Category: "Piracy"

Why Worrying About Book Piracy Is A Waste Of Time

by Michael  

This began as a response to Chuck Wendig's Why I Hope You Won't Pirate My Book” post at Teribleminds. Go read it and buy all his stuff. You won't be sorry.


I agree with Chuck that artists, especially writers, should get paid. I wouldn't work in this field if I didn't. I might finish editing my novel to a “ready to submit to agents” level even if I didn't imagine I could make some scratch on it, but not with the sense of urgency I have. And I certainly wouldn't put up with some of the negativity I get from some of the people I edit for now if it didn't pay well. But I don't worry about piracy. Let me make myself unpopular for a moment.

I was poor growing up. I'm talking “Toys-For-Tots, powdered milk, and government cheese” poor. Most of my neighbors didn't speak English. I was lucky and eventually escaped because I'm white, and let's face it, that makes it easier. A few months ago, one of my old classmates was arrested for being one of the biggest coke dealers in Chicagoland. Like I said, we were poor, but I was also really into books.  

I rode my bike to the library every couple of days for something new to read. I exhausted my age category by the end of the third grade, and moved on to adult sci-fi in the fourth. The books got heavier, but I kept going back. In fifth grade, we moved to a nicer neighborhood and I was still poor, but within walking/biking distance of a comic shop and a used bookstore. I traded paperbacks from whomever would give them to me for “new to me” books at that used bookstore for years. Then, when I was done reading those I'd trade them again. The lady who ran the shop must have liked me because she seldom made a profit off me after the first year. I read everything, from Choose Your Own Adventure to Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. I still have a few of those books. My comic shop also had a .25¢ bin. I used that a lot too, just to get a fix of The Hulk or The Fantastic Four.

When I was old enough to work, I learned how to game the system. First it was being the first to request a new book at the library. If they got enough requests for the book, even fake ones, they'd order the book and I'd get to read it first. I got a job at a video store and they gave me free copies of movies. Then I worked at a record shop and we would get to keep the promo copies that came in, just like the video store. I spent very little money on these things, electing instead to buy my own car and my own insurance so I could get to these jobs, but I discovered all sorts of great art through these free copies, like Reservoir Dogs and Bad Religion. I took a job at a bookstore and learned I was allowed five books a month for free as long as we tore the cover off and sent it back to the publisher. The Koran, The Story of O, and even the latest Star Wars pulp were game.

Oh, and I also had friends. Friends meant I could borrow and lend even more. I read Watchmen this way, and exposed my friends to Arkham Asylum. Novels, comics, movies... We traded it all. I still have the Maxell copy of Pearl Jam's “Vs.” I got from one friend, and I watched Akira and Vampire Hunter D until the VHS copies I had of those crapped out utterly.

So what’s my point? The secondary market has always existed. I didn’t pay anything for most of the media I consumed growing up, but I don’t consider the notion that I “stole” any of these books, movies, or music. I’ve purchased books, and I’ve borrowed books, and I’ve traded books, and I’ve given books away just as freely as they’ve been given. But I refuse to believe that if I set off this very moment and downloaded a copy of someone’s book, I’d be doing more harm now than I ever did with any of the things I mention above. For me, sharing has always been part of the culture of consuming art and media.

I accept what we cheekily call “piracy” for what it is: massive sharing. The difference is that if I have one copy to share of a physical book, that’s only one sale they miss out on, but if I can make infinite copies and give them all away, that’s an infinite amount of sales lost, right? On the surface that makes sense, but is it really an issue? Look at The Pirate Bay for a moment. Just surf on over some time and look up authors who are “mid-list” or bigger. As of this very moment, around noon on February 5, 2013, Margaret Atwood has 26 people “leeching” her book. That’s 26 people actively downloading torrents of her books on the biggest torrent site on the planet. John Scalzi has 8. Joe Hill has 7. Chuck Wendig has zero. Joe Hill’s dad, Stephen King, has a lot more, but he’s also written a lot more. His biggest single leech count is 7, on the book “11.22.63”. A search for Neil Gaiman leads to a surprisingly small list of titles, and including comics and audio books, a total of 53 people are downloading his work without paying for it.

So, if this is a problem, and not getting paid always is, it isn't as big as what Disney faces with pirated copies of The Avengers. But that already made a billion dollars and everyone involved got filthy rich. The bigger and more popular something is, the more it gets pirated. So, the only way us writers will come to a point of having to truly worry about piracy effecting us in meaningful ways is if we get filthy rich and popular off it first. I'm having a hard time seeing what about that makes people panic.

If anyone knows the value of a dollar, it’s me. I get the economy is tight. I’ve lived in welfare conditions, and it ain’t easy. Writing isn’t a great gig for getting rich, and never has been. Sure, you might gain “fame”, but all that means is that more people know who you are than you actually know yourself. That doesn’t put bread and cheese on the table. Writers really should be able to expect to make a living. They contribute to our society greatly and bring us much joy, so why shouldn’t they. All artists should. The problem isn’t the people sharing though. Calling it “piracy” is a ruse, because it isn’t like all these other people are making profits from someone else’s work. The problem is that the market itself devalues the writer and all artists really. When Amazon can sell your work for less than what it is worth, THAT is a problem. When the publishers, recording companies, and movie studios take more than their fair share, THAT is the problem. When self-styled “indies” try to get around the system by giving away their work or pricing it cheap in order to compete with the predatory pricing tactics of the big companies, THAT is the problem too.

So share away. Support your favorite artists however you can, and as directly as you can. If you love something, and you bought it, share it with others. Get them to buy more art too. Most of all, stop whining about piracy unless you find a knock off of your work in a store somewhere. The secondary market is valuable in its own way, and it’s always been there, even if it takes a new form now. For all the music, books, comics and movies I didn’t pay for as a kid, I still bought t-shirts, posters, buttons, etc. We all did. We still do. When we love something, especially as dorks and nerds, we support that thing. We make movies into blockbusters. We vault writers to the tops of best seller lists. We give Disney a reason to turn Darkhawk into the next big comic-to-movie franchise. Okay, that’s wishful thinking, but we really need to try and stay calm about things like “piracy” because it distracts us from our real problems, like bad deals from mega-corporations and writing as prolifically as Stephen King. We don’t need a “Please Don’t Pirate My Book” day. We never have.