Piracy and the Internet

Ahh, piracy. Nothing gets a publisher’s hackles up like a good discussion of piracy – and I’ve been seeing a lot of them around lately. A major theme of the publishers’ discussions at Book Expo America 2010, it seems, was DRM and how evil pirates are going to be the death of the industry, and lo, we must string them all up by their figgins and hang the lot!

Why you’d want to string someone up by their figgin, I don’t know, but hey, to each his own.

I’d rather just think about the whys of piracy, and what to do about that.

There’s a few reasons people pirate intellectual property, as I see it.

  1. They’re compulsive media-kleptomaniacs. They download, upload, cross-load, and test-under-loading every scrap of media they can get their hands on, regardless of whether they plan to ever watch, listen to, or read it.
  2. They’re upset at how much the official product costs and want to get it for free/less. I see a couple subsets of this:
  • Folks who believe “information should be free” and don’t seem to realise that content creators have no incentive to create if they’re not getting paid.
  • People who are irritated at what they see as inflated prices – $25 for a DVD? $10 for an eBook? $60 a month for a cable subscription? Hell no!

You’re never going to get the media-kleptos to stop seeding and hoarding your content. Never. DRM the crap out of it if you like; they’re just going to break your encryption and share it anyway.

It’s the second category we need to be thinking about, and particularly the second subset. You’re probably not going to persuade the “information wants to be free” people to pay for an eBook – they’ll suggest that you can make all your money by selling tickets to speaking engagements or by putting advertising on your site. Yeah, well, that might pay the bills for a mega-blockbuster author or for a very solid midlist author, even, but it’s not going to work for someone trying to get established. Royalties mean a lot to an author who’s trying to justify their writing habit, especially at the start.

However, there’s a lot we can do with the “overpriced” subset. For one, half the reason folks think media is overpriced is because they’re being restricted from using it in all the ways they want. DRM is actually pushing people towards piracy, in my opinion. If, like Amazon, you ask someone to pay $10 for something that’s locked down to one platform, yeah, that seems kind of expensive. But if you’re asking them to pay $10 for something that they can read on any device they own, and transfer around freely, they’re more likely to be okay with it (hi, welcome to the Candlemark & Gleam business model).

So what does this mean for combatting piracy? It’s simple, really. Make it easy to get stuff legally.

That’s all there is to it. At base, people are lazy. Piracy takes effort – you’ve gotta seek out the torrent, download it, make sure it’s the right file, make sure you haven’t downloaded a virus, all that jazz. If you make it dead simple for someone to grab an easy-to-use, clean, guaranteed-whole copy of your work in a legal venue, for a reasonable price, nine times out of 10, they’ll opt for the legal mode. Witness iTunes. It hasn’t stopped illegal sharing of music, but it’s certainly made a dent. One-click buying and low payments and clean files make it a no-brainer to pay, rather than stealing.

So come on, Publishing Industry. Wise up. For the most part, piracy isn’t wontonly destructive – you’re not losing millions of sales to torrented eBooks. If it were the case that each incidence of someone sharing a book was a lost sale, libraries would have put bookstores out of business decades ago. You might lose some sales, but you might also gain some when some of those media-kleptos discover that they like whatever they downloaded, and want more. Sharing books brings new fans into the fold; always has, always will. Quit freaking out over a doomsday that hasn’t played out yet.

And following along that path, quit trying to encrypt the hell out of your files. It only serves to piss off legitimate buyers when they cannot use the content they’ve bought in any legitimate way they please. Only being able to open the book on one device or transfer it once is ridiculous. You don’t restrict a person who’s bought a paperback to only reading it in their house; don’t restrict an eBook buyer to only reading it on their Kindle. Let them read it on their iPhone, too, or on their buddy’s laptop at the airport. Give them the freedom to use their legitimately purchased product in any legitimate way they choose. Most people won’t abuse this, because it won’t occur to them to do so.

A great scholarly piece I read recently tackled the issue of copyright in the digital age. Basically, the author remarked that “It wasn’t until the printed book that the notion of literary property rights developed. In fact, the first rights were “privileges” and were granted, not to authors, but to printers… Preserving intellectual property rights–through both `privileges’ and patents–was a notion that grew out of the one-to-many power of the printing press.”

Similarly, the transition to digital is wreaking changes on copyright. He quotes John Perry Barlow as saying, “Software piracy laws are so practically unenforceable and breaking them has become so socially acceptable that only a thin minority appears compelled…to obey them…. Whenever there is such profound divergence between the law and social practice, it is not society that adapts.”

I think this is correct. It’s not society that will adapt to what the law says; the law is going to have to work out what copyright means in an age where peer-to-peer sharing and copying is the norm. How this plays out, I can’t foresee. But I do know that trying to button down content via DRM and draconian cease-and-desist orders isn’t going to solve the problem.

Basically, what I’m getting at is this: Don’t be a dick. If you’re a consumer of media, think about the people who contributed to the content you’re enjoying. Make sure they get paid for their efforts, so that you can continue to enjoy some fine, fine escapism. If you’re a producer/publisher of media, think about your customers and don’t automatically assume that they’re all criminals out to rip you off. Trust that they’re going to do the right thing most of the time, and act accordingly. Society is based on mutual trust and support, and a shared code of ethics. Publishing shouldn’t act any differently.

Don’t be a dick. Pay for your content, where you can and when you can, and keep your content unrestricted by pointless lockdown measures. Easy-peasy.

And much simpler than either installing a peg-leg or figuring out how to hang someone up by their figgin.

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5 Responses to “Piracy and the Internet”

  1. Patti June 4, 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    Nicely put. I’ve been watching the music industry shit itself over piracy since cassettes were invented. Every new invention in copying media has been greeted as a sure sign of the apocalypse, and the industry has never figured out that people who make tapes of albums or burn copies of cds or download torrents of songs (or books) are actually helping them by spreading the word of good music or good reading.

    This isn’t always the case, of course. There’s always just thievery for the reasons you give above, and the idea that intellectual property should be free boggles my mind. It’s a bogus concept.

    Don’t be a dick is an excellent business model and just a generally good philosophy.

  2. Jason June 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

    I too am at a loss for how one hangs an individual up by a small short-crust pasty containing raisins. So strange.

    Beyond that – bingo. What all of the content-generation industries seem to forget is that they’re fighting a worldwide phenomenon. Regardless of what protections publishers try to force on their digital products, someone out there will figure out how to break it, generally within 24 hours – and with the speed of the Internet, it only takes one successful cracking to make a file universally available. None of the Digital Rights Management “solutions” deployed thus far have prevented a product from being pirated – all they’ve done is cause trouble for paying customers. The pirates suffer not in the least, the only damage is the collateral damage.

    Meanwhile, many law-abiding customers find themselves forced to seek out illegal copies and cracks just to enjoy products they’ve actually purchased, after losing license codes and activation passwords, original installation disks, discovering security vulnerabilities in rootkits, etc, etc. Creating these hoops to using the media a customer pay for naturally leads to frustrated customers discovering the remarkable availability of pirated material – if anything, it increases the number of potential pirates in the world.

    I do wonder, from time to time, how much various industries spend on DRM that will inevitably. How much actual money has the industry lost, not to pirates, but to playing Cnut against the incoming tide? Does anyone think draconian DRM has created a single sale?

  3. Kate June 4, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    I really believe the industry is losing money left and right over this. They’re spending money unnecessarily on DRM that simply doesn’t work, and they’re driving people into the arms of pirates. It’s ridiculous, and it boggles my mind that no one has picked up on this within the Big Six. Then again, I’m sure the peons have, and no one has listened…

  4. Jason June 5, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    One other thing I recall, from reading a blog called (I believe) Live 2.0, specifically on being a performer in a wired age, discussed how piracy is massively threatening to the recording industry, but actually empowering to musicians. Yes, gone are the days when you can expect to get drive-a-Bentley-into-your-swimming-pool rich as a rock star… but back are the days where you can earn a reasonable living performing music for an audience. As a musician, you can make decent recordings and put them on peer-to-peer networks, make them free on your website, and treat it as advertising your live gigs, where you can earn a decent living with a dedicated fanbase. Instead of megabands using (relatively) cheap concert tours to promote studio albums, you use the album you recorded in the garage/local church/high school gym to promote your tour.

    Obviously, the model doesn’t transfer well to authors, as you discuss, there’s a degree to which it’s even reversed. But I still believe that a savvy, honest company can capitalize on the changing landscape. It’s not the end of books – but it may be the beginning of the end for a lot of outmoded corporations that think they are synonymous with publishing.

  5. Kate June 6, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    It works wonderfully in the recording industry, but the problem is I see people trying to apply this to publishing, and it just doesn’t work. You can sometimes, kind of, sort of, maybe make it work if you’re a nonfiction author – you can charge for speaking engagements and all that, and make your money that way, with the book and online giveaways as a marketing tool. But when you’re a fiction author, speaking engagements aren’t what pays the bills. Not unless you’re Neil Gaiman or Stephen King. And getting there requires a lot of time and commitment and audience…and how can you build that following by giving all your content away? You can give it away, and maybe build a following, but…wait, you’re giving it all away, and that means you have to keep your day job while still creating content, bonus content, doing your marketing and all that and…oy vey, now you’ve got two jobs. Maybe three. And all in the hope that you’ll build enough of a platform to tour and talk to people. But even then author talks tend not to pay very well, unless you’re at the tippy-top of the heap.

    Great for music, lousy for writers, and I wish the people suggesting that you can make a living by “touring” as a writer would understand the difficulties inherent in that. We’re not exactly a bardic culture anymore, so storytellers aren’t performers and can’t use the music model.

    Changing the landscape is a good hope, and a good goal, but the way a lot of people are suggesting it be changed just isn’t feasible, and that’s a pity, because they’re fixating on that music model instead of trying to find something else that might actually work.

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