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Piracy on the High Shelves

May 14, 2009

Late riser today, no time or energy to post anything major.  Good article in the New York Times the other day about copyright.  Seems non-textbook books are finally seeing the Jolly Roger on the horizon, or at least the trend has finally made the paper.  Ursula K. Le Guin, famous SF author who has sold many, many books over the last several decades, found copies of her work on Scribd.com, a site for “to upload documents like college theses and self-published novels.”

Rather naively, Ms. Le Guin asks:

“I thought, who do these people think they are?” Ms. Le Guin said. “Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?”

Versus the Cory Doctorow take on the problem, with which I’m more aligned these days:

“I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy,” Mr. Doctorow said. “It’s obscurity.”

Slashdot comments as always sum up the best and worst of the two common responses to the problem.  The best:

I’m a two-bit, small time computer book author with just one book to my name so far. I love seeing my book get pirated. It’s sold reasonably well for its niche (approaching 10,000 copies) but for the second edition I pleaded with my publisher to allow the e-book version to be free. Of the, say, 10,000 copies sold, only a couple hundred have been of the e-book edition, and I’m convinced that the wider exposure a free e-book would gather would result in increased print sales. When Seth Godin gave away the free PDF of his Ideavirus book, it led to me buying his various other books in print throughout the years. Doctorow is right that obscurity is a bigger hurdle than piracy, but I’m pretty convinced that even big name authors could benefit from extended reach thanks to freely distributed content.

And the worst:

Why do artists always keep complaining? Write good books, make good music, make interesting movies, and the money will flow in, piracy or no piracy. Write crappy books, make more crappy pop songs, and make boring as heck movies and your income will dry up. Piracy or no piracy.

This is a common generalization in the more poorly thought-out realms of anti-IP thinking; just “be good” and your work will monetize itself, a sort of Horatio Algerism in which “industry” is the great leveler of obstacles, everyone will step aside and let you rise past them in the world, and let you collect your due out of respect for your hard work.  It’s the kind of magical thinking that gave us the “magic of the market,” an almost religious belief in invisible hands gently stirring the cream to the top.

Musicians have got it over other artists because a live performance is a unique saleable – recordings can be pirated, but the live experience can’t be.  Artists who work in hard materials like paint and sculpture can see their profits rise exponentially on each individual piece of work as their fame grows.  Except in rare cases of authors who make it on the paid lecture circuit, or can auction off original manuscripts (and how many of us besides J.K. Rowling write by hand any more), authors don’t have the ability to monetize this way.  Bands can sell t-shirts; the only authors on t-shirts are dead ones. 

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