The Pirate’s (And Author’s) Dilemma

The Pirate's DilemmaPiracy is something all of us have a complex relationship with, none more so than those of us who work in the creative industries. Too often we poor, practically starving artists (where ‘starving’ means ‘working sh%tty, menial casual jobs in hospitality or retail in order to pursue our dreams) are the ones having our work ripped off and it’s, well, totally not ok.

For many years I worked for Sanity/Virgin/HMV (see above re: starving artists working sh%tty, menial casual jobs in order to pursue our dreams). As in some of the companies affected first-hand by the epidemic of music piracy. It used to irk me enormously when friends, vague acquaintances, and random, obnoxious customers talked openly and off-handedly about the music and movies they’d ripped free from the interwebs. They didn’t see this issue with their actions. In fact, few to none of them even seemed momentarily plagued by the ethical dilemma.

Bizarrely, my own attitudes have morphed in recent years. It in part had something to do with Matt Mason’s book, The Pirate’s Dilemma, which turned my thinking of piracy and business models on its head. Mason consults for big-time broadcasters, getting them to give away some content free while also helping them work out ways to monetise their entertainment in this age of digital piracy. Fittingly, he gave the option of buying his book or downloading it for free.

My attitude change also reflected this, what the Oatmeal guy drew better than me: I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened. The summary of that cartoon, should you have decided not to click on the link, is that by not enabling fans to access content legitimately, content producers and gatekeepers are, on some level, forcing us to pirate content.

That’s a simplified view that conveniently skirts some of the big moral issues, I admit, so please spare me the million emails rebutting it. But, as the Oatmeal points out, when you go to every possible legitimate channel to purchase Game of Thrones (for me you could replace that series with Vampire Diaries Season 3) and it’s made stupidly impossible for you to do so … well, I’m saying there’s a whole area of grey that opens up.

I didn’t know that such sites as Mobilism exist—they’re kind of aggregate sites for pirated links but are at pains to explain that, according to that handy interwebs legal loophole, they’re not the bad guys. That is, they don’t make or host the pirate copies, they only collate links to them. Huh. I think it’s fair to say that’s not really cool.

I was pretty interested, then, to discover this Guardian article, which documents a first-time novelist’s discovery that someone was after a pirated copy of his book. This is a double conundrum because he didn’t find the pirated copy, but rather a post asking if anyone had one. So Lloyd Shepherd, the author, did something very interesting. He wrote to the seeker not blowing up about the evils of piracy and how they destroy the starving artist, but to ask questions and attempt to understand why he/she considered piracy ok:

So, I’m the author of The English Monster. Can it be that you’re offering to pay someone to create an ebook of the book I wrote? I’d be interested to hear your justification for this. For your interest, this book took me two years to write, and represents (on a rough estimate) perhaps 500 hours of work on my part, not to mention the time and effort put in by others to design, print, copy-edit and produce the final version. And you’re proposing to pay someone else—someone who had no part in the making of the book—to produce a copy for you. Is there a good reason why you can’t pay through normal channels for my book?

Please understand me—I am genuinely interested in what you’ve got to say about this. This is my first book, and this is my first experience of someone attempting to produce a pirate version of it (I do not use the word ‘pirate’ pejoratively, mind). Is there any reason why I shouldn’t expect to be compensated for the time I have put into this.

The English MonsterThe answers, I’m afraid, were clichéd, lame, and deliberately nonsensical. For example:

Mr Shepherd, I can tell by your measured reply that you are trying to be as fair and nonjudgmental as possible, so thank you. I am not sure how to answer you—and our messages will no doubt be deleted soon.

Bottom line is, there is no justification or reason that would or should ever satisfy the author of original content. Anyone that tries to make sense of this process (that publishing houses are greedy; that knowledge should be free … just two reasons that I have seen bandied about) is just fooling themselves. There is also a Robin Hood aspect to this, that perhaps you may understand. Either way, I don’t think there is a way of putting this digital information era genie back into the bottle. I wish you every luck in future.

I mean, is there an answer in there at all? The answers got worse, including citing having once lived in Africa and Asia, where ebooks aren’t easily accessible. Note, though, that’s the past tense of lived and not the present tense of living.

Shepherd’s Guardian article reminded me where my line in the sand is: piracy isn’t ok, especially when there are avenues through which to buy the book/movie/[insert creative work of choice here] legitimately; however, I won’t say that there isn’t room for improvement in all this online technological availability thingy.

There are always going to be people who rort the system, but distributors also need to make it feasible and easy for those of us keen to ‘do the right thing’ to actually do so. It’s no longer ok to stagger worldwide releases of content—it it’s available in the US, it needs to be simultaneously available in Australia. It’s particularly ridiculous when fans are seeing spoilers via social media, but then being told they’re to wait a long, long time to get to see said spoiled show.

Likewise, if it’s airing on TV, it needs to be purchase-able online immediately afterwards (and I mean immediately—as in as soon as the final credits roll). Distributors also need to look at such options as ABC’s iView, which provides content for free for a certain period of time. In short, the list of tweaks is endless.

Sure, all of challenges traditional business models, but so too does piracy. If something isn’t re-thunk soon and if doing the right thing isn’t the easiest and best option, I suspect more and more people will find themselves sharing the Oatmeal’s (and my) ethical conundrum. For the record, I’m holding out until Vampire Diaries 3 is released in Australia legitimately. For the record, though it might be the right thing to do, that doesn’t mean I feel pious, vindicated, or one iota of happy.

The best non-fiction of all time?

When lists are compiled of the “Best Books of All Time”, two things tend to happen. The first will be that, despite stating “of all time”, most of the books will be recent releases (for example when the Sydney Morning Herald published a list of the top 100 books of all time, and the Harry Potter and Twilight series took the top two spots). The second is that non-fiction rarely gets a look-in. When people say “book”, they usually mean “novel”.

So I was excited to see that the Guardian were putting together a list of the greatest non-fiction books ever written. Whatever about the paper’s politics, when it comes to books and culture, the Guardian is known for the thought and enthusiasm it brings to reviewing trends and books for their readers. And, even better, they clarified these books should not just be informative but really enjoyable reads, books that win over both hearts and minds. “The list we’ve come up with rewards readability alongside originality, heaps praise on perfect prose and rounds it all off with a dash of cultural significance.” A pretty lofty goal.

But after browsing the list I, like some of the readers, feel they have taken things to the other extreme. Far from being focused on the present, this list is firmly grounded in the distant past. Of their 6 biographies, 3 were written before the twentieth century and none were penned after 1933. Out of twelve recommended philosophy texts only one – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – was released in the twentieth century and that was published in 1962. Their only book on mind is by Sigmund Freud in 1889, and even their science section has nothing after 1988.

The Guardian blog contains a lively discussion, with plenty of people pleading my point that modern scientific books are horribly under-represented. But at least scientific books got a mention, as aficionados of sport, cookery and gardening point out – none of their areas (which make up a good half of the Boomerang Top 25 non-fiction books sold in 2010) even get a look in. Still, one hundred books may sound like a lot but when you try and include everything written under the broad banner of non-fiction you are going to end up with a lot of gaps, as the Guardian admits.

It’s clearly a mug’s game to make any kind of claim for definitiveness but, whatever you make of our list and its (doubtless many) omissions and imperfections, there’s no question that it features a whole heap of truly great books… As you’ve doubtless gathered, this is a very left-leaning, liberal, limey kind of list. But this is the Guardian: what else would you expect?

They have a point. The Guardian is a paper with a rich and long history. It was founded in 1821 so perhaps it’s only natural that they are comfortable looking back several hundred years to find most of their best non-fiction reads (and looking only in the English language as well). But I’d like to see what a reader with a more modern eye considers indispensable to a well-rounded and enjoyable non-fiction Top 100.

I’ll start the ball rolling with a few choice picks of my own:

  • Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel – This book on why history unfolded so differently on different continents ensures you will never look at any society quite the same way again, and Diamond’s prose is as polished as his name suggests.
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink – All of Gladwell’s books are well-worth reading as he renders the most scientific and abstract of concepts understandable and fascinating but Blink, a book of “thinking about thinking” is a stand out read in a stellar group.
  • Bill Bryson – At Home / Mother Tongue / A Short History of Nearly Everything – I’m struggling with Bryson, not because I can’t think of any books sufficiently good but because I can’t choose between several of his titles. Is the acerbic focus of Mother Tongue more worthy than the wide-ranging Short History, and is his recent release At Home really that wonderful or is its novelty blinding me to some older, better texts?

What do you think? Should we include some Bryson, some Sedaris or even some Jeremy Clarkson? Or did the Guardian nail your favourite non-fiction reads?