What Pirates Say To Copyright.
“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.”
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.”
They are killing books.
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