There’s a note going around today that 90% of MacMillan’s frontlist (their new books for this year) has been pirated. Predictably, this somewhat less-than-surprising factoid is being exploited by a number of interested parties, including the anti-DRM nuts who are always eager to remind us that DRM doesn’t work.
Well, we know DRM doesn’t work, and probably won’t ever work. But that doesn’t mean the idea behind DRM is wrong.
I also don’t like it when two sides in an argument promote extreme views that intentionally distort reality, then demand that I declare an allegiance. Since the internet first took hold of public consciousness the very question of content piracy and what piracy means has been distorted by two notable and related running battles featuring factions that I don’t respect.
First there’s the never-ending running battle being waged at the macro level by companies like Microsoft, who are trying to keep their software from being pirated by piracy-happy countries like China. In fact, Bill Gates, CEO Emeritus of Microsoft, was decrying the injustice only this week:
In a Q&A session at Carnegie Mellon University this week, Bill Gates said two of the five most-profitable businesses in China don’t pay for the software they use. Those businesses, he said, are only two of many examples of a massive trend in that country….
Microsoft makes a product that it sells. China wants to use that product without paying for it. Everybody gets that China is wrong, but nobody really cares. Why?
The reason nobody cares is that Microsoft has never had any problem exploiting its own users, so individual users don’t care if Microsoft gets screwed. From heavy-handed pricing models to intrusive software initiatives to horrible products to the outright fraud of the Internet-Explorer-is-part-of-the-operating-system lie which allowed Microsoft to monopolize the browser market, it’s clear that Microsoft is not a friend of the individual — even if that individual has always paid for Microsoft’s products.
Microsoft makes a product that it sells. Then Microsoft tries to use that product to take over your computer and control your options and choices. So you think they suck and it’s funny when Microsoft gets screwed.
But piracy is still piracy, and it’s still wrong. And what happens when we personalize these things is that we actually end up siding with people who are just as loathsome as the people we don’t like. China is hardly a virtuous nation, and its exploitation of its own people is both legendary and repulsive. Throw in their recent attempt to rid China of lead by sending it to the United States in toys for American children and I’m not sure there’s any more to like about China than there is about Microsoft. Yet China really is stealing Microsoft’s products.
The other obvious force affecting how we all feel about piracy takes place at the micro level: the level where we ourselves engage in theft. Maybe you’re using a stolen version of Microsoft software yourself. Maybe you’ve downloaded some copyrighted DVD’s or MP3’s. Maybe you think your personal indiscretions (thefts) aren’t hurting anyone.
But piracy is still piracy, and it’s still wrong. Yes, it’s never going to stop, and no DRM solution will be able to stay ahead in the DRM arms race, but this kind of micro-level piracy is still clearly and obviously illegal.
Except…it doesn’t feel illegal. And worse: it’s hard to understand. You can buy a CD and rip it onto your computer — which means you have the sound files in two places. But you can’t share the sound files on your computer with others. But you can give someone else the CD, or even resell it, because the CD won’t be being duplicated in that transaction. Except you’ll still have the ripped songs on your computer. But…if you pay to download the songs from iTunes, you can have those songs on five different computers. And on an on.
Yet piracy is still piracy. It’s taking somebody else’s stuff and profiting by it, or denying them the opportunity to profit by it. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments — chief among them the idea that pirated material doesn’t actually cost sales, because people who pirate material wouldn’t buy it anyway. And I think there’s some truth in that. But that only leads me to my next point.
The whole question of piracy and what it means is also distorted by people who want to present piracy as an irresistible force precisely because they want to keep people from fighting piracy. It’s the Drug War argument: because the Drug War has failed, we should legalize illegal drugs. Well…no.
What we should really do is ask questions about the fact that 90% of Macmillan’s frontlist is on pirated sites. How many sites are we talking about? How much traffic do these sites see? How many downloads? Who’s downloading this stuff? Better yet, is anyone monetizing the downloads, or is the content simply being given away free? I mean, we’re talking about books here, and the global audience for books — compared to, say, pornography or MP3’s — has got to be fairly small. So the audience for pirated books must be even smaller.
But that’s not what I think most people imagine when they read that 90% of MacMillan’s frontlist is on pirate sites. I think people imagine that the entire world — from the high-society penthouses of Manhattan to the smallest huts in Africa to the most distant Inuit village to the dustiest Australian megalopolis — is sitting in front of a monitor reading stolen MacMillan content. Somehow, in the mind, all of the distribution and marketing problems that exist if you’re intentionally trying to get your work to readers disappear when your work is pirated. Getting it to any reader on your own is death. But pirated books instantly and effortlessly connect to readers across the universe.
Obviously both of these things cannot be true. Which means even if 90% of MacMillan’s frontlist is on pirate sites, there’s no telling what that really means. Except that piracy is piracy, and it’s wrong.
So how does this relate to you? Well, if you’re into stealing things without paying for them, that’s going to cost you down the line because people (and here I’m particularly thinking about artists) need to make a living. If you’re not into stealing things, but you cling to fanciful Robin-Hood-like fantasies about how the Evil Record Companies were defeated by Napster, then you’re still screwing the artists, who were already being screwed by the Evil Record Companies.
In the end, the piracy question is only about one thing. If something is not yours, are you still willing to take it? The record business and the publishing business were both predicated on advantages in distribution that the internet has now taken away. That means artists can now directly present and sell their content to consumers. But if consumers aren’t willing to pay for that content, and believe that piracy is legal (or at least moral), that model is going to fail.
Don’t let Microsoft’s abuses of you, or the recording industry’s abuses of you, or China’s we’re-always-the-victim abuses of you cloud this issue. Stealing things isn’t hard. Buying things cheap or accepting them for free from someone who stole them isn’t hard. What’s hard is doing the right thing in a world that’s determined to tell you you’re a sucker for doing the right thing.
Piracy is piracy. And anybody telling you different is just trying to take your money themselves.
— Mark Barrett