Arrrgh me hearties! The pirates reply

Posted: January 29, 2012 in Features and opinion, Fiction, Random wifflings
Tags: , , , , ,

The post I made on 27 January certainly got a lot of people stoked up, that’s for sure. Which is really good, because I want people to read this blog, because I want people to know who the hell I am and consider buying my books, but more on that later. And now, some more on the subject. You’ve had emotive me, now here’s something a little more reasonable.

I warn you, there are more questions than statements in today’s blog. The topic is: Pirates – evil sea-rapists who terrorised shipping for a century, or lovable cultural memes and suitable subjects for children’s parties?

1. Entitlement

Referring to the first part of my previous blog, it seems that an awful lot of people feel entitled to download free things off the internet. From a strictly “Thou shalt not steal” point of view, that’s baaaad. But is it as simple as them being very naughty, amoral villains, and me being a poor little author? Shall we see? Okay then.

2. Try before you buy

There’s suggestion (not just you lot, but research and that) that some pirates are super-consumers, ie, they’ll consume creative stuff, and if they like it enough, they’ll pay for it. If they like it a lot, they’ll pay for a lot of it. They just might try it for free first, or pay for it when they feel like it, but enough of them generally contribute money to a creative venture to make it worthwhile.

The problem is for creators and publishers is that this removes all control (control is a loaded word, I choose it deliberately). How do I know if my book will be paid for by the majority of people who try it for free, or none of them at all? This is frightening for me, and my mortgage.

3. This is not a new problem, and is it a problem?

Copied tapes, bootleg videos, unauthorised reprints of Dickens – this has been going on forever. Is it, even, a necessary corollary of the distribution of entertainment? (Let’s leave other idea “sharing”, like patent infringement, out of this). One comment on my other post suggested pirated copies should be regarded as shrinkage/wastage. Maybe it should.

Here’s a positive example, again inspired by a comment – the entire anime SF subculture in the west might never have been as big as it is were it not for those bootlegged, home-translated videos of Japanese shows doing the rounds in the 80s and 90s. I’m no otaku, but I’ll bet there are still self-taught anime freaks translating the latest Naruto before the official DVD comes out and banging it on the web. Without that, there’d be no action figure, spin-off/original manga or dodgy little schoolgirl cosplay costume sales. Or even legit Naruto sales. Is anime an entire geek subculture, a lucrative one at that, founded in piracy? I don’t know, answers in the comments box please.

4. Someone is making money

Whether it’s the operators of upload sites coining it in off advertising (have you seen how many advertisements are on those site?) or it’s the more obvious villains selling copied DVDs at a car boot sale, someone is generally making some money off the distribution from illegal copies. You might do it because it’s free, if you’re of a particular mindset you might think you’re getting one over on “The Man” – those Hollywood coke-snorting whoremasters, or Wicked Publishers Inc, but instead you’re giving money to criminals. At the lower, non-internet, car-boot (yard-sale) end, a lot of this cash goes into more serious crime. So, er why not just give the money to the person that made it?

I’m not for a second suggesting upload sites should all be shot down in a cyber-orgy of digital destruction while we all wave the Stars and Stripes (why the hell would I do that? I’m English) and hit people offenders in the face with rolled up SOPA manifestos. Upload sites do have legitimate uses, I use them for such. However, I don’t have the facts, but I’d be really surprised if the majority usage is legit… Still, they do have legitimate uses. Like guns, yeah.  You can shoot targets with them, not just people! (I’m joking, chill out). And the people who run them can stop it dead themselves: Don’t allow illegal crap on your sites. Easier said than done, but if there’s enough legal threat, they’ll employ people to do just that. Enough legal threat to outweigh the ad revenues, at any rate.

On the other hand (there’s a lot of hands in this post), the advent of the digital age actually cuts out revenue for baseline crims. A copied physical book sold on by Mr Dodgy does not the same social impact as Joe Average getting my book for free.

I still don’t get paid mind, but I’m thinking bigger. Isn’t that big of me?

5. This is not just you

I’m no psychologist, but a large number of the responses I’ve had (except for the one in Spanish that told me to have sexual congress with my dear old ma – funny, I didn’t approve that one) have come from people who are attempting to justify copying. I use justify, because they kind of sound like they know they’re doing something a bit wrong. But it’s not just you. What about those corporations who advertise on upload sites which have a large amount of illegal content – they know that site has a large audience because of its illegal content. Do they care? Um, not really.

6. Fair usage

“But I loan books!” Yep, so do I. And DVDs, and I copy my CDs onto my computer, and I buy second-hand books. So what? But, someone, originally paid for even that secondhand book. That’s the killer difference. And it’s legal.

My industry relies on sharing, it’s called word of mouth. More on this later. It’s the killer question, I’m saving it for last. Is potentially millions of people not paying for something the same as lending a book to your sister? No, but then I ask myself, is it really “millions” of people downloading this stuff?

7. The nightmare scenario

This is the thing that keeps scaredy pants like me awake at night: What if we get to a situation where NOBODY EVER PAYS FOR ANYTHING EVERY AGAIN. And I don’t mean in a Captain Picard “Oh, hero Cochrane from the past, we do not have money anymore, we’re all communists now, and it works!” kind of First Contact way. I mean in a culturally inculcated, why should I pay when I kind have it for nothing,?kind of way. It doesn’t matter if it’s still there when it’s been taken, if no one pays, no art, and no job for me. This is happening in some countries/ cultures.

8. What will happen

But honestly, do I think this will happen? No. I think people are in the main too moral. I think people who enjoy the kind of stuff I write aren’t that stupid. I think people are of this mentality: “Hey guys, if we like oranges, let us pay the orange growers to grow oranges and we can all have yummy oranges forever and a day.” And not the “BURN ALL ORANGE TREES AND STEAL THE FURNITURE!” Viking-types (heck, even the Vikings were more of the former, not the latter, unless you were a monk. I don’t think they ever really saw the point of monks).

People do pirate, have pirated, and always will pirate. But it’s important it does not get out of hand. SOPA and the rest are not the answer, that’s a 20th century solution to a 21st century issue.

People pirate not just for free stuff, but for flexibility, to try things out, to experience new, foreign stuff. The solution to the “Oh Christ, they’re downloading my crap for free!” is one of accommodation. The current situation has arisen from an imbalance between what people expect, the technology that enables them to do what they want, and the slow response by the industry. The equation’s a complex one, but it can add up for everyone.  Rock stars might not be living it up quite like they used to, but then I don’t see many begging on the streets either.

And “free” can work. Spotify? Artists get money per play. Libraries? You actually get money every time someone takes your book out. Very cheap and instantly available works even better. iTunes? I buy a ton more music than I ever did and funny, all of it is legitimate. Do I think Ebooks are overpriced? Absolutely. Would I rather sell ten million books for £1.00 (at my 8% I’d get £800,000) or ten thousand for £7.99? (I’d get £6392) What the hell do you think?

9. Publicity and exposure

The internet is a very powerful tool, that’s for sure. I was advised by my publishers to start this blog. I use it as a kind of diary, and an archive of work I’ve done –there’s a fragment of my journalism here, but when I have chance, I put more up. (By the way, the copyright on that I do not own, but I asked permission to reprint it). On average, I’d say I get about one hundred hits for every post.

By deliberately choosing something contentious, like piracy (heartfelt though, it’s not fake, I wouldn’t do that, but I did think about it), I’ve had well over six hundred hits. I’ve sold books. A lot of people who have no idea who I am have at least glimpsed me, even if some of them think me a jerk. That’s me exploiting the internet, not the other way around.

By that extension, is the wide availability of my book for free on the internet actually good for someone like me? Or is stealing simply wrong?

I give work away for free for publicity. Here is a sample from Reality 36. Here from Champion of Mars, here’s a free Richards & Klein short story. Here’s another free short, and another. There’s plenty on this site, I’ll be putting more here over time.  But that’s my right to do so, it’s not a pirate’s right, because it’s my frigging stuff.

And I will say, people do expect to have everything given to them for nothing. And I will also say, when my book is available as cheaply as you want, as conveniently as you want, when there are free samples of it here and on my publisher’s site and it meets all the other halfways and market forces we’ve been discussing and you still choose to download it for free? Then you really are ripping me off.

It’s all going to change. New encryption systems and bigger computers will eventually put the lid on this (mostly). I wouldn’t be surprised if every piece of entertainment in the world has free elements, but then quantumly encrypted, embedded programming demands payment every time you get past that. Whatever, I reckon this whole debate will be of far less importance in a few years time. Seeing my work given away for free by people who have no right to do so upsets me right now, though. Still, creators and consumers will meet halfway.

Thanks for reading, and commenting.

  1. redfox4242 says:

    Well this post is much more thoughtful than your last one which was a tad emotional. I didn’t really think that your kindle book was overpriced. It is way cheaper than the old school paperbacks that you have to pay shipping for. I didn’t know you had a free sample out for Champion of Mars. I will see if I can find that. Peace out.

  2. I think calling the few people who enjoyed your book enough to share it with others ‘thieves’ is frankly suicidal PR.

  3. Pizzaboy192 says:

    while i do agree that piracy in general is wrong, are there not some situations where pirating is legal? (as in: you own a casette copy or vhs copy of an album or movie, and you want to watch/listen to it on your computer. instead of ‘breaking’ copyright and duplicating it at substandard quality to your computer, why not download it since you already own it? the same applies to books. i really enjoyed Reality 36, but i don’t enjoy paying for a digital copy of a book. instead i will buy a hardcopy because i feel that it is ‘mine’ when i can hold it and look at it when my tablet is off. i borrowed reality 36 from a library (digitally) and liked it enough that i will eventually purchase it, but for now, i have the digital copy on my tablet until i can find a physical copy. it just makes more sense to me.

    • guyhaley says:

      This parallel between CDs and books is made a lot, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable point. There’ll probably be (there should be) a time when if you buy a hard copy, you get digital rights too. The difficulty is with the logistics of it, the nature of paper books being what they are.

      • Gav Thorpe says:

        These days, IP Lawyers have a sort of ‘temporal’ get out that allows for burning of CDs, creating playlists, etc. In essence, it allows for a user to legitimately access their single copy of a work at different times, and hence is still considered to be a single copy. It still doesn’t alow them ot give that copy to somebody else. Or something like that, I can’t remember all of the conversation I had; it was a few years ago when I was still at GW.

        As for the digital rights with dead tree editions, if they can offer it now with physical DVDs, I’m sure some kind of code system can be used for ebooks too. The only problem I see is that printing unique information (voucher codes/ security keys or whatever) would impact the price of the paperbacks.

  4. Neal Asher says:

    Go with the orange tree analogy. Plant your trees and spend decades nurturing them, spending out on the right kind of sprays and fertilizer, produce your oranges. Then along come the pirates, ‘Ooh, look, free oranges!’ It’s very simple really and there is no need for complications. Not only is the writer’s effort on writing a book stolen, but the time he spent learning how to do it is stolen too. How hard is it to figure out that theft of a mental product is no different from the theft of a physical one? Trying to justify it by saying that the initial theft will bring the thief back to buy some more of that product is hilarious. I for one, to put it mildly, would question the probity of such a person.

    • Neal Asher wrote:

      It’s very simple really and there is no need for complications.

      Stated like a man who will never understand anything complex. Well done.

      • guyhaley says:

        Oi! Less of that snarkmaster. I’ve been reading your tweets, with your “trashy techno thriller” (say that if you read it by all means) and “assumes he’ll make a living out of it, he isn’t, so blame the pirates” (Which I don’t, and I won’t. That’s really not the point. Yeah, okay, the food out of child’s mouth was a bit too much, but I was erm, a bit drunk).

        Now, be as condescending to me as much as you like. Personally I don’t think disagreeing with someone’s opinion on a contentious matter like this is a valid reason to be so, but I’m willing to let all have their head. However, on this blog you can respect the opinions of other people, all right? If you have a point, make it like a gentleman. Cheers.

      • It’s just a statement of fact. Trying to draw analogies between agrarian models of food production and the 21st Century knowledge economy is exactly the kind of ‘very simple really no need for complications’ thinking that gets in the way of actually understanding what is, undeniably, a complex situation.

        Books are not oranges. Ideas are not fruit. The commercial models of the past do not necessarily apply in the present day. Things change, one of the things changing is copyright, and how we manage intellectual property. Attempting to squeeze a complex issue in to the Daily Mail language of ‘theft’ and ‘piracy’ only serves to obscure the actual facts you are dealing with.

        If you don’t want to be condescended to, don’t mouth off simplistic ideas in a public forum. I’d happily discuss any of this sensibly, but as long as you’re throwing around wildly inaccurate terminology drawn from the Jeremy Clarkson school of rhetorical debate, what kind of response to you expect exactly?

        Even putting aside all the moral issues around free and universal access to information…blah…blah…blah…benefit to the advancement of mankind…etc…etc…etc…fate of pulp SF novelists not very important in comparison… (an argument which can be boiled down to “I’d rather have Wikipedia than a bunch of genre novels) …take a second and ask one simple, pragmatic question about piracy…

        Can you stop it? Is there any way in a world permeated by digital technology that you can stop people copying your book? Unless you have access to a technological solution that has eluded the biggest media producers in the world, your only answer “No I can’t.” So in the end you have to think, you either go with the flow or the sea will come in and smash you off your feet, however hard you try to hold it back.

        And…I was actually referring to a different author when I referenced technothrillers, as a generic type of fiction common among writers who bemoan ‘piracy’.

  5. guyhaley says:

    Thank you. A reasoned argument is much better than a one liner, if not least because I’m actually interested in what you have to say. What is a self-evident truth to you isn’t necessarily one to me.

    What you say is pretty much the conclusion I’ve come to, as much as it irks me. Not that I am irritated by the world turning per se. It’s just highly annoying to be caught in the middle as one custom of commerce evolves into another. I’ve already been through vast changes brought on by IT in the media: the endless job losses, the depressed wages, the mounting load of work per worker, and I took them phlegmatically. But when the tide of change invades my last corner to hide, it’s too much.

    In a very simplistic sense – and I don’t think you can criticise people in a transitional phase referring back to what they are accustomed to too harshly – those people who pirate, and the companies that facilitate it, are to “blame”, they know what they do is “wrong”, and in that it is “stealing”. It is a violation of copyright. I don’t see it as “sharing”. But then, I use quotes as the things that underpin those words are shifting.

    Yeah, being cross won’t stop it happening, okay. In that, it’s a problem of industry response. Markets are dynamic, not static, especially now, people will be drawn to convenience above all else, and if we don’t provide it then, well, they have ample opportunity to furnish themselves with it. For my part, I am tempted to try the creative commons route for a book, as an experiment.

    My first post is my emotional reaction to the issue; maybe it’s petulant (yeah, it is petulant), but it has provoked a lot of discussion. I stand by my other point on the vast sense of entitlement every stratum of society has developed, though. And I think blasting off at those people who go “Teehee, okay this is a little bit cheeky, but what the hell” is worthwhile, just for the guilt. Things are changing, but it’s not a victimless pursuit, even if it is only 16 potential pence.

    This second post is where I stand on it intellectually. I actually started closer to this second position, but then it happened to me. For the time being, until a new status quo evolves, I remain fairly annoyed, and will probably freely oscillate between the Jeremy Clarkson/ Cory Doctorow positions. I reserve the right to kick off about it (and to be condescended at in return).

    Still, I cannot take the powerful marketing tool that is the internet to my bosom and then decry the downside of it, can I? Yeah I can. I’m only human.

    A different author. Ha! Well, that’s me caught out for internet eavesdropping and 2+2=5isms. Naughty Guy.

    • I can totally empathise with being intimidated by the changes. The very harsh fact is that, even if they amount to a society wide benefit, which I believe all of this digital change does in total, many many people will be disenfranchised by it. That’s perhaps why I get frustrated with the ‘piracy’ arguments because if thats the ground you choose to stand on, then your among the most likely to get washed away in the tsunami.

      My personal answer to all this is “Write exactly what you want and write it as good as you can.” From my perspective the thing that’s dead in this change isn’t the book, but the book as a commodity. The basic equation remains the same as ever, writers who write really great things will make a pretty good living from that, because it’s a rare and precious thing that people love. In a way thats a challenge to genre writers, because the established model of writing a book a year, and books that are a lot like other books, doesn’t tend to produce great books. Good books sometimes, but not great.

      • guyhaley says:

        I think that’s always been the answer, hasn’t it?

      • Pretty much. All piracy is from that perspective is an indication you’re writing good stuff. The better your stuff, the more it gets pirated, but also it sells more. At worse piracy is a minor loss for artists who make the most. At best its marketing for your product. It’s not worth worrying about.

  6. Neal Asher says:

    Well done Damien, you managed to lever in Jeremy Clarkson and the Daily Mail in too. All from the Guardain/CIF school of rhetorical debate i.e. you don’t subscribe to my politics therefore you’re dumb. Really you need to up your game – you didn’t manage to get a single ‘Thatcher’ in there.

    Certainly things are changing and I don’t particularly fear that. I can already see that the old publishing model is going out of the window and my experience with self-publishing on Kindle has given me a glimpse of the future (well, the present actually): much more self-publishing and internet debate etc sorting the wheat from the chaff, writers getting a larger percentage of ‘cover price’ and the powerbase moving over to internet sellers like Amazon. However, downloading a book without paying for it is still stealing, and that is simple.

    Incidentally, conflating book piracy with the obvious advantages of ‘universal access to information’ is rhetoric too.

    • It’s no conflation to relate the information revolution to file sharing. The latter arises as a consequence of the former. If you want to stop file sharing, you have to stop the information revolution. Which could be done, by a sufficiently draconian authority. Let’s hope for all our sakes we don’t do that to ourselves.

      No one knows the answer to how we pay the creators or curators of the information. If you think its a problem for novelists, consider the issues in journalism, academic research, even education. Teachers may soon be a thing of the past as open educational resources put that market under threat. We’re all having to adapt to a very different economic environment. The only certainty I can see is that defining your customers as pirates is a good way of alienating yourself from the solution, whatever form it takes.

  7. First of all, copying is not necessarily the same thing as stealing. If they would not buy it in the first place you have not lost anything. I don’t really know enough to go into the positive effects it has so I’ll leave it that.

    I think it’s a complicated problem with several simpler underlying reasons. One of them would be the cost of books, albums, movies, etc. When I was younger I pirated everything I could, mostly because it saved me tons of money. Some of it I would never have bought anyway. Then I got a job and I started paying for most of the games, but still downloaded movies. Then I got a raise and decided I can afford to pay for whatever I need.

    I have always had strong feelings on what is wrong and right and the need to be honest, but funnily that seemed to apply less to games and movies. I still knew it was wrong, and eventually the gain from doing it was less than the degrading of my integrity. I dont want to live in a word where writers and movie makers have to beg on the streets, and I do think they deserve to be paid for their IP.

    Today’s technology has however made this business model very difficult to enforce, and it will probably stay that way for a very long time, possibly forever. That does not mean all is lost. Today many companies have a business model which means content or services are free for 99% of their users, and they make all their money from the 1% who pay for a premium service. There is also some evidence for how a subscription based model can work, which would be similar to a library I guess. Angry Robot is experiment with this, and I am quite excited to see how that goes. Tricky to get the pricing right, you cant expect to get paid for every book really. I dont know a single publisher I would want to read EVERY book.


  8. Neal Asher says:

    Now you seem to be mixing up ‘customers’ with ‘pirates’ Damien. Certainly they are not mutually exclusive but isn’t it odd that those who’ve found my work through piracy and then contact me always start out by apologizing. Could it be that they know what they were doing was wrong?

    Collins English Dictionary: Customer n. 1. A person who buys.

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