How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Pirate?

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Pirate?

35ce024128a035ee5e120110.LIf you are the sort who, instead of writing your pages, dithers on the web, checking up on the news and reading blogs and watching Orson Welles drunk outtakes, then you may well have seen Jackson Pearce’s screed against book pirates. Some background: She’d tweeted a few days ago that she must subsist off of ramen because she is broke, and meanwhile her books are being downloaded illegally. People responded to the tweet (apparently in support of book piracy—arrrrr!), and she answered those people with this charming video in which she costars with a pirate puppet.

But to my mind, both she and the people she’s answering are missing a bigger question, which is this: If those downloaded copies of the book(s) weren’t available on a pirate board, would the people who download them instead have purchased copies? That is, what is the actual impact of these downloads on sales?

There’s no way to be sure, of course, but I’d argue that the effects are negligible or positive. And that, considering that piracy is unavoidable, best then to find ways to make it work to one’s advantage—such as using a Creative Commons license. (For a better explanation of all of this, see Cory Doctorow’s post at the Guardian—which additionally has some startlingly frank talk about how artists should not expect to make a living from their art; in short, don’t quit your day job.)

The thing is, people who download illegally? They aren’t going to buy the book anyway. They’re just not. (Or a few may, but the lion’s share never will.) They are part of the culture of ferreting out uploads and taking what’s available. They are never going to wander into a bookstore real or virtual to buy the book. I know several of these people—they have files of all the latest movies and albums and like to boast about what they’ve “got” recently.

They are habitual thieves of a sort, but never mind that: They do talk up what they’ve got. They are one part of word-of-mouth. A scurrilous part, surely, but a group whose activities and talk may well spur awareness of a project—whether album, film, or book. As Doctorow has said elsewhere, his biggest fear isn’t that people will download his book for free, it’s that they will have never heard of it.

If the piracy of intellectual property is unavoidable (as it seems to be), then the only recourse is to create art that creates fans—people who are willing to support it. I have had friends “slip” me downloads of albums that I then went out and bought (in some cases—as with Frank Turner—six copies over time, more than paying him back for the brief time I “pirated” his album). I’ve become a fan, and it was because of that first sample. It may well have to be this way for authors, too.

What do you think? Is free the way of the future? How are authors going to make a living once everything is digitized and available for the price of a little bit of poking around the internet?

  1. This is certainly a way of thinking that hadn’t occurred to me, and I have to mull over it a bit. The first three or four people I know who like to download free stuff, though, do watch the movies and listen to those tunes. I am sure there are many people who do these things so they can brag, and I can see how they may actually help get the word out, unless, of course, they also tell their friends how to rip those songs and download those books for free.

    Interested to know more.


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Donna Earnhardt, Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Hi @Donna_Earnhardt (and everyone else): Proper link should have been: Somehow that final g was made a q. […]


  3. You bring up good points. I always wonder why downloading pirated media is awful but borrowing media from the library– still not purchasing it yourself– is great; technically the same number of copies has been sold in each case (assuming of course that whoever posted the pirated material purchased it in the first place– you’d think SOMEBODY had to). I am a voracious library user (being a librarian, it’s hard not to be). I only purchase books for myself if I want to keep them forever, to reread or have on hand. Otherwise, I get my books from the library. And sometimes I wonder if I should be feeling guilty for not directly supporting authors with my money– people, with obviously more disposable income than I, go on about all the books they by all the time, and I can’t get my head around it. If I had to buy every book I want to READ, well… I COULDN’T, that’s all! That’s what the library is for! But how is the library really better than downloading something free, except that one is legal and one isn’t?

    I say this not to make libraries look bad, because they are my favorite institutions in the whole world and also pay me; but because the things you say about piracy also apply to libraries. They spread the word. They inspire you to go out and actually purchase the things you find that you love. Most of my favorite books I read first from a library– then I bought my own copy. So I wonder– what IS the line between acceptible and unacceptible sharing?


  4. If the point of art – painting, writing, etc. – is to communicate (message, feeling, vision), I can’t be too upset about communicating with the pirate community. I write because it’s what I love to do, something I feel is a part of who I am at the core. I don’t write with the expectation of being paid. While ideally, I would like to be paid eventually, the lack of financial gain hasn’t stopped me so far.

    I also found rockinlibrarian’s point interesting. Citizens have to exert energy to go to the library to obtain a book. Pirates also exert energy to find a book, a song, etc. online. While piracy may be morally questionable, I agree that pirates will inadvertently end up promoting the works they’ve pirated through word of mouth, which ultimately seems like a win to me.

    This also set me to pondering – am I a pirate if I loan my copy to a friend?


  5. I’m personally a proponent of writer’s offering material for free, and have read of instances in which offering an out of print title free has led to a boost in interest which allowed the material to get a second chance in print.

    However, as I understand it an author who does not attempt to enforce where possible their copyright and assert their right to the copyrighted material, they are in effect relinquishing their claim to the material.

    It’s alwasy valuable when considering the pros and cons of a situation to look over the legalities involved and make sure that you’re happy with the end-road consequences of your plan. What ‘makes sense’ to a layman will not necessarily hold water in a court of law.


    • Suzanne, you make a good point—obviously one doesn’t want to encourage piracy or allow it to to the detriment of one’s copyright. Really, any writer who sees one of his or her books on a pirate board should immediately notify the publisher, whose lawyers will swing into action.


  6. Thank you for this great post. This is the most realistic aproach to piracy I’ve ever come across. I got this link from Jeff S. and found it very enlightening. Thanks again.


  7. The problem with encouraging authors to make their books available for free is that authors then can’t make a living. It’s one thing to have speaking engagements and paid seminars paying your bills – nonfiction authors can do that, and some fiction authors with a huge base do the same – but for a new author, those royalty checks, as meager as they are, make a difference. And for midlist authors, who want to make a career of writing? You can’t just give it away.

    And what of publishers, or those who try to make books actually have clear, well-written content and lovely presentations (the book doctors, etc, who help out self-published authors)? Without income, there’s no way to justify presenting and packaging a book well, and readers suffer as a result.

    I don’t think piracy is necessarily the scourge it’s made out to be – DRM is not the answer, and sharing books should be encouraged rather than vilified – but not ever paying for a book is the surest way to destroy literary culture.


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