Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Pirate Manifesto

Today I want to talk about Piracy. No, not the Somalian/High Seas kind.

I want to talk about digital piracy/file-sharing/stealing creative content. I'm going to make some arguments that might be controversial, especially considering the hopes and aspirations of the people who read this blog, who are mostly either published authors, or, like me, aspire to be.

Before I get to the controversial parts, I want to make one thing crystal clear. Stealing is wrong. Morally, ethically, legally, logically: WRONG. What do I mean by logically? Well, if you're a pirate, then you're an idiot. I mean think about it. It's not that hard to figure out. If you love that one hard core death metal new wave punk band, and every album they've ever made is available for free on the Usenet, Bit-torrent, or FrostWire, why wouldn't you want to download it? Because, dumb-ass, how can you possibly expect the artists whose work you enjoy so much to be able support themselves, and more importantly (for you) continue to create more awesome art for you to enjoy?

If you don't pay for it, they won't be able to afford to make it. Everyone has to earn their daily bread.

The same thing goes for films, video games, and most importantly (for this blog) books. But I do have a caveat. Before I get to that I want to make a distinction. I would one day like to be an author, as in a published one. Once I am, if you manage to obtain a pirated copy of my work, and bootleg it in such a way that you are making an illegal profit from my hard work (and it is hard work, this current novel has been over two years in the making), I will make sure that you are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That's if you're trying to distribute my work, for your profit.

Here's where the controversy kicks in.

If you download my book, from whatever file sharing service, and you enjoy it, just for yourself, and you don't go to any extra effort to make it more widely available for free, I'm not going to care.

It's shocking, I know, but let me tell you why. There are actually several reasons. First, books are different. It requires a lot more word of mouth to get a book selling than it does a film or album, and you can't really loan e-books to friends, or at least the last I read they were still working on software that would allow limited ability to loan digital media out.

How many times have you borrowed a book from a friend, or won one on a blog, and discovered an author that you came to love? If you read as much as I do, it's probably a lot. If you don't it may be less, but we're not splitting hairs here.

I'm loathe to admit this, but I have a real world example. I recently got very excited about A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin, when I heard that HBO was doing the show, and because two of the readers I respect most, Bryan Russell and Ted Cross both highly recommended the books. When I mentioned this to a friend I know in the real world, he got very excited, and ended up loaning me some discs.

The discs contained the audiobooks of the first two books in the series. It's possible that they are just copies of the audiobooks that my friend legally owned, but it's also possible they are pirated. Shame on me, I know. But you know what? I loved these books so much that I went out and bought the trade paperbacks of every volume of the series that has been published so far.

Now I'm not saying this is a perfect example, because what if I hadn't loved them, and I also probably would have bought the books anyway, but I hope you see my point. And that's another reason I don't immediately write pirates off. Most people who download a book illegally never would have bought it in the first place. If they know the places to go to get these files, chances are very high that they are part of a counterculture who believes what they're doing isn't wrong. you can't stop those people. But, every once in a while, someone will download something, and love it so much, that they actually go out and buy it.

Now the bottom line here is that I'm not saying any of this is okay, and I want to repeat, as clearly as possible, stealing is wrong. Don't do it. Don't support it. Don't pretend it's okay. The artist whose career you are threatening is almost certainly a decent, hardworking person. But, as writers and aspiring authors I think we need to have an open mind about piracy and file-sharing. Look at Radiohead and their free album. Think of J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and the $0.99 e-book millionaires. Konrath, Crouch, Kilborn Strand and Wilson even released the majority of their e-book thriller, Draculas, for free, at first.

These creative people are thinking outside the box, not running around suing people for downloading a few songs, and becoming very successful for doing things there way.

All I'm trying to say is that it isn't black and white. Nothing is that simple. End rant. Thanks for listening.


Matthew MacNish said...

Feel free to disagree with me, dear readers. Nothing is more important than open debate about such loaded topics.

salarsenッ said...

I agree. Nothing is simple, nor simply black and white. It is totally and completely not cool to 'steal'. I think you established that. I hear what you're saying; I do, but can we make a wrong little just to maybe benefit? For what purpose? For what means? (Just playing your snarky devil's advocate, here.)

I get it. I know. But the longer I write. The deeper I become invested in all that's invisibly creative. Meaning: that space inside every writer, musician, actor, etc... where we create. It's ours. I guess I'm a bit possessive. :)

Jen Daiker said...

You're right, nothing is that simple. However if everything was as simple as black and white life wouldn't be near as interesting either.

I love that salarsen called herself possessive. At times I feel the same especially having worked on a novel for so long.

Great post Matthew!

Matthew MacNish said...

No, I think you're right Sheri. We pour so much of ourselves into our work, it's a terrible thing for someone to take that creation without paying for it. My point is just that I think we have to think differently about the people who do think it's okay.

The way that the RIAA and the MPAA go about it doesn't work.

Steve C said...

I've always gotten books from used bookstores, but I've always had this rule - if I love the first one, I'll buy the next.

Like Iain Lawrence's The Wreckers - I not only bought the second book, but bought another copy of the first one for my nephew. If I hadn't found it on that shelf, I never would've heard of him.

Matthew MacNish said...

Interesting point Steve. And I think that goes along with my argument. You get more new readers in the long run from borrowed books and downloaded files than you could ever lose, IMHO.

Laura Pauling said...

I agree. The more we give away for free the bigger chance of word of mouth spreading. B/c not everyone is a pirate and will buy the book! But as you mention, there is always 2 sides of a coin.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Ugh. This debate (now, sadly, argument) has been going on at Absolute Write for days. The thread there got picked up by Goodreads, and it continued there, too.

Too many people strike out with the worst possible claims on both sides, and it polarizes quickly.

On the "pro" side, you get "But I can't afford / get books any other way!"

On the "con" side, you get "If only half the people who downloaded my book paid for it, I'd have a house payment and a bigger advance on my next book!"

"It's stealing!"

"You can't steal something if you're not depriving its owner of keeping it!"

"It's free advertising!"

"Only for others who want to steal from me!"

The fact is, you can't equate illegal downloads with lost sales. Most people who download never intended to buy the book in the first place (some do, most don't). Most pirated books suck because the formatting's terrible, so actual readers have to get a real version to enjoy.

There are pro authors who have uploaded their own stuff and seen an increase in sales as a result.

There are pro authors who blame piracy for their lackluster sales.

And there's an entire - huge - group of people who equate downloading a book (not for profit) with going to a library. On their end, they don't see the difference because they don't realize that the library actually buys books which means money for the author.

Homework and term paper sites are big into ebook "sharing". The feature is supposed to be so kids who are all reading Pride and Prejudice can share the book (it's public domain), but then someone realizes that they can also upload other books, and BOOM! 500 kids are now "pirates".

But, they say, those 500 kids go to twitter and Facebook and their blogs and tell people the book is awesome and "OMG buy it now!", so that's money in the author's pocket.

Round and round and round she goes...

Laura M. Campbell said...

The digital age blurs lines and I believe the artists best chance of survival is to adapt. I spoke to many published authors at the Pennwriters Conference over the weekend, and they said selling books at a low price (i.e., 99 cents) entices readers to pick it up, if for nothing more than it's wicked cheap. Then, if the book meets the readers expectations they are more inclined to go out and spend more money on other published work by that author.

I agree the possessiveness makes it difficult to part with our hard work, but if we don't approach marketing and selling of our hard work differently, I'm afraid we might ultimately get left behind. Remember, if we plan to make money from our writing, we need to cater to the readers who buy our work.

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I only download free books from legitimate sources like Smashwords or Amazon.com. When I can afford the money to outright buy the book, I do.

But mainly the thing I try to do is help get books into the library system, and to try and spread word of mouth for the books I'm really fond of. It makes me feel like I'm doing my part to help out fellow authors, and hopefully some day I'll be able to afford to do a lot more.

Old Kitty said...

Yay!! The key thing for me is so long as artists have control over their work. I have enough writerly friends who are legit published to know that they struggle - really struggle - to make a living out of the art that they love doing without having to worry about piracy etc. I think if you want to read a book for free - use the library! LOL! Take care

Jessica Bell said...

I agree with you, Matt. There have been so many times I've download free music and then gone out to buy the album. I'm sure it's bound to happen with books too.

But the fact of the matter is, it's not going to stop, so I think people should try to find a way to take advantage of it!

Adam Heine said...

Like Josin, I'm tired of the debate. Tobias Buckell had a great post a while ago with data showing that pirates did not actually affect sales--good or bad.

That is, they didn't hurt sales (as Josin said, most of those who pirate probably wouldn't pay for the book given the chance) nor did they help (I think the data was inconclusive at best on whether the "free advertising" worked--sometimes it did, mostly it didn't).

His conclusion, and my stance now too, was not to worry about it. Not "do nothing," but to not get upset about it. Doesn't help anybody.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Piracy makes the short hairs on my neck stand up and gives me the sudden urge to throttle something.

I don't do it and I'm educating my kids in the horrors of it.

That being said, Doctorow has some compelling things to say about it, and I can't say I disagree. But there's a difference between giving something away for free and having it stolen.

I've heard of authors who asked every pirate to write a review, and ended up with a boatload. I've heard of authors who gave out free paper books and only asked that people NOT keep them - to pass them on.

I'll never be a pirate (at least not in real-life). But I'm all for using the pirate's techniques to further the author's goals, when possible.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

After reading over my comment, I realized that "using the pirate's techniques" could be construed as condoning piracy. What I meant to say was this: I'm all for using moral pressure to reduce piracy and make it uncool. But when it happens anyway, I think authors should either ignore it, or use it to their advantage (like above author asking pirates to write reviews), rather than spending precious energy trying to fight it.

Summer Frey said...

I'm aware that buying a used book from a used bookstore doesn't give the author any royalty money, but I do it anyway. More often than not, I latch onto a series and buy the rest from a big box bookstore. And sometimes I'll buy a book for my Kindle and love it so much that I'll buy a physical copy as well.

But yes, I agree with you completely. A lot of people who pirate are doing it just because they can; if the avenue were taken away, I really doubt they'd be in the bookstores instead.

Jared Larson said...

I agree with using the library. That's one of their most essential and basic uses. In the digital world, you can always find a sample of the book to read, such as Kindles or Nooks (if you have one). And then, if intrigued, you can purchase the rest of the book. I believe that sample option comes in handy. It does depend on peoples situations and what is or isn't available to them. Therefore it can be a fine line as long as it is always understood that stealing is never justified if something is not meant to be stolen. Get my drift? And Matt, good luck with personally responding to everyones comments today. I expect mine to be a ten-pager.

storyqueen said...

I've noticed a lot of publishers putting chapters (or sometimes even half of an entire book) on line free for a few weeks to generate excitement about the book. Personally speaking, it's been effective. I find myself looking for these books when they finally come out.


Matthew MacNish said...

LOL. Thanks Jared. I don't have that much to add that I didn't say already. I mean you make an excellent point about the Library, but at least they pay for the work once (assuming that's how it works, I don't know). I think my point is that there will always be thieves in the world, and file sharers and hackers tend to be really smart people. You don't want to go toe to toe with them (look at Anonymous versus Sony), but if you try to meet them on their terms (like Radiohead) and work smarter instead of harder, I think you can make a difference.

Kerri Cuev said...

Good points and I won't argue with you ;)

There is a huge difference between sharing and actively seeking illegal copies. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

yeah it's kind of similar to the whole used bookstore idea. I used to work at a used bookstore, and i was very aware that every book i bought, didn't actually do anything money-wise for the author. But more often then not, i'd read that book, and then go buy new copies of the rest of the books in the series. So in the end, i think it paid off for the author

Slamdunk said...

Good topic Matthew. Though I am cheap/frugal, I won't have anything to do with illegal material. Libraries and other similar resources have saved my day more than a few times.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Definitely a complicated issue in the age of electronic media. But I suppose pirating goes way back even before then with books, but in the form of plagiarism. Some people will always try to make a buck off of someone else's hard work. It's despicable.

Michael G-G said...

Well, you've certainly got us all pondering. All I can add to the debate is that we have to teach our kids what you have written above. My wife went ballistic when she caught my son and a friend having a hay day on some pirate music download site. The kids didn't think anything was wrong--it was just free stuff. I'll be sending them to this post later today, Matt.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

No one has to worry about me pirating their stuff. I'm not smart enough to figure it out.

You had a good point, Matt, about how it can benefit the artist/writer. Too bad a lot of people who do it are only out to benefit themselves.

Talli Roland said...

In a strange sort of way, it's a compliment. I would still prefer people pay for my book, though! :)

Andrew Smith said...


It is kind of flattering to know there are people out there pirating books that nearly killed me to write.

It's a strong argument for Marxism. And the world isn't perfect. But I have a family who depend on my support, and I really wish there were serious consequences to people who pirate art.

A couple weeks ago, Robin Pecknold said in an interview that piracy helped develop better artists. I really liked him before that -- hopefully he was misquoted. But he seemed to be flaunting the fact that he's satisfied with the amount of money he's already made, which is a kind of screw-all-you-struggling-newcomers pronouncement that stinks of elitism and a lack of compassion.

Yeah, the world isn't perfect, but piracy, P2P filesharing, whatever you want to call it, just ends up making it more difficult for new, fresh, vital, and critical ideas to take hold.

In the long run, unchecked piracy will only lead to mass uniformity and the absence of diverse perspectives as the only ones who'll be able to survive in that environment will be backed by one giant thought-controlling source.

Think about it.

Given the realities of competitive capitalist structures, piracy will kill the evolution of artistic expression.

Matthew MacNish said...

Andrew, god, I hope that isn't true, but you make a damn good point about the established artists being able to weather the piracy where the aspiring ones cannot. I pray it never comes to that.

Paul Joseph said...

I think a big part of the problem is people do not associate piracy with stealing. They train themselves to think differently, freeing their mind of any guilt.

When I taught seventh grade, we discussed how Gutenberg invented the printing press before patents existed, preventing him from being truly compensated for his work. In class, we would compare the situation to downloading music off sites like Limewire and Ares, and the kids would journal about whether or not it was stealing. Every year, 25/30 kids in a class would say downloading music for free was not stealing.

As a writer, it's a bit more complicated for me to know what I think. On one hand, I would want them buying my books and boosting my sale stats. On the other, I'd still be happy they were reading my book, especially if they love it and tell all their friends.

Emily White said...

I think the problem comes when pirating becomes so commonplace that people who do think stealing is wrong and would normally have seen pirating as stealing, no longer see it that way. I think that's what happened for a while with music. Downloading free music (against the wishes of the musician) just seemed like the thing to do.

When it gets to that point, that's when some serious action should be taken. But a small percentage compared to actual sales isn't that big of a deal. And I agree that it actually can be beneficial in some circumstances.

Ted Cross said...

I agree with you, Matt. I always want to spend money on the artists I enjoy. They deserve it. However, I have been burned a few times by artists who made me love them only to later release an album full of junk that I payed top dollar for, so I have no issues with listening to an album now via a friend so that I can tell whether or not I want to buy it first.

Paul Greci said...

It is a complex issue.

If I had a book in print I wouldn't want people pirating it, but if it happened, well, I'd probably try to make the most of it, too.

LTM said...

I'm with you. (surprised?)

I mean, what about libraries? The whole point is to get the word out, hopefully establish a following, and hopefully establish a following that loves you enough to tell other people about you who will ultimately go buy your book.

I've borrowed books before and loved them so much, I went and bought them. Even if I didn't plan to read it again right away. I wanted to be sure that writer got the message and kept writing~ :o)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

File sharing of eBooks is the same as loaning someone a paperback. And there's people who never purchase a new book - they live for the used book store. We can't shoot them, so we have to live with them.

Margo Lerwill said...

While I have heard the argument that piracy can lead to later sales, I can also think of three authors who are waiting to hear if their series are going to be discontinued by their publishers due to poor sales. In each case, just the illegal downloads they could find and document amounted to more than their legitimate sales. Had even half the downloads been sales, they would have earned out their advances with ease. I hope the people who downloaded their books weren't hoping for more books.

Margo Lerwill said...

I am also confused by a double-speak in the pro-piracy argument. In one breath we say reading the illegal copy got us to go buy a legitimate copy, and in the next breath we say the people who downloaded it are not last sales because they wouldn't have purchased it anyway.

The one thing I think we all agree on is that there is no institutionalized, organized way to stop piracy. Some of us can only say we won't do that to other artists and won't justify others doing it, even if they are our friends.

Margo Lerwill said...

Sorry. "not lost sales"

Shari said...

Stealing's bad. Don't do it.

I found this a very interesting post and comment thread. There were some interesting points of view. I particularly liked Alex Cavanaugh's. It's just something we have to live with.

Copyboy said...

Just when I thought the case is cut and dry you deliver some new twists to the piracy argument.

Giles Hash said...

As far as books go, if you want it for free, borrow it from the library. When you borrow it from a friend, someone still paid for it. When I listen to an audio-book on my iPod, I only keep it on my iPod for the duration of the borrowing period from my library.

That's my opinion, and it in no way encourages pirating :)

Elana Johnson said...

Great post! And remember Cory Doctorow gave his books away for free before he got a deal with Tor. Amazing that free can lead to sales. But it does!

Christina Lee said...

Good points you make. Hubby and I always have this discussion about music (he is a musciain) and more recently about books. There is a fine line and I think it comes down to intent and attitude.

Jason said...

Awesome post man! Keep up this excellent work!

Anita said...

Today is my first day of giving up caffeine; I'm coming back to this post later.

Simon C. said...

I mostly agree with you, dude. So...no fistfights today.

What worries me about piracy, though, is the culture of entitlement that leads to it. It's the "Ah, well, the record labels/big publishers/movie studios have more money than they know what to do with, so my torrent activity can't hurt 'em" kind of attitude that becomes entrenched, and ends up hurting the little guys and gals trying like hell to make it up the ladder.

The attitudes have to change, is what I'm saying. But then...I'm old, and don't understand txtspk, so what do I know?

Sara McClung ♥ said...

What an interesting topic, Matt. I don't know... I was allllll about Napster in its heyday. But, now that I'm older and working SO hard on what I'm creating in the hope of someday selling? I wouldn't steal anything. My bottom line is: People work hard for what they create, and deserve to be paid for their work.

Of course, if something's offered for free, that's a different ballgame.

Jemi Fraser said...

You make some really great parts. I try to make sure everything I buy is paid for - or borrowed from the library :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Just wanted to say that.

I can't get into piracy. Just can't convince myself it's okay. Plus I'm a technorube and wouldn't even know how if I wanted to. Morality through incompetence.

Steve Abernathy said...

I've stolen hundreds of books from gutenberg.org and will keep on stealing from them.

A publisher sent me a galley last week, spiral bound and off-center and messy, like it got made at Kiknos by a drunk employee. This might be the publishing world's attempt to thwart piracy, to make books look like they're from the technology of the 1960s.

Lindsay said...

Great post. It's so true that nothing is simple. I'm not one for piracy, but if an author chooses to give something for free to generate sales then that's different.

Okay, I was hoping to go for something insightful there, but I haven't had my coffee yet ;P

BTN Hip Hop said...

i more or less agree with you dude. nothing much to dispute

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is a really thought-provoking post, Matt.

I think Josin hit on something when she said this: "And there's an entire - huge - group of people who equate downloading a book (not for profit) with going to a library. On their end, they don't see the difference because they don't realize that the library actually buys books which means money for the author."

In other words, it's hard to compare file-sharing and illegal downloading with libraries and used bookstores, because a) libraries paid for their copy in the first place; and b) used bookstores are still dealing in moving only one copy from one person to only one other person. As opposed to file-sharing sites, which can distribute innumerable copies of a book to an innumerable number of people.

Is this worth the potential word-of-mouth? Without hard numbers, it's difficult to say. But thanks for getting us all thinking about it.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I think that piracy is a separate issue from the give-it-away-for-free model favored by author Cory Doctorow or musicians like Amanda Palmer and Radiohead.

Piracy is stealing. Straight up and down, it's stealing. Whether you make money for it or not, it's stealing. You mentioned that you got some of your favorite books by borrowing them. And I agree that in books, a culture of borrowing is necessary. I always loan out my favorite books to convert people. In some cases, I buy extra copies for people when I know I'll never see it again. What I don't do is make a thousand copies of that book and mail it to random strangers around the globe.

But that's what pirates do.

On the other hand, obscurity is the scourge of the artist. It's worth nothing protecting your art from pirates if no one is buying it. If you're a nobody, nobody will care.

My publisher put my book on their website for free for a month. That helped it reach a couple of thousand eyes it wouldn't have seen otherwise. Did they go out and buy the book? No. But the hope is that they'll buy my next one.

There are a lot of great strategies and experiments that publishers could and should try in order to reach reluctant readers. Instead, they're on the defensive. That's what piracy does. It's not the dollars they're taking out of my pocket, which, when you break it down is really pocket change, it's the cumulative effect that it's having on an industry that's trying to find viable new ways of doing business on a field they simply don't understand.

Piracy is making publishers risk averse. And that's how it hurts me. I'd love for my publisher to drop Deathday on their website for free in a PDF, but they're not going to do that because they're so busy trying to protect their other properties from theft.

A Free or pay-what-you-want model works, I think, for artists who have cut out the middle man. People who self-publish. Because the truth is that people who choose not to pay, would have probably stolen it anyway. But the people who ARE willing to pay will offset the others. But when you put a large corporation in the middle, piracy has a very seriously deleterious effect on it's ability to take chances.

Did any of that make sense?