Piracy and SOPA
January 20th 2012
Right then. Piracy. SOPA/PIPA. Stuff like that.
I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing. On one hand, people who download music, films, books and audio that they would have ordinarily had to buy in order to listen to/see/read are stealing copyrighted material from their copyright holders. Downloaders make it increasingly difficult for artists to firstly, earn anything from their work, and secondly, make a living from their work so they can give up the day job and concentrate solely on their art.
In the case of the Metrozone books, they were pirated within a couple of days of being released as ebooks. Orbit (and their parent companies LittleBrown and Hachette) try and get those copies removed from file-sharing sites as soon as they can: they do so because the person uploading those files has no right to make them publicly available without the copyright holder’s consent.
And that copyright holder is not Orbit, or some faceless megacorp. It’s me. I’m the creator of the work, and it’s my copyright. By torrenting my work, you’re denying me income which I could put to good use – like repairing my roof and walls, which badly need doing, or saving for my children’s education.
Furthermore, because I’m losing digital sales, the next time I sell a book to Orbit, my advance goes down. Lost sales for the publisher results directly in lower advances for authors. Which means that fewer authors will be able to support themselves, and perhaps their families, with their work – and the vast majority of writers make peanuts as it is. With long, long hours and little pay, they’ll have to do something else instead of dedicating the time and effort into producing good prose.
And unlike musicians, authors don’t have an alternative income stream. Why have the cost of live concerts gone up in the last few years? Blame the downloaders. The live experience is the one thing you can’t stream. It always used to be that a band would tour to promote the album. Now the albums promote the tour, because there are decreasing returns from the physical and digital recordings. Sure, you can go and hear an author speak, but aside from Neil Gaiman (who I understand charges an outrageous fee simply to dissuade folk from booking him: he’d rather be writing), I can’t think of many writers who the general public would pay to go and look at. I’m no oil painting, and Toby Leonard Moore (who reads the audio versions of the Metrozone) is simply better at speaking my lines than I am.
I don’t get much from each sale. But I do get something. Other people get somethings too. The cover artist. The editor. The copy editor (and they’re worth their weight in gold). The publicists. The lawyers who draw up the contracts. The distributors and the booksellers. My agent (who is also worth his weight in gold). I don’t have a problem with that, and neither should you.
There is, of course, very little I can do about any of this, except two things. And you can do them too. Firstly, don’t pirate copyrighted art. If you like an artist’s work, you’ll want to support the artist so they can produce more of it. So do your best to pay for it. I’ve no problem with you buying second-hand books, and I’ve no problem with you going to the library (all my books are registered with the UK’s PLR scheme). The more you support artists, the more art there’ll be.
Secondly, don’t approve of piracy. It might seem just a bit, well, dad-like (guilty as charged) to withhold your approval. But if your friends torrent and download like bandwidth was going out of fashion, that doesn’t mean you have to. It’s not a victimless crime, and it does hurt people – the very people who produce the fantastic music, brilliant film or riveting book you’ve just enjoyed. Hurting people, ripping them off, that’s just not cool, especially when they’re in no position to stop you. It would be lovely if pirating art became socially unacceptable, and those that did it, frowned on and ostracised.
On the other side of the coin, do I want kids to go to prison for five years because they’ve downloaded a copy of Equations of Life? No, I don’t. As someone pointed out, someone torrenting a Michael Jackson song could end up with a longer gaol sentence than the doctor who killed him. Neither do I want websites that promote legitimate content taken down for a single rogue link.
SOPA is sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s virtually unworkable, and the effort to make it workable is so great and the disruption it would cause so widespread that it’s completely counterproductive. The internet would become unusable within days.
There does need to be something though, that protects artists in the digital age. Real, physical art is difficult and time-consuming to reproduce. Digital art can be copied millions of times, perfectly, and distributed at the click of a mouse: the old copyright laws can’t cope with this new reality. So the solution may mean that sites like megaupload.com get taken down and their owners sued: claiming ignorance when the majority of traffic consists of copyrighted work seems more than a little silly. Whatever the final answer is (and there probably won’t be one), copyright holders need a quick and easy way to not only remove illegal content when it goes up, but prevent it from going up in the first place.
The bottom line is that copyright is how artists make money. Without any way of asserting it, we’re in trouble. You can, however, be part of the solution. Which is a positive note to end on.