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Since learning that my book got pirated (it’s since been taken down, at my request), I’ve had a number of fabulous conversations with people about this issue. The question of the rights and wrongs of piracy is both fascinating and profoundly relevant to creators seeking to get their work “out there” in the digital environment.

So, I thought I’d do a follow up post, summarizing the positions and issues (and thereby add my voice to the multitudes on this topic).

the problem

Digital is a mixed blessing. Free distribution means that indie creators:

  1. no longer have the expense of a per-unit cost for producing their works; and
  2. no longer need to rely on the supply chains and distribution channels that they previously needed to get their work “out there.”

It’s all basically free. Which means that those bent on piracy have the same ease of no-cost reproducibility and distribution as do the creators.

People I’ve chatted with–both online and in person–have tended towards either one or the other of two general positions (with lots of grey in between as well, of course): what I’ll call the legal or principles-based position, and the functional or outcomes-based position. I should note, briefly, that the names are meant to be descriptive rather than value-based (in case that’s not obvious!). Also: Most of these folks are creators, or are sympathetic to creators, so their views are in the context of whether or not a creator should exercise his or her rights.

principles-based 

This position has its basis in law (copyright law, generally) and in ethics/morality. There are a few ideas, here.

  1. Acts of piracy break the law. Control over the reproduction (copying) of written expression is protected by copyright law, and that protection comes into existence at the moment of creation (when the expression is “fixed” into tangible form). Copying it without permission is illegal.
  2. Acts of piracy are morally wrong. This position is part of what the courts are protecting in upholding copyright law. It’s the idea that a creator has put in both hard work and creativity to encapsulate his or her unique vision into words, and then put it out there in the hopes of receiving some compensation for that combination of skill, work, and creativity. This needs to be protected, both in order to reward hard work / incentivize future hard work AND because this is inherently the right thing to do.

These are, I think, the two main facets of the principles-based argument against piracy. If there are other nuances or perspectives on the principles-based side, please feel free to mention them in the comments.

outcomes-based

The outcomes-based position involves a 180-degree shift in perspective. Again, there are a lot of nuances involved in this position (indeed, it presumably is slightly different from one person to the next on precise reasons). But, in general, this isn’t about piracy per se, but about “free,” reach, and distribution. So, piracy becomes a sub-venue in this larger notion of distribution–the wider the reach of your work, the more you will benefit.

Two important clarifications here:

  1. for many proponents, it’s not about immediate distribution of the work–about boosting numbers today or tomorrow on Amazon free listings, etc. Everyone knows that there will be some crazy number of downloads if the book is free.
  2. instead, it’s about having readers out there, who might not wager money on an unknown author, but who, having read that unknown’s work for free, will be delighted to pay for the next book (and many books ever after).

The metaphor that suggests itself here is that of tactics (protecting your revenue by having pirates take down your work wherever you find it) versus strategy (letting that pass, on the reasoning that in the long term, you’ll sell more copies because when your next book is out, you’ll have more readers who have read and liked your work out there, a subset of whom will pay for it next time). It’s a battle versus war notion, and I suspect that many of the outcomes-based advocates would argue that in winning the short-term battle of preventing people from downloading your book for free, you’re losing the war of having your work read widely enough to have created a larger base audience for your future books.

commentary

At the extremes, the two positions are paradigmatically different. The principles-based position presents the Kantean notion that the act is wrong in itself, and larger consequences are irrelevant. It rankles to allow piracy to happen, so it must be stopped. Several people with whom I had this discussion held this position. They didn’t care that there was a reasonably good possibility (based on anecdotal evidence, at least) that in a year or two, those who allowed for free distribution (both legitimate and illegitimate) might have a larger reader base, and larger sales figures than those who enforced their legal rights. They could not let pass the inherent wrongness of the act itself.

The outcomes-based position, as the name implies, only cares about final results. So not necessarily today or tomorrow’s loss of revenue, but the way that wider distribution affects long-term growth. They felt that since the copyright is their right to enforce, they’d just hold off on enforcing it, because they 1) felt the evidence of long-term growth was sufficiently compelling to allow it to pass and 2) were not sufficiently bothered by the inherent wrongness of it, from the moral/legal perspective, for that to be determinative.

My problem, of course, is that I’m poised between the two. I feel persuaded by the long-term evidence of growing readership. But then, the Kantean in me is bothered by the unauthorized copying. I suspect that after the initial few strong reactions to piracy (in which my emotional response bolsters that rather petite Kantean inside my mind), the longer-term perspective will prevail, in my case.

Ultimately, given the current technologies and developments, the final facet to a functional perspective is that right or wrong, unauthorized copying is here to stay. It’s likely that laws won’t change this–it’s too easy to do, and to do it anonymously. Any law that seeks to get around that anonymity would likely result in an invasion of privacy that would be objectionable to most users–including many creators (in other words, the very people whose rights are being protected). DRM also probably won’t change this, as many see it as a challenge–and, as far as I’m concerned, given the larger implications of DRM regarding fair use, I would hope that it would always be circumventable.

I also dislike DRM because I feel it imposes a kind of moral infantilism upon users by depriving them of the ability to choose. Some will copy, and some won’t, but I think that should be their choice.

And, ultimately, I think there are enough people who will be willing to pay for the work of creators whom they respect–or who will pay simply because they feel it is the right thing to do–that things will even out in the end. Now of course, this means that a writer’s job is potentially more difficult, because it means that every book has to be good–of a sufficiently high quality to win the respect of readers, such that they’re willing to support that writer by buying future books, rather than grabbing pirated copies. But it also involves understanding that in order to reciprocate, and return those readers’ respect by not imposing cumbersome DRM stuff on their e-books, you’ll need to accept that some readers, no matter how they love your work, will not respect you enough to pay for it.

I’d rather respond to the people whom I respect–and that includes those who may begin with a free copy, because they don’t want to risk their money on an unknown quantity, but who will do the right thing in the end, by paying for works they value–and use that paradigm to guide my future actions, even if that means losing a bit of revenue from those who don’t understand respect.

Sure–I may never get rich off writing. But then I kind of knew that to begin with.

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