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.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.