A dialogue with a book pirate

Paul Raven @ 26-03-2010

Nancy Kress was tipped off about a website offering unlicensed ebook versions of her novels, and decided to get in touch with the person in charge. It’s an interesting insight into the mindset of the ideologically-motivated (but nonetheless confused) content pirate:

… permit me to point out a fundamental error in your thinking:A text is not a physical object, so it cannot be stolen. Ownership of such an agglomeration of symbols (since ‘unity’ here is inapplicable) is an impossibility. The best you can do is _claim_ ownership – but anyone else can do that too. There is no legislation that can successfully govern the ether, thank heavens.I make my living, partly, as a librarian, but I don’t claim ownership of my catalogue. It is there – it exists, but it is not my property. If anything, it is everyone’s property – as are your texts.

Somehow the guy (I’m guessing it’s a guy, but I suppose it could be a a girl) has reinterpreted the economics of abundant digital goods via some sort of pseudo-mystical pantheistic gibberish, confusing the ownership of intangible goods with the right to be recognised as the creator of an original work (two very different things, in both philosophical and economic terms).

It’s almost as frustrating as hearing Creationists twisting the language of science to suit their own agenda… and just as corrosive to informed discussion of the real issues.

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9 Responses to “A dialogue with a book pirate”

  1. Babylon says:

    I am amused by the fact that she linked to his site in her blog.

  2. antares says:

    “A text is not a physical object, so it cannot be stolen.”

    This quote represents the thinking that prevails among Orientals. Orientals do not comprehend the concept of intellectual property as codified in Western law, so piracy has no meaning. You cannot pirate what you cannot touch.

    To Orientals, books have value, but the expressions contained within the books have none.

    I base my opinions on years of living among them.

  3. Doug says:

    Seems perfectly reasonable to me, and completely unlike Creationism.

    The concept of property isn’t something that can be proved or not evidentially, and we have amazingly complex property laws that try to rationalise thousands of years of concepts of property. Just think about the justifications for example for things like: expiry of copyright, compulsory purchase of land by governments or valuation of “goodwill” in corporate purchase contracts.

    “Intellectual property” is an entirely modern creation of governments, and each of the types of intellectual property (copyright, patent, trademark and trade secret) each has was created because of a a different justification in terms of macro-economics, not because of any moral imperative.

    The most common moral justification for “intellectual property” is the “sweat of the brow” argument: that the author laboured hard to produce this work, and so deserves recompense. This is nowhere present in western law – reward for the author for their hard work is NOT a principle of copyright law. Most people I think would see that there is a moral right of the author of a work, for example to be identified as it’s author or to assert some moral control over it’s use.

    The profit motive however is what most proprietarians are concerned with, but this has emerged post facto from the law, not the other way around. The idea that Aristotle’s descendants should be receiving royalties for sale of the Corpus Aristotelicum is where we are going, and that is surely batshit insane.

    Equating “intellectual property” with more traditional sorts of property is extremely simplistic, and is generally done by those with a vested interest in preserving or extending the concept of ownership.

  4. Sebastian says:

    “informed discussion of the real issues”

    The real issues being that piracy exists, it is getting easier by the minute, and there is !@#$ all that can be done about it?

    The *real* issue is that authors (in the West, mainly – others have, for the most part, already learned to exist in such a climate) will simply have to learn to live with piracy and quit whining about it. They had a couple a’hundred years during which information became tangible – through the use of the printing press – and also scarce – throught he labourious and expensive process of printing, but now we are reaching the other end of the rainbow where information is once again becoming intangible, with the added issue of it not being scarce any more… and authors will have to deal, just like the authors dealt with the situation before the 19th and 20th century.

  5. Paul Raven says:

    … and there is !@#$ all that can be done about it?

    Well, you see, that’s not true at all, is it? There are lots of business models to circumvent the piracy problem and keep creatives earning money, and people are out there developing and honing them as we speak. I suspect that you’d like to think there’s nothing that can be done about it, however, because that way you don’t have to feel guilty about consuming things that, while intangible and infinitely reproducible, were still created in their original form by someone sitting down and doing the work.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, though, and you’d genuinely like to see a system whereby consumer and creator alike can transact at prices agreeable to them both, and wherein enjoyable work would still be available. If that’s the case, however, your triumphant crowing over an author being snubbed by someone blatantly profiting from her work (not her property, her work) rather derails you.

    It’s quite possible to concede that infinite reproducibility is a problem that won’t go away without logically concluding that all creators should therefore give up any hope of being able to make a living for the foreseeable future… but I guess that depends on how much value (of the non-monetary kind) you place on the content you personally consume.

  6. Doug says:

    Your response to the last commenter seems tied up in their motivation rather than their statement.

    There is immense benefit in the “infinite reproducibility” of the internet, but no silver lining exists without a cloud.

    If it proves to be the case, as seems likely, that it is impossible to provide technical means to prevent duplication then the moral issue is completely irrelevant. Even if you manage to convince Sebastian of the error of his ways, the Internet still exists.

    Personally I would feel it was a huge shame if the efflorescence of creative writing that has occurred over the last 100 years or so was to stop purely because of the difficulty of making money out of it – but it will not be the first money making pursuit to be ended by technological change, and it will not be the last.

  7. khannea says:

    Sadly though it is for authors who made a living of writing books, I think the website is correct, and the current laws on ownership of intellectual property must be replaced with something that has any chance on working. Enforcing a non-dissemination policy over data is not viable in the long run.

    Maybe IP payments should be guaranteed not by transaction, but registration of a popular IP that benefits society at large (even intangibly, as does music) with the state would grant the creator ‘a pension’ – and then allowed anyone in the world to use the IP. Then states can argue with diplomats what states benefit from each others inventions or products.

    There are other solutions, but the legal one is not contributing.

  8. Barry says:

    “A text is not a physical object, so it cannot be stolen.”

    Your virginity is not a physical object. Can it be stolen?

    Your feelings are not a physical object. Can they be hurt?

    Your faith is not a physical object. Can it be lost?

    Semantics cannot sweep away the basic injustice of denying someone the fruits of their labors. It is not an Oriental way of thinking, because Orientals are not real big on individual rights. Note that the West has led the way in both intellectual thought and communications for several hundred years, largely because of OUR peculiar way of thinking that individuals and their ideas have value.

    IF you think otherwise, you may be happier living in in China.

    That being said, and human beings being what they are, the very idea of intellectual property becomes an oxymoron once it is divorced from physical property, as it is on the web. Easily reproducible and distributed material WILL be reproduced and redistributed as fast as people can get their greedy little mouse pointers on it. The only way to make money in an infinite supply scenario is to force scarcity. This is exactly the direction modern copyright law, DRM and net work communications is headed: it is becoming a cartel of large industries who will restrict access to all intellectual property.

    Hundreds of years of intellectual freedom will be ultimately lost as the West…and perhaps the world…becomes vassal to a new order of corporate fuedal states. Because in a world where individuals can no longer profit from their ideas, and virtual brigands dominate the airwaves, the only prosperity will be found within the corporate castle walls.

    I fancy one day we will again look to explorers to find us a distant shore where we can be free again. Perhaps it will be a new dark age that ultimately leads mankind into space.

    Ideas need frontiers as much as frontiers need ideas.

  9. Sebastian says:

    Wow, Raven dude, way to go ad hominem and put words (and opinions) in my mouth. There is nothing I’d like more than to live off writing SF, but not having the privilege of living in an English speaking country, tough.

    I’ve been born and raised in a country where piracy is and was the norm for the past 20 years or so (ever since copiers, computers, printers and cd-burners became generally available and affordable) but that doesn’t mean I like the situation. However, the situation is there, so I, as many other writers living here, have learned to deal with the facts of life without hoping that the state will send forth stormtroopers whenever someone pirates something I wrote.

    And yes, there are business models that are viable in a piracy-rich environment – using them is what I meant under “learn to live with piracy” and “authors will have to deal (with it)”. I know, I’m living some of them.