These days it is necessary for me to take note of debates about the effects of ebooks on the publishing industry. I therefore took the time to read recent posts by Paul Cornell and Gary Gibson. They take very different positions. Paul explains how illegal downloading is theft, and is killing the ability of creative people to make a living. Gary explains that piracy has always happened (though in the past we called it things like “second hand bookstores” and “libraries”) and always will happen.
Now Paul is a good friend of mine, as are Lou Anders and John Picacio who supported him in comments. And as someone trying to make a publishing business cover its costs (not make any money for myself right now) I have a great deal of sympathy for what they say. Equally, however, I find myself in agreement with much of what Gary says. This is not a simple matter. I shall now make a fool of myself by trying to navigate these difficult waters.
Firstly I have to say that some of what Paul’s commenters said is very odd. How can someone simultaneously complain that published ebooks are of very poor quality and that there is no cost to the production of an ebook? Really, there is a disconnect there.
On the other hand, Gary is right. Much of the current rhetoric against “piracy” by big corporations is aimed at exactly the sort of behavior that second hand bookstores and libraries indulge in. Your modern media company wants every consumer to pay for every work that they consume, in every different format that they consume it, preferably each time that they consume it. As far as Amazon is concerned, you don’t buy books from them, you borrow them, and they can take them back any time they want. Yet you are expected to pay as much as you pay to own a paper book, sometimes more.
Because of this, we are all pirates in some way or another. One particularly annoying example is that in the UK it is still illegal to copy a CD that you own to a computer disc, either for backup, to play from your PC, or to download to an MP3 player. Anyone in the UK who has done this is a pirate. Mea culpa. And, as Gary says, things that used to be perfectly legal to do with paper books are held up as terrible crimes if you do them with ebooks. This is unhealthy, and I’ll come back to it later.
The problem with what Gary says, however, is one of scale. A given copy of a book can only be resold to one person; it can only be in one library, and loaned to one person at a time. A pirate copy of an ebook can be downloaded by thousands of people, and potentially cost thousands of sales.
Here, however, there’s another problem. Someone like Paul tends to see every pirate download of his work as a sale lost. Equally the defenders of illegal downloading see every pirate as someone who would never have bought the work in the first place, and is therefore simply an additional reader. The truth, inevitably, is somewhere in between, but we’ll never know exactly where because a) it can be very different for different books; b) it is very hard to measure; and c) because this is Internet debate we are talking about, no one wants to take the middle ground.
So on the one hand people are pirating books and feeling OK about it, while on the other desperate industry professionals are trying to persuade them that they are doing something morally wrong and should stop. Here’s where things get really murky.
Remember what I said about “unhealthy”? Here’s the problem. Lovers of authoritarianism like to push the line that the law is the law and that breaking it is always wrong. That, however, doesn’t really work. Copyright law was not handed down from on high on tablets of stone, it was written by humans, and like anything else to do with running human society it requires negotiation and agreement to work.
Modern societies have all sorts of laws, some of which are more successful than others. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many children are killed, we can’t stop drivers from breaking the speed limit. We can’t even stop them from driving when drunk. Heck, we often can’t even get effective prosecution of people who kill through driving when drunk. Everyone (except possibly Jeremy Clarkson) knows it is bad, but vast numbers of people think it is OK when they do it.
For a law to be successful it has to be accepted as reasonable by the vast majority of people in the society in which it is being applied. If you try to criminalize actions that people think are only sensible, if you try to criminalize things that used to be perfectly legal using older media, people are not going to respect that law. They are going to think that it is OK to break it, and they will break it.
Back in the Middle Ages large portions of farm land were owned communally and any local person had the right to graze animals on them. Through the 17th and 18th Centuries (roughly, I’m not an historian, so please excuse my lack of detail) much of this land was enclosed by rich landowners. The country people were very unhappy about it, but in the end they lost and many of them ended up moving to towns and working in factories. Something very similar is happening now. We used to be able to own books and movies. Big media companies want to put an end to that. They want ownership of entertainment to reside only with them, and for us to have to pay them every time we want to be entertained. This is making people very unhappy, and disrespectful of the laws that media industry lobbyists are busy pushing though various national legislatures.
It is hard to say what will happen in this fight, but history, sadly, is not on the side of the little guy. What’s more Julian Assange, bless his little anarchist socks, has just given national governments all over the world the perfect excuse to try to clamp down on Internet use in the name of “national security”. You can bet that the media industry lobbyists are rubbing their hands with glee.
So what can we do about this? Well keep an eye on what our governments are doing for starters. But that’s hard. After all, as every anarchist knows, no matter who you vote for, The Government always gets in. We can, however, vote with our credit cards. We can make a point of buying books if we can afford it, not pirating them because we can. We can try to buy books that are not protected by DRM. Even if you have a Kindle you can buy DRM-free books as long as you don’t buy from Amazon. Buy books direct from the publisher, or from stores that sell DRM-free. (Yes, that does include mine, but it also includes many others.) Buy direct from the author.
In addition I think we need to think long and hard about how the creation of art is funded. It is tempting to think that the idea of full-time writers who make books that individuals buy has always been true and always will be true. The novel, however, is a relatively recent invention, and other forms of art don’t work that way.
When the creators of The Illiad or Beowulf sat down in some great hall to perform they didn’t require a ticket from everyone who attended. Some people may have thrown coin, but the poet’s wages were probably paid mostly by the local lord. Great musicians like Mozart and Beethoven didn’t live solely off the proceeds of concert tickets, they had wealthy patrons who commissioned them to create new works. Even today, very many science fiction and fantasy authors have day jobs that keep them from poverty, or have a spouse with a day job who can pay the mortgage. And when someone like Anthony Gormley creates a work of public art, it may be paid for out of local government taxes, but it would never happen if every person in the street had been asked to stump up their share.
The whole process of funding art is very complicated, and it seems that in many cases the better you are the less likely your work is to be understood or liked by the bulk of the population. Sometimes the public will buy books by the likes of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman in huge quantities, but often what they really want is the new Dan Brown novel, or the next installment of Wayne Rooney’s biography.
I don’t pretend to have any answers here, but I’m pretty sure that demanding that everyone who wants to consume a particular piece of art should pay their fair share of the cost is only going to result in lowest common denominator art. If we want better art to thrive, then those of us who appreciate it have to find ways of financing it ourselves. If the government is not prepared to do so, and in this country at least arts funding is being brutally decimated, then we have to do it ourselves.