When Life Gives You Pirates, Make Pirate Juice

(First part of this post is right over here, if you missed it. The comments are brilliant.)

Let’s form an assumption just for the purposes of this post. Let’s assume that piracy cannot be stopped. Let’s pretend that it isn’t necessarily a malevolent or even a selfish directive put forth by a gaggle of impatient or greedy individuals. Let us instead make-believe that piracy is simply a force-of-nature: a thing that cannot be changed. It is as ineluctable as the tides. It is the hurricane in October. It is the cracked asphalt after winter. It is the Nor’easter storm that paralyzes a region.

In the best situation, we can prepare for the forces of nature.

Hurricane windows. Salt on the road to prevent freezing. Asphalt patches to fix the holes. For some disasters or forces of nature, we even have ways of making those things work for us. Hell, a Nor’easter ain’t no thing. Big snow comes, I stay inside. Maybe I get a little more work done, or I spend more time with my wife. Maybe I catch up on The Wire. I make the snow work for me. Either for pleasure or productivity.

So. Piracy is that, let’s say. It is an unstoppable thing, says the assumption.

Gravity. Inertia. The cycle of the seasons. Piracy.

What that means then is, we need to figure out either how to work around it or work piracy into an opportunity. If we know that “hobos keep wandering into the library,” is the issue, we can come up with the answer, “and now we institute hobo literacy programs, or at the very least we abduct them and turn them into human book carts.” Problem creates a solution, even an opportunity.

I’m just some rambling dipshit; I don’t have huge answers. But I can play along and continue this make believe and maybe come up with a couple-few. Let’s talk about this, real quick. How can we either plan against piracy, or how can we can to include piracy? Can we defend against it? Can we include it? Maybe we can take lemons and turn those yellow fuckers into lemonade. Or, pirates into pirate juice! Mmmm.

Big John Law’s Big Damn Hammer

Hey! Hey. Get that out of your head. We’re not talking about persecutions, so get shut of it. That “one size fits all” solution isn’t much of a solution. It’s that whole Princess Leia to Grand Moff Tarkin speech: blah blah blah, more you tighten your grip, blah blah blah, the more star systems slip through your creepy old man fingers, blah blah blah.

Moving on.

Monetize Free

Just make it free. You make it free, nobody can take your stuff because you’re already offering. Now, sure, this sounds like, “Just lie back and think of England while your missionary husband marriage-rapes you. It’s easier if you pretend to enjoy it!” — but really, it’s something, erm, much better than that. The point is, you release it for free, but ironically not for the purpose of being a starving artist despite what it may seem. No, you release it, and you find ways to make money around this free thing you just loosed into the world.

Merchandise? Advertising? Donations? Offer special future editions? Hard copies of free digital? Whatever it is, to receive it, one must pay for it. But, by releasing the initial (and entire) product for free, you’ve gone a long way to pull piracy out of the equation. It isn’t theft if you’re giving it away.


You look at Jess Hartley’s Shattered Glass Project, or David Hill’s Maschine Zeit, and you see Kickstarter campaigns and patronage models. You see that these creators are insulated from piracy because they are getting something up front for the work. It doesn’t release into the wild until a certain target is hit.

It’s a sane model. It covers expenses and it assures that at the bare minimum the creator is comfortably covered against losses, at least in theory. By the way, check out David’s thoughts about piracy.

Put A Face Behind It

(First, do me a solid, go check out my writing partner’s column over at Filmmaker Magazine: Culture Hacker. That link talks up piracy from a couple angles, and also uses an interesting term I happen to love: “piracy agnostic.” It’s relevant.)

My bullshit totally-made-up psychological notion is this: people are likelier to pay for work if they’re able to envision the artist. We played with this concept yesterday in the comments, and it seems that a public relations campaign is really the solution to the piracy thing, and it also seems that the idea of “cost” or “willing to pay” is something bound up with how one feels about the product or the artist. If a downloader has no sense of the creator and only sees a creation, I suspect he’ll be all the likelier to just grab-and-run. But, if that person can be made to understand the work that went into it — and that there is a face or many faces behind the product — then I further suspect they’ll be willing to toss some bucks.

A few ways to do this.

First, it’s a PR thing. Anywhere your product lives and you control the advertising, make sure to put a face behind it. Doesn’t have to be a forthright plea for “please don’t pirate me, bro,” but by creating a human connection (“Hey, here’s who we are as a company, here’s what I believe as a creator,”) I suspect you might see a little more cash come in.

Second, put something right into the product. At the front or back of the product, say, “Hey, did you pirate this? Thanks for enjoying the product, but as it turns out, I gotta pay a mortgage and buy formula for this baby — here! Look. A picture of my weird baby. So, if you wouldn’t mind paying something after the fact, I’d appreciate it. One dollar, ten dollars, something. At the bare minimum, please tell others that you loved this work and that maybe they should pay for it? Pretty please?”

Third, same thing, but less direct. Simply ensure that the product makes clear who you are and what you do and that you do not do this alone or for free. Even a quick, “And if this is financially successful, maybe we can do more like this.” A little nudge. An elbow in the ribs, a tickle in the wallet.

You Can’t Pirate A Physical Copy

Pretty straightforward.

You can’t pirate a physical copy. I mean, okay, you can, that’s a huge lie. But it’s a lot harder. Yes, someone might scan a whole book. But, physical products often have an air of the special about them. The Internet is all about information, but a physical product — what Rob calls the “bucket” — is harder to replicate, and if the audience is willing to ascribe more value to the bucket than the water that’s in it, well, they might be likelier to pay for it. Maybe. Kinda. Sorta.

By the way, if you didn’t read Rob’s truly brilliant comment, here it is again:

When I buy a book, I am effectively buying water (the content) and a bucket (the actual book, with all it entails). I am taught that most of the value is in the bucket, because that’s what pricing is keyed off of. Hard vs. Softcover establishes the price, not the quality of the content, nor even things I might take as indicators of quality, like the author. So right off the bat, the bucket industry has trained me that the price of water is low, maybe even free. They don’t care though, because they make their money on buckets.

To muddle things further, I have been taught by living in a civilized society that it is entirely reasonable for me to drink the water for free as long as I don’t steal the bucket. That is, once I own a book, i can resell it or give it away and if I don’t own the book I can read it for free by borrowing it from a friend or from the library, or even just by having it read to me. Once again, I’m taught that the value is in the bucket.

Now, the bucket makers aren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, but they’re kind of obliged to deal with it. Part of that is social pressure – this freedom is part of the culture of books, and fighting it makes you the bad guy – but another part of it is more cynical. See, every other non-consumable good in society is tied to these rules as well – you can gift and loan tools, jewelry, cars or anything else you can think of. To buck this trend, the bucket makers would have to say “Well, wait a minute, we’re different than these other goods. We have this great water which has value of a different kind” and that’s a problem, because so far the whole model is based on putting value on the buckets, not the water, so they don’t want to upset that cart.

This has worked great for a very long time, and people really love their buckets, but some crazy guy has invented plumbing. Suddenly I can get my water from the source, and that really fucks things up. The ways in which it fucks things up are a whole other conversation, but here’s the bit that interests me.

What happens when, if I want to make a gift of a book, I don’t need to buy a new bucket?

See, I will never feel bad about libraries or gifting read books, at least under the current model, but I also feel it probably hurts creators more than anyone else. The idea of “gifting” an electronic file really means “giving a duplicate” unless you want to do something particularly cumbersome with it, and I can see a universe where, in the absence of buckets, the cost of that is small enough to pay casually, and goes directly to the creator.

Sure, this upends a lot of assumption. If money goes to the creator directly, he then becomes the person who has to _hire_ all the people who make a book possible rather than them hiring him. That’s drastic, so much so that it may seem impossible. But in my gut, I’m wondering if it’s the only possible outcome.

Complexity Defeats The Lazy

The more complex a product, the harder it is to replicate.

So, a “transmedia novel” app has lots of moving parts and is married to certain platforms. They’re harder to steal. It’s that simple. If your “eBook” is just a PDF, anybody can take it. But the more it fails to fit inside expected boxes, the more it becomes its own animal. As a result, it gains value, it becomes unique, and it grows in complexity.

And complexity tends to thwart the lazy. Yes, really dedicated pirates can still do their magic.

But it’s like protecting your home from robbers: the more you crank up the “inconvenience factor” (good locks, dogs, alarm system), the likelier it is you thwart those who are driven by opportunism and laziness. And that’s probably a far more significant lot than we think in terms of people who want to pirate your stuff.

Work With The Pirates

Pirates might be trolls, sure.

But they might be customers, too. Customers who just don’t have the money to pay.

Is there any way to work with them?

Do you offer a free version of your work directly to stem the tide?

Do you approach them directly and say, “Hey, don’t pay me, but can you at least spread the word so I get something out of this?”

Do you use their distribution channels, as the Culture Hacker column suggests?

Anything Else? Whaddya Think?

None of this is particularly new. I’m not a revolutionary thinker, just a guy trying to eke out his existence in this increasingly bizarre-o and unstable realm. You tell me. Anything I’m not thinking of? Surely there is. Opine if you got the opinion. Spit it out, by golly.

(Oh, and I told Julie S. that today’s post would be about her. Oops. I lied. That’ll be over the weekend.)