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On Piracy

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

Remember in the early 2000s when everyone hated Lars Ulrich for coming out against Napster? Were you one of them? Or did you side with the 300,000 users Metallica outed in their case against the company?

Here's why I ask: file sharing has existed for over two decades now. It's been around almost as long as the lifespan of the cassette tape.

An entire generation has grown up with free access to movies, television and books. They were born into piracy.

What I'm saying is that trying to change their minds at this stage is going to be incredibly difficult. If threatening them with lawsuits didn't work, why would you think wagging your fingers at them on the internet will?

Remember when the FBI anti-piracy ads started showing up on DVDs and we all (at least people my age and younger) LOLed at them with gleeful abandon? "You wouldn't steal a car… pirating films is a crime." As if watching a shitty cam version of a movie on your computer is on par with literal robbery.

I get the sentiment, but it's not like downloading a car. At all. The crew all got paid. The only people getting dinged are those getting money on the back end, ie. a percentage of gross profits. And movie production companies (more and more often huge telemedia conglomerates) are still making billions. Advertisers are still paying for ad time before movies in the theater and during television programs.

With books and digital artists it gets a little trickier. There is no inherent mode of advertising in literature or visual art. Who gets dinged when someone steals a book, or a piece of art stolen for a meme (or a blog post *ahem*)? Not the distributor. With these forms of art, the creator takes on a portion of that lost revenue. Sure, with traditionally published books it's still most often large media conglomerates taking the brunt of the revenue hit. But it does trickle down on the writer. Even more so with indie or small press books.

Of course creators feel they should be paid for their work. For many of them, it's their only job. Even if it's not, like me, they work incredibly hard in their spare time so that you can enjoy their writing, music, paintings, whathaveyou. That's work that should, by all counts, be remunerated.

There's a quote that's been going around for decades - much more so recently, or maybe I just see it more due to being in the "writing community" - from the late, brilliant speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison. "Pay the writer!" he says with his typical caustic charm. And I agree with him - to a certain extent.

Because there are many reasons a writer might want to work for free. Exposure is one. I still feel this is a legitimate argument. Exposure is something people die from! writers cry. Artists should "never give their art away." To do so cheapens or devalues not just your art but all art. Of course this is nonsense. There have always been artists who gave their art away for free, yet people still pay for art. And there are many writers who have used "exposure" as a stepping stone to massively successful careers. It can still be valuable.

To disregard it wholesale is short-sighted. Do what works for you. Let others do what works for them. (Screw HuffPo though. Seriously. Always and forever.) Look at the platform, and see how it can benefit you.

Another is charitable contributions. Many indie authors have gotten their start or a significant boost from featuring in charity anthologies. The writers generally don't get paid, or recieve a token amount, and their story is under a short contract. The books are usually padded out with a few heavy hitters, big names that generate a little buzz and potentially draw in readers to discover new talented voices.

This form of exposure is more palatable for some. Others still feel it's a slight to their "worth" as an "artist." I've contributed to a few anthologies and published a handful myself. I can't speak to their success for the writers involved but the two I published were pretty successful for their charities, as far as small press anthologies go.

A more recent sentiment I've come across is the notion that writers shouldn't give their books away for free deliberately because it "devalues the craft," or some such elitist nonsense.

But libraries are free. Advanced Reader Copies are free. Contests are (most often) free.

Yes, the author or publisher generally controls this form of giveaway, to an extent. But how is that any different than, say, an indie author setting one or more of their books to "permafree" on Amazon, or their website?

Yet I've seen countless writers decry permafree ebooks. Never mind the fact that most successful indie authors do it. I know it has definitely helped me gain a moderate audience.

That's the nature of the business now. As I mentioned at the start, an entire generation has been raised on piracy.

One thing I find interesting is that I've seen a huge backlash from writers against DRM (Digital Rights Management, or copyright protection for digital media) but it is exactly this that would prevent or at least make it more difficult for people to pirate their ebooks.

I'm not up to date with the latest scandal, this Internet Archive thing, so I can't speak to that with any authority. But it seems to me that, like Napster failed to do before them, they should have asked publishers to opt-in to this "service" before "providing" it.

I like the idea of democratizing digital media, in theory. Everyone should have access to books, and the fact that traditional publishers charge unconscionable prices for their ebooks (sometimes more than the cost of the physical media) doesn't make this achievable.

Because Trad Pubs still believe in the theory of "perceived value," ie. if a product costs less it's worth less. Hachette and others fought a huge battle against Amazon to prove this, and with their rich celebrity shills I mean writers they were able to get a majority share in online support, even from those who theoretically stood to benefit from it failing, ie. readers. "Stephen Colbert/King says it's true and we wouldn't want to upset Stephen Colbert/King!"

As The Big Lebowski's The Dude might say, there are a lot of ins and a lot of outs to the issue of internet piracy. I'm not a proponent of it anymore, and it's not even technically illegal in Canada. But as I was party to it in the past, I can't in good conscience call out the people who continue to do it. And I certainly wouldn't argue that it's killed or is killing art.

What piracy has inarguably done is changed the landscape. Like the music industry and the film/TV industry before us, we as artists need to adapt. Sink or swim. There are countless venues for artists to share their work, for pay or for free. More so than ever before in history.

Artists are incredibly lucky to live in a time where consumers can find our art with the click of a button. But that luck comes at a cost. It's a cost I've always been willing to pay, because I know that the vast majority of consumers would rather pay for art than risk computer viruses, getting caught, the stigma of piracy, etc. And it just feels good to know you're supporting the artists you love.

That's just my two cents though, which given the topic are probably worth just a little bit less.

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