright holders a one-stop shop to get stolen content taken down.

Why does it matter? This is our work. We have spent a long time producing this work and are paid, on the whole, very little. Authors (writers and illustrators) are scraping a living. The more stolen copies of our work circulate, the fewer legitimate copies will be bought or borrowed from libraries and so the less we will earn. The more stolen copies circulate, the fewer books publishers will be prepared to invest in producing. Readers will lose out in the end. Quality books are expensive to produce; why bother if it's going to be stolen?

There is a wider issue, too, in that if we allow various types of criminal activity to be ignored, there is a thin-end-of-the-wedge effect. We've seen that with the kind of abuse certain groups of people are now routinely subjected to by offenders who don't fear any consequences, and possibly don't even see anything wrong in it. If a teacher violates copyright reading to her young pupils, where are those pupils going to learn respect for the property of others? And tomorrow's citizens really need to realise that digital property is still property as more and more property is digital every day. Those ££s in your bank account? They have no physical reality, you know. If you can steal my book, how is it different if I steal your digital ££s?

And finally... The pictures I've used here reflect a different, popular narrative. That pirates are an exciting, freedom-loving, bunch on the margins of society. That they are outside the laws of any particular country, seeking adventure and danger on the open seas. Yes — but also they were (and are) violent criminals with no regard for the rights, property or bodies of others, treating rich and poor alike and avoiding all social responsibility. (I used one of my own books* because I didn't want it to look as though I was criticising anyone else's book — there are other pirate books, equally good and better.)

Today's digital pirates cash in on the first bit, the romantic heroes dodging danger. They cite the 'information wants to be free' mantra and claim to be doing public good. But information IS free — it's creative work that is not free. And they are doing public harm. It would help if people remember that pirates routinely slaughter the crew of ships in the Indian Ocean and other places, just to get their hands on some money. They are not figures of romantic heroism but straight-out criminal thugs. It would also help if we started to label the consumers of pirated goods as thieves, receivers of stolen goods, fences, and so on. Public broadcaster tells you how to do crime; network for professionals and thieves; primary-school teacher and stolen-book fence; doesn't sound so good, does it?

*All text and illustrations from Pirates: Dead Men's Tales, copyright Carlton books; illustrations by Joe Wilson; text by me; all these pages are available legally on Amazon Look Inside.

Anne Rooney

Chair, Educational Writers' Group, Society of Authors

Dinosaur Planet, Lonely Atlas
Winner 9-12 School Library Association prize, 2018; shortlisted, Royal Society Young People's Book Award 2018

See the Dinos at Hay Festival, 1st June 2019




15 comments:

Nicola Morgan said...

*applauds loudly and wearily* Shame on the BBC and LinkedIn.

Chitra Soundar said...

I’m with you in this battle. We must escalate the fight and get more attention and make it less attractive for people to steal. When regular decent people are ok to download movies and books that they didn’t pay for - we have lost our moral compass.

Jenny Vaughan said...

Absolutely, Anne, and especially 'But information IS free — it's creative work that is not free.' That goes for anything 'creative', fiction, nonfiction, journalism, the lot. If the public wants information, it has to accept that unless every individual is going to do his or her own research someone else will have to do that. And then distil it into a form that can be easily understood. And that person needs to eat, house him/herself and so on. So it must be paid for ...

catdownunder said...

Well said!

Enid Richemont said...

100% YES, Anne. Say it loud and keep on saying it.

Gwen Grant said...

Thank you for this, Anne.

Moira Butterfield said...

BTW I think the Society of Authors would do well to quiz all the political parties about their copyright policies. The intellectual property section of the Green Party manifesto is very alarming, for instance, and reads as if they aim to legitimise pirates and allow free use of most things. For example. 'legalizing peer to peer copying where it is not done as a business' would cover the teachers reading out books, by the sound of it. It seems as if copyright is being attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, giving pirates free reign.

Stroppy Author said...

Until/if we leave the EU, the new EU copyright directive is in force. The Greens are not going to win a general election. But yes, I agree. When quizzed on their copyright position last time around they backtracked and made it quite clear they didn't really know what they were talking about and hadn't thought it through. It's a shame if it's still in their manifesto, though

Moira Butterfield said...

Yes because it legitimises the pirates in the same way as the likes of Google.

Michael Evans said...

Well done Anne. An absolutely horrifying development!

Jenny Vaughan said...

Totally with Moira on the issue of the Greens' 'policy'. Pity, as Anne says, that it's still in their manifesto, but I'm not convinced it's an aberration or a mistake.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Excellent post. We need to keep reiterating this point - and challenging any policy or procedure that legitimises pirates.

Unknown said...

Great piece Anne. Thank you.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This piece needs to appear in the newspapers so that the BBC and Linked In are forced to take action and accept that this is piracy. For a teacher not to know is surprising, (I suppose it was done in good faith) but for the BBC to endorse it, is totally unacceptable.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this excellent post Anne. Shocking that the BBC and LinkedIn are condoning this, and I agree about how the word 'pirate' is used rather than 'thief'.