Oh, To Hell With It, Let’s Talk About Piracy

No, not the “Somalians stole my Booze Cruise!” kind.

Rather, “Some punk on the Internet stole my book!” (Or movie. Or article. Or photo. Or song. Or pants.)

Piracy kind of fucks me up when I think about it.

Intellectually, I oppose it. Grr! Piracy bad. Of course it is. It’s stealing. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I mean, I made this, it’s a product you normally have to buy, and you just just ganked that shit. In terms of small companies, it’s easy to see how that theft can do certain harm to the company’s bottom line. Every sale counts, which means every theft counts, too. In terms of larger companies, while the company’s bottom line doesn’t necessarily take a hit on each theft, accumulated thefts could appear to do aggregate harm (think coastline erosion), and further, individual creators might see their own margins sliced thinner and thinner either through legitimate concerns over piracy or a company excusing the marginalization due to ephemeral piracy fears.

In simple, Hulk-esque terms:

Piracy bad!

Theft smash!

Nyaaaar!

It just isn’t that simple, though, is it?

Oh, we treat it like it’s that simple. “You stole this. That is wrong.”

What that fails to do, though, is account for the myriad shades of gray. It’s the same as saying, “Drugs are bad. Using drugs is wrong.” Well, sure. Except, different drugs have different criminal penalties. And some drugs are decriminalized. Some drugs are medicinal, legal, necessary. Every approach in the past to destroy the drug trade with One Big Hammer has, well, failed. Are we in danger of doing the same with piracy?

Let’s be honest. The Internet is awesome. But the Internet fucked a whole lot of shit up, too. The raw potential of the thing is profound. Data is no longer precious; it’s infinite. Diamonds for all! Pearls for everybody! Which, of course, is equal parts fantastic and worthless. Diamonds are pretty no matter how you value them, but if everybody has a fistful of diamonds, their value goes down, down, way down. Information on the Internet is like that. Pearls before swine, and we’re the swine. The Internet makes sure that everything is information — word definitions, recipes, rants like this one, tutorials, catalogs, everything. That also means books are information. Music is information. My fiction is information.

And information wants to be free, right?

Bzzt. Wrongo, friendo. Information doesn’t want anything.

We want information to be free.

That’s where the many shades of gray come in, because the Internet has changed the nature of theft.

I steal your car, you don’t have a car.

I steal your music, well, you still have it. In fact, everybody can have it. Huzzah! Woo! Equal access to awesome music!

It’s hard for the pirate to see the direct harm. They don’t see the pushing of a button as the same thing as walking into a store and stealing a book off the shelf. They see what they’re doing as no different than, say, burning a CD for a buddy, or lending friends a book, or getting a magazine from the library. Of course, this fails to recognize that one’s “circle of friends” has gone from those four slacker lackwits in the corner and has now become a circle of, say, 100, or 1000, or a million. Letting your friends listen to the same music is okay when it’s five guys burning CDs for one another, but now it’s a million dudes deep.

The other issue is, it’s hard to prove direct harm. Again, I steal your car, that has a very real, very physical consequence. An obvious one. Where’s your car now? Oh. I have it. You don’t. And I’m driving it around. And I’m picking up hookers. And driving over old ladies. And when I’m done with it, I’ll drive it into a ravine where it will become the home to a gaggle of happy muskrats. And you still don’t have the car.

But stealing a non-physical item creates no direct chain of consequence.

Consider this article, which states that in 2009, music sales are down again.

And, the easy response is, “Piracy.”

Of course, how do you prove that? You’re in danger of the post hoc fallacy there, the fallacy of the single cause. Piracy may be a contributor, but is it the only one? What about the RIAA and how it has treated customers? What about how the quality of music (personal opinion forthcoming) has taken a slow swirl around a rust-encrusted drain? Further, can you then prove that: a) people downloading those songs illegally wouldn’t have gone on to download them legally? And b) people downloading those songs would’ve bought the tracks had they not had the availability for a one-click-and-done theft?

See, here’s the thing.

I used to steal music. All the time. LimeWire, Napster, whatever.

And this is what I’d do: I’d grab tracks, I’d listen, and if I liked it, I went somewhere and bought it if I could. If I didn’t like it, well, I never listened to it again.

My music spending went way up with the advent of piracy. Because suddenly I had new routes to discovery and was no longer reliant upon, say, radio or MTV. Now, once the Internet caught up and made it easier for me to listen to music free online (free album previews, Lala-dot-com, Myspace, Pandora, whatever), that became less off an issue, but that also creates more of an issue. By upping the free discovery factor, it reinforces the notion that music is information and information is free.

See how fucked up that gets? Free can net you sales, but free also reinforces that single value point of zero dollars, zero cents.

In terms of books, the same “cuts both ways” factor can be an issue, I figure. On the one hand, I don’t want to just buy a book unbidden. I want to see it. I want to read some parts of it before I commit. Of course, the more of that book — or of other books — we offer for free, it’s possible that once again we’re reinforcing the notion that free is the proper price point. (Hell, not just “free,” but “convenient,” too.) We’re committing to the value. (This goes back to some of my earlier arguments where writers should claim value for their work, because free material runs the risk of devaluing paid material.)

What the book has going in its favor for now is that for many the “hard copy” is still dominant. The e-book revolution isn’t quite catching fire yet, to my mind, and the reason for that is very simple: we interact with physical books in a way nobody ever interacted with DVDs or CDs. I don’t pick up a DVD and feel its heft. I don’t use a marker or a turned corner to mark a song on a CD. I don’t underline song lyrics or DVD chapters. Even though movies and music were married to physical devices, we had no real connection with those devices. The shift from physical copy to digital hasn’t changed much.

But a book, that’s a big change. A digital book has no context, has no interaction. A physical book is a thing, a fetishistic item with texture I feel on the cover, with pages I can turn and words I can underline. I can write notes in margins, I can put it on a shelf for display, I can smell the pages.

I’m digressing, of course, but for now, that’s what books have as a guard against piracy, I think.

Those days are dwindling.

You’ll note I have no conclusions yet. How could I? This subject is a sticky wicket. It’s like trying to wrestle a lubed-up breeding ball of garter snakes. Anytime you get your arms around it, the little bastards keep on slipping through your arms, your fingers, and down into your pants.

My only real conclusions so far are these:

First, piracy of media is not the same thing as stealing someone’s physical stuff. Maybe it’s better. Maybe it’s worse. But any time you treat it the same, you’re going to fail in any solution.

Second, the Internet has changed everything (a-durrr). It has not just democritized information; it has socialized it. I’m not assigning a quality to that, but I think it’s basically a fact. With piracy, you can’t put the bees back in the hive on this one. Trying to stop piracy with a big hammer will cause just as many repercussions as the advent of the Internet, and I’m comfortable saying that those repercussions will not be good ones. Getting mad at piracy now is what I like to call, “Yelling at the tides.” You’re angry at something that has become a force of nature. You’re allowed to be mad at it, just as you can be mad at the tides rolling in and out. But yelling at them won’t stop them.

Third, the way to defeat piracy is probably not a legal issue, but more one where you make piracy less attractive. In terms of novels, making a novel more of an experience — something that cannot easily be replicated by downloading a single ePub file or PDF — will create value-adds. Yes, people might still steal the PDF, but they might then go on to pay for the book because they want the app that allows them to listen to the author’s comments or click on hypertext links that gives them, say, fantasy maps or word definitions. Books thankfully have axes of awesomeness that music cannot offer. The sooner we as creators start to think about these potential “value-adds,” the better off we are.

Fourth, good luck ever proving that Piracy = Loss of Revenue. I’m not saying it’s not true. I’m just saying it’s too complex a thing to prove. We act like it’s someone reaching into a pocket and taking a twenty dollar bill, but that’s a very clear action and consequence. This is not that.

This is a unique animal, and I don’t think the overall response recognizes that, yet.