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Hines: Wrong on Piracy, Wrong on Batman

The title is a reference to this Shortpacked strip, and probably made no sense to anyone else.  But it amused me, so I kept it.

I received a great deal of feedback on last week’s post about book piracy.  My thanks to everyone who jumped into the discussion.  While I still believe much of what I wrote to be true, I also find that some of my assumptions were either overly broad or flat-out wrong.

Legality: I was going to start out by saying at least we can all agree that downloading copyrighted books without permission is illegal, right?  But maybe not.  While it’s illegal under U.S. law, Corinne Duyvis was kind enough to translate copyright law in the Netherlands, which gives broader allowance to make copies for home use.  The uploading/file-sharing part appears to be illegal, and you can only download small portions of books … except for “works of which you can reasonably assume that no new copies will be sold to third parties in whichever form possible.”

In other words, downloading out-of-print (which is not the same as out of copyright) books in the Netherlands is currently legal if those books don’t look like they’ll be coming back into print.  Thus blowing away my “simple and obvious” assumption.  Oops.

Americentrism: Another friend messaged me privately to ask who my audience was for my piracy post, which was a tactful way of pointing out that I seemed to be assuming everyone downloading illegally had convenient, cheap, legal alternatives.

I started up a very informal survey in the comments.  Take a book that costs $7.99 in the U.S., or $8.99 in Canada.  In Australia, that same book might sell for about $20.  Another commenter said SF/F paperbacks in Ireland generally run about 25 Euro, or roughly $35 U.S.  And these aren’t generally considered to be poor or third world nations.

Does the fact that something is expensive mean it’s okay to steal it?  No … but it makes me less willing to level an across-the-board charge of dickishness.  If you’re sitting at home with your high-end computer and smartphone and are downloading because you’re too lazy to go to a nearby library or too cheap to shell out $8 to buy the damn book, then the charge stands.  If you’re living in Malaysia and a book costs as much as eight meals?  Maybe not…

Marina on Dreamwidth takes this a step further, asking “I’d like to see how many of these authors who complain about their books being ‘pirated’ would still have the libraries they do if every paperback cost them 25$+ and took weeks to acquire.”  She goes on to say, “the places where ebook … ~piracy~ is most widespread are not developed, Anglophone countries, and there are reasons for that.”

I wish I had a source for that last claim.  I follow the logic of why readers in less developed countries might be more likely to download books and other media, but I’m not sure I accept the claim that piracy is most widespread in those countries.  It could be — I don’t know.  I just want more info and haven’t yet been able to find it.

The publishing industry has problems to address, no argument there.  A number of people expressed frustration at the way regional limitations prevent them from being able to legally buy e-books.  While I somewhat understand the basis for regional sales/publishing restrictions, I also recognize how frustrating it is that someone from the U.S. can click and buy an e-book in 30 seconds, while someone in another country can go to the exact same website, click the exact same links, and be denied.

Deconstructing the Western Foundation of Intellectual Copyright Law: Colorblue has another good post which points out various abuses of copyright law, and goes on to challenge the entire western foundation and assumptions behind intellectual property.  As an author currently working within that intellectual property system, this was a challenging read, one I’m still processing.

Links: Tobias Buckell has a long, thoughtful piracy post today.  He does a nice job of addressing various arguments for and against piracy, and I’m hard-pressed to argue with most of his conclusions.  In addition, Charles Tan and Fantasyecho both did link roundups of the discussion, which are worth checking out.

I’m still sorting this out.  I do think that for people like me, piracy is pretty much a dick move.  But of course, I’m privileged as hell.

Does that mean it’s all right for someone to pirate my books if they’re poor, or if they’re in a country where it’s harder to get books or where books are too expensive?  I don’t know.  But I’m not convinced they’re doing me much harm, if any, and I’m no longer comfortable with across-the-board condemnation.

Your thoughts?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



Jan. 27th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
More Bad Logic Blues
I'd like to point out two problems:

(1) Virtually every objection to Our Gracious Host's position on copyright/piracy/downloads has resulted from one, or both, of two factors:
* Commercial protectionism NOT caused by the author, but by the combination of nationalism and the opacity of the publishing industry
* Exceptions at the margins of intellectual property (such as "Colorblue"'s problems with the treatment of what IP scholars call "traditional knowledge")

And so, since the system is admittedly imperfect, the critics propose eliminating it, but...

(2) Nobody proposes a system that would/might arguably fulfill the same purpose as intellectual property (in US constitutional terms, "promote progress in the sciences and useful arts"; in European terms, the translation means just about the same thing; in East Asia, the LEGAL basis is quoted from the US Constitution where it exists at all) -- or considers the extreme costs and dislocations that would be caused by a transition from the Status Quo to the Utopian Ideal, or considers flaws in the Utopian Ideal.

Intellectual property is very much like democracy, from Winston Churchill's perspective: It is the worst system of managing ideas... except for all of the others that have been mooted to date. The three obvious models that have been proposed (and all of the others that I'm aware of are variations thereupon) have some really obvious flaws, too:
(a) Medieval/Renaissance European patronage of "artists" and "scientists" -- yeah, we really want all of the arts and sciences to be censored by some existing power elite, whether it be "private" benefactors, religious authorities, or government actors. To name one obvious example, do you think that CSNY ("Chicago", "Ohio"), Stravinsky, or Pasternak would have been "approved" contemporaneously?
(b) No property right at all -- meaning that only those who are independently wealthy, and/or ALREADY successful at getting donations or whatever, and/or working only in their spare time from other lucrative ways of making a living, will create much art. Sure, there might be a few starving artists out there, but I'm not wishing that on Our Gracious Host's kids!
(c) Government or other subsidy per piece, instead of per actor -- which manages to combine all of the problems of (a) and (b) with almost none of their purported advantages. The CSNY and Pasternak examples under (a) above are even more relevant, as are those of Natalia Gorbanevskaya, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Alan Turing.
Jan. 27th, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)
Re: More Bad Logic Blues
I made an almost identical argument a while back: http://zornhau.livejournal.com/tag/creative%20ecosystem

"In a future of free-range information, people who will consistently produce music and literature will fall into the following categories:

Sponsored – Yes, all that freedom-loving piracy effectively hands over the creative world to the agenda-pushing hand of big business and government. (I'm afraid that a Public Lending Rights model of siphoning off an Internet tariff, sniffing downloads, and handing out dosh accordingly still hands over control to government).

Rich – Nice to know that leisured young men and women will be able to hole up in daddy's summer house to push out darling tales of mystery and romance.

Crazy – Enough said.
Jan. 27th, 2011 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: More Bad Logic Blues
Funny -- writers/creators are already 'sponsored' in this case being private publishing companies, who are easily as restrictive as many governments are.

And, also, the vast majority of writers already have to have another job to make ends meet.
Jan. 27th, 2011 10:10 pm (UTC)
Re: More Bad Logic Blues
"Private publishing companies" might be restrictive or risk averse, but at least their aim is to sell books people want, not promote another product or ideology. Also, there are lots of them.

And, yes a vast majority of authors aren't full time pros, but at least there's the possibility of earning some money to cover the opportunity cost, and for the very good and prolific, the chance of going full time.

Would the world be a better place if Terry Pratchet had to write in the evenings while holding down his day job?
Jan. 28th, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
Re: More Bad Logic Blues
for the very good and prolific, the chance of going full time
Again, a very US-centric perspective. It's "easy" to become a full-time writer when you write in a country with 300M inhabitants, in a language that's one of the most spoken on the planet. What do you think the chances of a, say, Estonian writer, writing in a language that's spoken by 1.2M people, are of ever earning enough to make a living?
Jan. 28th, 2011 09:18 am (UTC)
Re: More Bad Logic Blues
Are you saying Estonians have more and better books than us Anglophones?

People also starve in the 3rd world. Should I adjust my children's diet to achieve parity?

(Oh, and Estonians can also read and write in Russian, which is a rather large market indeed. Similarly, Fins have the option to use English.)
Jan. 28th, 2011 10:11 am (UTC)
Re: More Bad Logic Blues
I'm not sure how you got to that conclusion from what I said, but all right, let me explain.

Let's suppose that our writers manage to sell copies to 0.1% of their potential market. The US writer will have sold 300,000 copies, and potentially more if the rights are sold in otherEnglish-speaking countries. The Estonian writer will have sold a whooping 1200 copies. And because Estonian is only spoken in Estonia, any exportation will necessarily have to use translation, which means that the publisher has to pay for it on top of the rights, which far from all of them can afford. (And also to find a translator, which is not easy either for rare languages.)

Suggesting that Estonians write in Russian shows a complete lack of knowledge of the situation of Russian in today's Estonia that I'm not even going to touch. As for Finns writing in English... Have you ever tried to write a literary text in a language that's
not your native one? It's possible; it's been done. But it's hard, and suggesting it so glibly shows you have no idea how hard.
Jan. 28th, 2011 10:53 am (UTC)
Re: More Bad Logic Blues
First up, poor conditions in one part of the world don't justify letting them happen in another. I sympathise with Estonian writers, but am still very happy that best of the Anglophone writers I read can do it full time.



Jim C. Hines

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