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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.



( 94 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:07 pm (UTC)
Heck no!!!

(And I got the pictures -- love 'em, and will be linking soon :-)
Jan. 27th, 2011 02:55 pm (UTC)
some thoughts:

I've made the offer, publicly and more than once, that anyone who can't get hold of a copy of one of my books, due those situations, should contact me, and I'd make it happen, rather than d/l an illegal copy. To date, not a single person has contacted me to take advantage of that offer. This makes me wonder about who is actually requesting and downloading my books -- are they really eager, deprived fans? [since, if they could reach a bittottent site, they should be able to find me directly online, as well]

On the financial side: books are expensive in many countries not because the publisher charges too much, but because the government taxes them at such a high rate. In Europe, I am told, ebooks are taxed at the rate of software, not books. That needs to be addressed, to even start solving the cost problem.

While I'm deeply sympathetic to the difficulties of getting books in some locations (see 1st para), I am uncomfortable with the "it's too expensive/hard to acquire" arguments because that seems to be saying "if it's difficult we shouldn't have to pay," which can so easily be extrapolated to cover pretty much anything. Slippery slope.

[and that's not even getting to the "fewer sales = dead career" argument, because most people just go on to the next author available, and don't even notice the corpses. Sad but true.]

Edited at 2011-01-27 03:01 pm (UTC)
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC)
I agree with you that "expensive" doesn't necessarily justify theft. On the other hand, I'm much more likely to write off some entitled U.S. kid downloading books while texting on his iPhone and playing his Wii as a dick than I would someone having to budget for a month to be able to afford a new paperback.

A lot of what I'm thinking about here are problems that I don't know how to fix. And of course, most are problems that authors have no power to fix.

Toby's post discusses whether piracy actually leads to fewer sales, and he argues that from what he's seen, the overall impact of piracy is close to neutral.
(no subject) - akiko - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - akiko - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - zornhau - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tinylegacies - Jan. 27th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvanstargazer - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joycemocha - Jan. 27th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - longstrider - Jan. 28th, 2011 04:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mrs_norris_mous - Jan. 27th, 2011 05:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - suricattus - Jan. 27th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 27th, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC)
I'm from Malaysia and I can totally back up that statement on the high cost of books in our country. An average mass market paperback costs around RM32-35. If you're really penny pinching you can go to a cheap food stall and buy paratha bread and iced tea for RM3, and even then it would not make for a satisfying meal. Added the fact that our politicians are corrupted and kept raising the price of gas, sugar and flour, average working class Malaysians are really struggling right now. So yes, books in Malaysia are expensive, and hardcovers laughably so (RM109 for adult paperback!).
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC)
Sorry, that would be RM109 for adult HARDCOVERS.
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)
I appreciate that you can see a distinction between "for people like me" and "in all cases." Copyright lets art turn into business, but we as a society have given something up in return.

As a younger reader, it is sometimes hard to understand the sheer personal entitlement authors exude about downloads, especially when so many are pro-library and have probably bought used books themselves. It seems like the medium is the important thing. I can't imagine any of them looking at a full card in the back of a library book and saying "how dare these 50 people borrow the book instead of buying it! And enabled by my tax dollars!"

My dad's an author and kind of flipped out when he realized how many people were downloading his book. I passive-aggressively downloaded it (I had free author copies of anyway) and said, "there, see? Not a lost sale." In hindsight, I probably should have waited a week or two first...
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
The comparison to libraries and used book sales doesn't work.

1. A physical book is a finite resource. The library buys the book (and the author gets paid), and it can only be borrowed by one person at a time. Likewise, a used book can be resold, but only to one person at a time. Whereas a file can be downloaded an infinite number of times.

2. In many countries (not the U.S.), authors are paid each year based on how frequently their books were checked out from libraries.

The argument just doesn't hold up.
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvanstargazer - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joycemocha - Jan. 27th, 2011 05:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)
One small bit of law and one of anec-data towards the argument that the countries where most piracy is happening "are not developed, Anglophone countries, and there are reasons for that."

1) Not every country is a signatory of the Conventions and treaties that make copyright protection reciprocal (the Berne Convention and various WIPO treaties). Often the US pressures countries into signing (must protect the Mouse), but it's not part of the cultural basis and will take time to become such (if it ever does).

2) My parents worked as librarians in the international development field and lived in South East Asia for a large part of my youth. I remember their initial surprise, and gradual acceptance of the fact that at most bookshops one could purchase "Book" for lots and lots of money, or "Neatly bound, photocopy of book" for a price that was accessible to folk who were earning local salaries. Mostly they bought "Book" 'cause they could. But sometimes someone else had already purchased the only original the bookshop had ordered. So, yes, their home library included photocopies of books too. Where that is *standard*, the idea of "piracy" of intellectual property being a bad thing, is not going to be an easily accepted one.

Not saying that copying e-books is right or wrong in some grand moral sense ... but it's certainly not illegal everywhere, and if people believe that the only reason it has become illegal in their country is that the US threatened embargoes if they didn't change their own legal system to match ... that's not going to make them suddenly fond of western intellectual property regimes.
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
Good information, and thank you.

I wonder if we could just write a law that said "Fine, keep your damn Mouse, but let the rest of us revise copyright law to something a bit more reasonable, 'kay?"
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)
Most of my download-rather-than-library excursions have been because I want something to read at work. Just saying. ;)

That said, as I mentioned in the previous post, I'll absolutely pay for anything where I can conveniently do so. And that's been more of a thing for video games or music than books, honestly, because I *do* have the library offline, and Gutenberg and Baen online.
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)
Well, it's not like every American who dls instead of going to the library is simply "lazy". There are plenty of reasons libraries might not be nearly as accessible as the internet - transportation, location, health problems, etc. And libraries haven't been that great about getting in on the ebook thing, so if you NEED an ebook...

Edited at 2011-01-27 03:24 pm (UTC)
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:26 pm (UTC)
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.

That was pretty much my thought too. I know plenty of people who download copious amounts of ebooks who live right here in the USA.

Though I do wish there were easier legal ways to share e-books. My mom and I trade books frequently and since I got my Kindle we haven't been able to. I'm planning to buy her a Kindle but the options for lending books are still really limited.
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
E-books are still new, and it's going to be messy for a while longer while we try to standardize how the things are going to work. We're seeing a few more lending options, and I suspect those will continue to improve and standardize.

(Sigh. Had a different browser open and was logged out before.)
(no subject) - tinylegacies - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - temporus - Jan. 28th, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tinylegacies - Jan. 28th, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:31 pm (UTC)
I've been staying out of this debate for the very reasons you lay out so cogently here: it only appeared a black and white deal to us in the US. There are so many ramifications, as you and Tobias and others are pointing out.

What I see is that publishing is being forced into rapid change just as the advent of print rapidly changed society, and dragged behind it notions of privacy (and privilege, which for purposes of this discussion, I define as 'access'). The same thing is happening now, with the e-revolution.
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC)
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes."

I think you're dead-on that a lot of the problem is technology changing faster than publishing can adapt. And I do trust that publishing will eventually get there -- after all, it's a business. The publishers that don't adapt will go belly up, and those that do will continue. But it makes things rather messy right now.
(no subject) - suricattus - Jan. 27th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - temporus - Jan. 28th, 2011 04:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 28th, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 27th, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - princejvstin - Jan. 27th, 2011 06:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
Since you are a U.S. author writing in American English for a U.S. market, I think it's pretty bogus for anyone to ding you for not taking into account the economics in Timbuktu. It is probably fair to point out that an American author's books might be difficult to obtain in, say, Malaysia, but that is also true of a Malaysian author's books in America, and doesn't really say anything about the right or wrong of downloading a pirated copy. It is probably not worth it to worry about piracy in countries where your book has no distribution, and fans should probably guess that the author would rather have them reading for free than not at all, without needing a written blessing from the author for downloading an illegal copy (which has to be done on a machine costing hundreds of dollars anyway).
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:43 pm (UTC)
Eh. I was the one making all-encompassing statements about how piracy was a dick move. I think it's fair to point out that I'm condemning everyone based on a limited perspective.

I do agree that a lot of this stuff isn't worth stressing about, and that most downloaded books don't represent lost sales, especially when your books aren't even available in a given locale.
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
There is also the issue of when copyright becomes politcal -- or participates in the political. For some countries, imports of things like books and movies are heavily controlled for political reasons. China might ban your books because they talk about ... individual freedom too much or something. Or another country might ban any books/movies that include queer conetent, leaving queers in that country with nothing but condemnation and giving them no sense that it's different anywhere else. While this is not, technically, a copyright issue, and the ability to get illegal downloads in those situations is also limited to somewhat privledged folks in those countries -- pirated books might be the only way to get those items, at any price.

Also, have you checked out Baen books? A few years ago, anyway, they had a essay on their website as to why the 'gave' away books for free. They found it increased the sales of certian books and series (it wasn't a blanket truth). If they still have that info up, you might want to take a look.
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
Good point re: banning/censorship and piracy as a means of bypassing it.

I've been following Baen's experiments with e-books. Like I said in another comment, I love what they've done, and while I don't think everything has been a perfect success, I wish more publishers would follow their lead in trying different things and not playing it quite so conservatively.
(no subject) - xtricks - Jan. 27th, 2011 09:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 27th, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC)
Just to be clear, since I forgot to mention it in the other comment: the 25 EUR I would normally pay for a new SF/F book is for trade paperback, not mmpb. Since we don't generally get hardback versions of books*, I imagine that some of the inflated cost is for the same reason(s), such as an "early read" privilege, recouping / subsidizing less-well-selling or later printings, and so on. However, yes, current "on sale" mmpbs from Eason are 8 Euro a pop, with more in the 12-15 range.

*Sometimes we do. Towers of Midnight is available in hardback at ~26 EUR and the trade paperback is listed at ~22.

Which, as suricattus points out, doesn't justify copyright infringement, but it's really something that I think publishers and resellers should be willing to keep in mind as they deal with the new publishing forms and delivery means.
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.
Re: More Bad Logic Blues - xtricks - Jan. 27th, 2011 09:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: More Bad Logic Blues - zornhau - Jan. 27th, 2011 10:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: More Bad Logic Blues - snakeling - Jan. 28th, 2011 03:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: More Bad Logic Blues - zornhau - Jan. 28th, 2011 09:18 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: More Bad Logic Blues - snakeling - Jan. 28th, 2011 10:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: More Bad Logic Blues - zornhau - Jan. 28th, 2011 10:53 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 27th, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
I'd like to point out a whole OTHER area that hasn't been brought up.

I do research in some pretty obscure areas. As such, I run into out-of-print (or out-of-stock) books regularly. They are nearly impossible to track down, and, wildly expensive to find used.

In many cases, even if you find a publisher willing to take on an out-of-print book, they can't do it because they cannot find the copyright holder. Meanwhile, publishers with no intention to reprint a book will list the book as out-of-stock, because they'd lose their rights to publish it as soon as it's formally out-of-print.

Because of the length of copyright (author's life +70), there's a lot of potential to lose works entirely because no one can legally make or circulate copies. (And it's not profitable enough to create interest in publishing it legally. Or it might be profitable, but, they can't find the copyright holder.)
Jan. 27th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
I admit to having complicated feelings on this. On the one hand, my general attitude is that if something is not being sold to a particular market, and the only way someone who lives in that particular market can get it is to import it at ridiculous expense... I'm not going to argue if they decide to get it illegally.

If the publisher wants to sell to them, then they should work to make that a reasonable proposition. And I understand that rights are complicated, and it's not always going to be simple, but I also think it's something that they need to do. I am basically extremely unsympathetic when it comes to businesses losing out on revenue when they haven't done anything right to pursue it. And, yes, I like authors, but...publishing is still a business.

On the other hand, I'm an anime/manga fan, who's seen what this kind of attitude left unchecked for years can do to an industry, and I'm very much not in favor of the results. I don't like the attitude of unchecked entitlement towards the artistic product of another country because it's not specifically made for them. And reading some of the posts...it's the same damn thing in a different context. Same justifications, same complete lack of care about the author and their context, same entitlement, same everything.

I'll grant that that I do feel more sympathy for someone in Malaysia who can't afford a book costing a week's worth of meals than an American teenager who can't afford a manga set costing a weeks' worth of meals (and yes, I once skipped lunch for a week to buy a three manga boxed set, so I'd say the cost comparison is actually surprisingly apt), but...it's very, very similar.
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Jim C. Hines


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