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Part II
What Pirates Say To Copyright.

(WTF? Read Part 1)

“For the first time, we saw everything they could bring to the battle. And it was… nothing. Not even a fizzle. All they can say is “thief, we have our rights, we want our rights, nothing must change, we want more money, thief, thief, thief. And shove some poor artists in front of them to deliver the message. Whereas we are talking about scarcity vs. abundance, monopolies, the nature of property, 500-year historical perspectives on culture and knowledge, incentive structures, economic theory, disruptive technologies, etc.”

Rickard Falkvinge,
founder of the Swedish Pirate Party

The piracy debate runs on emotion. And it has good reason to: emotional arguments work. Politicians use them all the time. For example, they garner support for internet censorship to stop (read: throw a curtain over) child pornography, terrorism, or those pesky whistleblowers.  After September 11, in the United States they were used to justify invasions of privacy, illegal detention, torture, and war. Emotional arguments are effective arguments because anyone opposing them looks like a jerk, or worse. If you can resist, you must be a pedo, a terrorist, a spy or just anti-[inset country name here].

The copyright debate has likewise suffered. Starving artists, collapsing industries, dying arts, and depraved children who grow up with the notion that stealing is okay–these are the rocks advocates of copyright use to stone the pirates.

But where emotions eclipse logic, there is no real debate.

I would gladly listen to the arguments of these advocates, if there had any arguments to speak of.   When two extremes can sit down at the same table and understand each other, then there is hope for progress.  But most people don’t understand the murky waters the pirates sail in because they are blinded by the white-lighters at the other end of the spectrum.  How can you judge shades of grey if you don’t understand black and white? Copyright, after all, is not the worst idea ever, and surely there is some compromise that protects artists and fans alike. Creative Commons is one example of giving artists direct control and options for their rights instead of laying down one law for everyone. But few people want to debate.  They would rather shout or cry or cheer for their team like its the damn Superbowl.

There needs to be a serious copyright debate, but there isn’t right now.  And when you have one side throwing up arguments like these, it’s hard to believe that there ever will be:

“My cats don’t understand “Mommy can’t feed you because people don’t believe she should be compensated for her work.”
Seanan McGuire

They are killing books.
Kimberly Pauley

And perhaps most eloquent of all, the words of Barbara Caridad Ferrer:
Dear book pirates, you suck.

These are the arguments of writers.  In case you’re still not convinced that this is a relevant topic for web fiction authors, think about who these authors are talking to.  They are talking to the fans.  They are trying to convince masses of enthusiastic readers and potential readers that pirating books–and anything else–is bad. And ideas spread.  What catches on amongst their fans may one day spread to yours.  Are you so sure that piracy is “killing books” that you want potential fans of yours to fear sharing your work?  The decisions these authors make may, in time, affect us.  And if you are uncertain of how, read on.

These authors appeal to the emotional side of their audiences. But unfortunately, they don’t appeal to much else. Really. Go read the articles if you don’t believe me. Come back and tell me if I’ve missed something. Come back and tell me if there is one shred of evidence, a single fact or figure in them. For all that writers talk about research for their novels, it seems their real life views do not get the same attention.

But of course there are facts out there. There is research. There is evidence. There are numbers.

Unfortunately, when some authors try to use numbers, they use the wrong ones.  Here’s an example:

Saundra Mitchell wrote a post back in January about how piracy was ruining her.  When it first surfaced in one writers’ forum I frequent, I read it, sighed at the familiar rants, and hoped everyone would forget it quickly since it added nothing to the debate.  Unfortunately, like the zombie post that it is, it has continued to limp around the literary community long after it should have been laid to rest.  Even more unfortunately, almost every time I see it referenced, it is being used as  ammunition in the fight against piracy.

To her credit, Mitchell tries to keep the post on the numbers.   Here’s the gist of it:

Her book Shadowed Summer ended it’s print run selling only 10 copies a month.

According to an uncited download site’s stats, it was downloaded 800 times a week.

If 50% of those downloads had been paid for–or if 400 people/week had bought her book instead of 10/month:

           she would have made back her advance,

           the book would not be going out of print,

           she would have gotten a bigger advance on the next book

           the book would have been available in more areas due to high demand.

These all sound like logical arguments.  It’s true that if her book had been selling 400 copies a week, all that would have happened.  But what do we have instead?  We have a poor author struggling to make her book pay out and finding it difficult to keep her publisher invested in her.  Oh no!  Pirates hurt authors!  Hang them all!

Here’s the problem:  Where did that  50%  come from?  Here’s where:  The author’s mind.  She made it up.  It’s a hypothetical number.  “If the 800+ downloads a week of my book were only HALF converted into sales…”  If, she says.  If.


So put aside any conclusions for now.  Forget about whether piracy hurts or helps sales.  Forget about whether it is moral or not.  Forget about whether it is illegal or not.  Forget about whether it should be illegal or not.  Let’s say we don’t know.  Let’s say we have no idea what the effects of piracy are.  Let’s say we’re just now trying to find out.

We cannot draw a single conclusion from a hypothetical number of lost sales that is no more accurate than any other number we could possibly make up.

Why 50%?  Why not 100%?  Why not 1%?  or 27.3%…  or 3.72%…  ?  What is magical about 50%?

There are many reasons why a person might download a book.  They just want to browse and are sick of Amazon’s crappy “Look Inside!” feature. They had the book recommended to them.  They downloaded it in a bundle of some other book they wanted.  They could read two pages and throw it away.  They might never even open the file.  I have a friend who has a desktop full of pdf books that he’s never read.  Why does he have them?  No idea.  Maybe to feel smarter.  Maybe to pick up chicks.  Who cares?  He’s not going to buy these books.  Ever.  And he was never going to.  I cannot, of course, say that none of these people would have spent money on her book.  But she cannot say “X number of people would have bought my book and didn’t and therefore cost me money.”  She cannot.

What of the percentage of gained sales from piracy?

It is very likely (since were talking in hypotheticals) that some of those 10 books a month were sold as a result of someone getting the book for free first.  Did she ever consider that maybe the reason her book didn’t earn out it’s advance is because her legal team pounced on those who were trying to share it?

We do not know the answers, but Mitchell did not even ask these questions of her data.  There is no connection between the statistics and the conclusions.  Rather she makes assumptions that people who would have bought her book did not.  Why assume this?  Only Mitchell can answer that.  (Incidentally, I’ll be emailing her presently, though in all likelihood she’s too busy chasing pirates to actually stop and talk to one.)

We know only one thing: that the number of lost sales–whether true or false–is totally and flagrantly meaningless because this number is made up.

“If even HALF of those people who downloaded my book that week had bought it, I would have hit the New York Times Bestseller list,” she says.  But she didn’t make the best seller list.  400 people a week did not buy her book and she is not on the New York Times Bestseller list because 400 people a week did not want to buy her book.  People buy books when they want to buy books regardless of whether they are given for free.

Don’t believe me?  Here are some examples:

Steve Lieber discovered his entire book had been stuck up on 4chan.  Unlike Mitchell, he did not send his legal team after them, but rather talked to the pirates.  Because of the fan’s enthusiasm and because word on 4chan spreads like napalm-fueled wildfire, sales of the book spiked, as he was kind enough to demonstrate in the graph I’ve stolen and pasted below.  OK, to be fair the this is not a scientifically accurate representation of sales figures.  It is, however, reasonable to say that his sales saw an increase after the incident.

Paulo Coelho not only embraced those who were pirating his book, he secretly facilitated it,  gathering all the torrents on one site to help fans find them.  Like Lieber he saw an increase in sales and a worldwide demand (66 languages!) as a result.

Cory Doctorow  has this to say:
“…if I give away my ebooks under a Creative Commons licence that allows non-commercial sharing, I’ll attract readers who buy hard copies. It’s worked for me – I’ve had books on the New York Times Bestseller list for the past two years.”

New York Times Bestseller list, you say.  Hmm….  Are you listening Saundra?

These are three of the biggest examples, and over the next week or so I hope to bring in more.  Because if debates on copyright and piracy are to be of any value whatsoever, they must be driven by facts not emotions.   The reliance on jerking around fans’ emotions needs to stop.  Period.

But writers are passionate about writing.  If they were not, they would not be writers.  They labor and sweat and cry and tremble over their work and they want a fair exchange for it all.  If they do not get something in return, then to them it is as if the fruits of their labor and sweat and tears and nerves were stolen from them.

If any dialogue is to thrive then, we must do the impossible: we must disabuse authors of the notion that copying is stealing.

But is it possible to convince people to treat logically that which they have worked so passionately on?

Part III: Newspeak
“It is not stealing, not legally and not morally.” ~Gottfrid Svartholm aka Anakata

15 Responses to “Thief, we have our rights, Thief, thief, thief!”

  1. idiotphotographer

    Very well written article.
    I do not have the patience to sit and read any book at my computer and I detest e-readers. I WILL read a chapter or two on my computer and then go out an buy a book if it sufficiently compelling though. Arrrr!

    • aeliusblythe

      A lot of people still love physical books. Even in the far future when, theoretically, books may be collectors items people will probably still buy them because they love them. I mean, people still buy analog watches even though digital are easier to read/easier to find/cheaper.

      And even if you’re talking about the digital versions of books, people still pay money for the convenience of having nice editions quickly delivered. I finally caved and bought a Kindle this year and have actually bought legitimate editions of books because 1) I’m not an ass and I give money to what I appreciate it, 2) the 3G network is really fast and makes it really fast to download books and 3) they are not littered with spelling errors.

      If someone likes a book they will buy it.

    • Sergio

      Most pirated music dgrcoisaphies are as good as or better than the music cds and often are variable bit rate so they take up less room on portable mp3 players with no noticeable loss in sound quality. Not to mention the fact that most artists and record labels are overrated anyway.

  2. Kimberly Pauley

    It also doesn’t help the debate when you pull a single sentence out of a long blog post to try and make your point. If people click through I think they’ll find that I am ambivalent about piracy and I have no answers, a position in which many of us authors find ourselves. And, by the way, you’ve spelled my name wrong.

    Kimberly Pauley

    • aeliusblythe

      Sorry about the name thing. Corrected. But… Ambivalent about piracy?

      I pulled one sentence out of a long blog post because that one sentence summarized pretty much every other sentence. I do hope people click through and read the entire post. But if you think one quote doesn’t do it justice, how about a few more:

      “Essentially, more people have illegally downloaded the second book than have purchased it (as of my first royalty statement).
      Guess what, peeps. That’s a problem.”

      ” ‘Do I think book piracy is hurting me?’
      Yes, I do.”

      ” ‘Do I think book piracy is wrong?’
      Yes. Stealing is wrong. ”

      ” ‘Do I think illegal downloads have had an impact on the sales of my second book (and on the status of a third Sucks to Be Me book)?’
      Yes, I do think so.”

      “So, while I do believe that book piracy has had a detrimental impact on the second book, I cannot tell you how much of an impact it has had.”

      Does “ambivalent” refer to these parts:

      ” ‘Do I know positively absolutely that book piracy is hurting me?’
      No, I don’t.
      I don’t know that it isn’t either. I have, really, no way of knowing. No one does. ”

      “Though I also don’t think it is a completely black and white issue. I mean, hey, almost no issue is. ”

      You may very well believe that piracy is not black and white issue. However Ms. Pauley, actions speak louder than words:

      “At least once a week I get a new Google alert about a new download site with illegal copies of the book for download. All I can do is forward them on to the legal department of my publisher.”

      Yes, you say that you do not always do this, but that you do it at all says more than any number of quotes proclaiming your ambivalence. If even once you have reported downloaders to your legal team you are contributing ammo to the fight–and you’re on the side that’s threaten fans that are sharing what they love.

      I understand the fear of piracy. Really I do. I am an aspiring author myself. I dream of being published and seeing my books in bookstores and having people buy them. I think I might feel hurt if I saw people downloading but not buying my book, but the debate cannot continue over hurt feelings. It needs to be about fact, and the facts supporting piracy killing books just aren’t there, whereas there are numerous examples of the opposite (which is what I am blogging about.)

      And by the way, you say people are just making excuses not to pay for your book, but where is your Flattr button? What are the other options your fans have besides lining your publisher’s (and their lawyers’) pockets?

  3. met

    Crossposted from my reply to your thread at WFG:

    I think copyright is basically the result of a culture that looks for divisions rather than joinings. “This is mine, not yours.” “This is yours, but I can take it with my gun/court order/threat of public shaming.” There’s very little concept of “This belongs to everyone,” and even when there is it’s a token effort (national parks come to mind). I think you can trace it back to when the first culture conceived of land-ownership. You look at pre-agricultural cultures and you find very little concept of ownership, and even that is fluid. Many hunter-gatherer cultures (which is how we all started out) tend to periodically give everything away.

    I think copyright as it exists today is pretty ridiculous. Mostly it serves corporate interests, and not the plebeians. I do, however, think that copyright can be used consciously as a tool to empower creators (which is why I love Creative Commons so much). Then there’s the whole Copyleft idea, and the broader idea of not licensing your work at all.

    The news tells me that pirating is theft by immoral people who steal the fruit of hardworking taxpayer’s labor. But it seems like for some people it’s just an extension of the idea that “This belongs to everyone.” That it belongs to everyone regardless of socio-economic class, which is what a money-economy inevitably divides us into.

    I get wanting credit. I want attribution for what I write. That’s what’s left of my ego making a stand (just saying for my case, not anybody else). I get wanting to reap the economic reward of your labor. If I can eventually make a living by writing, I probably will. That’s the world we live in, and I respect the desire/need for creators to do that. But honestly, I think most of us doing webfic are such small fries no one’s going to “pirate” us anyway (there will obviously be exceptions). Traditional copyright might protect certain rights that most people will never need to exercise, but I think it’s the mindset that can hurt us. It’s a mindset of clutching our work in a tight fist so no one can “steal” it, when, after all, a lot of what we’re doing is trying to share.

    Personally, when I get Guts and Sass polished and into ebook, and eventually audiobook format, I’m going to upload it to Pirate Bay myself. Maybe no one will ever look at it, but it’ll be there.

  4. Christopher Wright

    Well I’ve pretty much gone “The Full Doctorow” with Pay Me, Bug! — but keep in mind that simply because there are one or two wildly successful examples in any form of licensing or distribution, that doesn’t guarantee success for all, and can’t even really be used as a proof of concept. Doctorow MAY have succeeded because the idea as so “unique” at the time that it attracted a lot of attention. It may also be that he was successful before he went this route so his decision to do so attracted a lot of press. Those of us who go the same route are starting from being a) nobodies and suffer from the disadvantage that b) it’s not new any more. That doesn’t make it any less valid, but pointing to them and saying “see it works!” is in pretty much the same category as saying “piracy killed my book.”

    From my perspective I think it can work but I don’t think there’s enough data to prove it yet. I believe, rather than know, that it will be viable.

    • aeliusblythe

      But the concept is not “success for all.” The concept has nothing to do with success. I’ve talked before about just how few people succeed:

      Basically, most people do not succeed, period.

      But the point is not how authors should price or not price their book. Rather, it is about how authors mistakenly perceive their failure as the result of people copying and sharing their work. As proof of this, they present dramatic numbers that present a dismal picture, and the dramatic numbers I presented were intended to point to the opposite end of the spectrum. It was not a suggestion of the average writer’s experience.

      That is far more simple:
      Most people who have their work pirated will not be part of the .05% who make any money writing.
      Most of the people who don’t have their work pirated will not be part of the .05% who make any money writing.

  5. met

    I think Christopher makes a good point about the fact that we don’t have hard data either way about the commercial success or failure. But let’s leave the “I need to eat and pay my mortgage” logistics behind, and ask what does copyright demonstrate about our culture, in microcosm?

    This is what I see:

    It demonstrates fear. It demonstrates hierarchy. It demonstrates boundaries.

    “If you win, I lose. And I will win.”

    It says that we can’t give without risking our survival. Many of us with the capabilities of having these kinds of virtual conversations may live in developed, so-called first world countries, but really what we’re still trying to do is survive. We’re trying to survive the job market, the economy, the mortgage, the car payment. We no longer have any concept of giving with no expectation of getting anything back, and so what we’re left with is scratching for those electronic numbers in our bank accounts so we can get our physical needs met.

    Cultural philosophy aside, that is the culture many of us have to work with. But we also have opportunities to really work with it, to use tools rooted in a fear-culture to really empower.

    • aeliusblythe

      I read a good post about how beliefs rather than facts dictate many of the important debates in the world here:

      It’s mostly about nuclear power and security measures, but it mirrors the copyright situation quite well. The comments section is actually almost more interesting than the post itself because it demonstrates how even when there are facts involved, there are disputes over the right interpretation or action that should come from the fact, or whether the facts present a clear enough picture.

      Which is exactly where we are with the piracy debate. I will readily agree that we do not have enough data to know how piracy effects everyone. But the fear response based on the belief that piracy = loss, piracy = evil, piracy = death, distruction and plague on the arts prevents, in many circles, a level and much-needed discussion of facts.

      • Takuji

        The Book Thief is very meaningful. As a seoinr citizen, growing up as a small child during WW II the book made me realize that the enemy is not the axis or the allies, but rather very insidiously introduced into your life. The book made me realize that we all must be vigilant in watching for those influences that make us intolerant to fellow mankind.

      • Natsu

        Uh, tickleonthetum, it’s Obama, not the copitrtaorons, that are ruining this country. Stop listening to and watching the BBC, it’s socialist propaganda,lol.I don’t watch ANY news or read papers, etc. I read the actual laws text, and pure fact based information and make my own judgement. The USA Government has little to do with controlling the Country other than to approve most of the laws the companies ask for. The country _to_ democratic if you understand me. Some laws are needed to maintain an equilibriam



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