There have been a few arguments, disagreements, debates and falling-outs on Twitter recently around the subject of illegal firesharing. The critic and writer Damien G Walter has been more-or-less at the centre, arguing for the virtues of piracy and free books, aggravating many people both with the content and the tone of his comments. Yesterday, he wrote an article for the Guardian – free to read – that explored the issue a little, although not in depth.
I figured I’d take the opportunity, skimming over some of his comments, to talk a little bit about how I feel about the subject.
All feelings, as always, are subject to change.
1. The Basics
Debates on piracy – and I’ll just use that term as a shorthand for illegal filesharing – tend to be fairly tedious, because the various arguments are familiar and the responses well-worn and rehearsed. It can be a lot like chess openings: the same moves provoke the same replies. For example, if I say “piracy is theft”, you will reply “no, it isn’t!”, and tell me why. Sicilian Dragon.
So let’s get a few basic things out of the way first. Piracy is not simple theft. It isn’t the same as walking out of a shop with a book hidden under your arm. In the latter case, you are depriving the shop of the value of that copy of the book, and – because the shop doesn’t know – possibly depriving future browsers of being able to buy the copy the shop would reorder to take its place. That doesn’t happen with piracy: the original copy remains, and it can still be bought. Theft is subtraction, whereas piracy is multiplication. Piracy, put simply, is getting something for nothing. That is the only real similarity between the two. Although it’s worth noting that the desire to “get something for nothing” is often part of the disdain people have for literal thieves.
Okay, look here:
Walter seems to think that the people who object to piracy lack technological knowledge, which isn’t particularly admirable of him. For what it’s worth, I completely understand that piracy can’t be stopped: that, without gross and wholly unacceptable limitations being placed on personal freedom, or some kind of catastrophic social collapse, it will only ever get easier to copy and distribute files. That’s a world away from claiming, as he has appeared to, that it’s a positive thing. We’ll come back to this.
2. Free books
For the purposes of what follows in this bit, I’m going to conflate piracy with giving books away for free. They’re not the same thing. Clearly, there’s a moral difference between choosing to give your books away yourself and someone else choosing on your behalf. But this is more about the benefits of having free books circulating, so we’ll meld the topics.
A key question put to Walter during the twitter exchanges can be stated as: “if you’re giving books away for free as a marketing strategy, where does the money come from?” It’s a reasonable question. Walter’s response –
- appears to reference Tim O’Reilly’s famous observation that “obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”. Walter also mentions Cory Doctorow -
- who has achieved hundreds of thousands of book sales, even though he gives the same work away for free. Leaving aside the tiresome fact that – once again – Walter assumes his critics are less educated than he is, how does giving stuff away for free to make money work?
Well, it’s fairly straightforward. The act of giving away hundreds of thousands of free books makes no money directly but also costs nothing in itself. The readers who receive those free copies can then be divided into three categories. The largest of these – the vast majority – contains (1) the readers who would never have bought the book anyway and do not go on to support you financially in any way. (This is why a free download absolutely does not equal a lost sale; there was never going to be a sale to these people, so absolutely nothing has been lost). The remaining two categories contain: (2) the people who were not going to buy it but then do support you financially in some way; and (3) the people who would have bought it and then don’t. If (2) is larger than (3), then giving away free books has probably made you money.
It’s essentially a gamble on human nature – but one that can easily pay off, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it does. Most readers, for example, are good people with a passion for books. They want to reward the creators. And it certainly appears to have worked for Cory Doctorow.
Will it work for you? Who knows, but here are some obvious problems I see with the free approach:
a) The world has changed since Doctorow began doing this, which was (correct me if I’m wrong) the early to mid 2000s. His arguments back then included the idea that reading on screens was an unsatisfactory experience, and that many readers who enjoyed the ebook would want a physical copy, either instead of or as well as. And back then, ebooks formed a vanishingly small proportion of the overall market. Given the explosion in ebooks since, and the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated ereading devices, I’m not convinced these points hold true to the same extent.
b) Cory Doctorow is Cory Doctorow. Not only is he a bestselling writer of fiction, he’s an articulate and sought-after expert on digital media, DRM, copyright etc. His public persona, in other words, is inextricably linked with this subject matter; his reputation has been built on it. Yes, every success story can be considered a special case, but Doctorow is perceived not simply as a writer who gives his work away for free, but as a pioneer in the whole area of digital rights. You will not be a pioneer; he got there first. You will just be someone giving your work away for free. And the more people pursue the free strategy (much as with the 99p pricing strategy) the harder it will be to stand out.
c) We’re not in the music industry, where artists can at least hope to make money from won-over fans who maybe don’t pay for the music itself but at least attend tours and buy merchandise. (Writers can perform, of course, but – again – you’re not Cory Doctorow. Pub bands on their debuts get larger crowds than many midlist authors). We’re also different in that our media is produced and consumed in different ways. There are fewer readers than listeners, it takes much longer to read a novel than to listen to an album, and the replay factor is considerably lower. Those three factors combined make giving a novel away for free significantly more of a financial risk than giving away an album.
3. What this means for you.
Doctorow is certainly more aware than Walter appears to be that his approach won’t work for everyone. Walter seems to think:
It would take a lifetime to unpack everything wrong with such a blanket statement. He also appears to take the position that because the most pirated authors are the most successful, the former causes the latter:
It’s possible, in certain cases, that this is true, but I’d suggest that for the most part he’s getting the cart a huge distance before the horse there. I have more faith in another of O’Reilly’s famous observations as an explanation: that piracy is a form of progressive taxation. The most successful authors are pirated the most because they’re the most successful authors, so they pay the most “tax”. At best, it seems baseless to assume most of them became successful because of piracy. Evidence, basically, or GTFO.
4. Where you are determines what you see
There will always be a degree of subjectivity to this debate. Much has been made of Walter’s position as a largely unpublished writer. I think that’s unfair, although it’s true that the loudest exponents of piracy and free books are generally likely to be the people least at risk from it – the very successful who can weather it, like Doctorow and Neil Gaiman, and the people with nothing to lose from it. People like me, somewhere on the midlist, are more conflicted. This is human nature. But I dislike this kind of thinking:
Because, yes, obviously I’m concerned about my own position – but why imagine that everybody is purely out for themselves? The larger debate, which encompasses piracy, free books, cheap books, ebooks, and so on, is also about the kind of society you want to live in, along with the approach you want society to have to culture.
At this point in my life, for example, voting Tory would probably benefit me economically, but I would never do so, because I don’t think my actions, and the repercussions of them, should be centred solely on what’s best for me. So when it comes to ebooks and piracy, I’m not just thinking about my sales; I’m also thinking about the large number of people who have helped me get my books where they are, and the whole social and financial infrastructure that underlies that. I’m thinking, for example, about what the high street looks like. I’m thinking about sustainability. I’m thinking about where people are going to work to earn the money to buy the things people are selling at these cheap prices, and where they’re going to work to be able to afford to produce them. I’m thinking about whether what comes after is really what is better simply because it comes after. In short, it’s really not just about what leaves me with the most money. And that, incidentally, is also why I buy the media I want and like.
5. What I think
I have endless and fantastically violent contempt for the sites making money off the back of work they didn’t help create, and for the people behind them. I have nothing, really, against the ordinary people who illegally download my books – I can’t stop you, most of you wouldn’t have bought them anyway, and I just hope that, if you enjoy them, you consider buying some of them at some point, to support not just me, but also the other people, less visible, whose work made my books possible in the first place.
One last thing:
I think this is a good article to end with a link to. It’s lengthy, but very good. Along with other points, it makes the case that free isn’t really free. I suppose it emphasises the points I just made, especially directly above, and that last tweet of Damien’s. Here’s a snippet:
“Let’s look at other things you (or your parents) might pay for each month and compare.
Smart phone with data plan: $40-100 a month.
High speed internet access: $30-60 dollars a month. Wait, but you use the university network? Well, buried in your student fees or tuition you are being charged a fee on the upper end of that scale.
Tuition at American University, Washington DC (excluding fees, room and board and books): $2,086 a month.
Car insurance or Metro card? $100 a month?
Or simply look at the value of the web appliances you use to enjoy music:
$2,139.50 = 1 smart phone + 1 full size ipod + 1 macbook.
Why do you pay real money for this other stuff but not music?
The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:
Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?
Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?
Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?
This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:
Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!
Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!
I am genuinely stunned by this. Since you appear to love first generation Indie Rock, and as a founding member of a first generation Indie Rock band I am now legally obligated to issue this order: kids, lawn, vacate.
You are doing it wrong.”