The ethics of content theft in a digital world

Paul Raven @ 16-11-2010

Here’s a simultaneously wry and astute post from novelist Philip Palmer about the publishing industry’s new here-to-stay bugbear, digital piracy. What I like most about it is the blend of idealism and honesty; rather than simply stating that Piracy Is Wrong And Evil And Makes Jeebus Cry, he’s willing to objectively assess his own moral code as applied to evading cost on the media he wishes to consume.

Before we get to the meat, though, I’m going to call out one item for criticism, because it’s such a well-used semantic straw man that by this point that it gets repeated as a matter of fact:

… there are many thoughtful individuals out there, possessed of shitstorm-generating superpowers,  who do believe that EVERYTHING SHOULD BE FREE ON THE WEB.

I tend to think of this as The Doctorow Rejoinder, because it’s usually Cory that’s the target (implied or otherwise) of that complaint. But here’s the thing: it’s bollocks.

Sure, there are people out there who believe everything should be free on the web… and sure, those people are pretty stupid (or extremely idealistic and ignorant of the most basic tenets of economics). However, the “shitstorm-generators” that Palmer refers to – the ones with any real influence at all, rather than the lip-flapping skriptkiddiez who requote them out of context on their warez blogs – do not believe (or at least do not publicly claim) that “everything should be free on the web”.

People are always reminding me about how Cory Doctorow believes and preaches that; however, not one of them has yet been able to show me a citation where he does so. Doctorow happily and truthfully claims that free content has worked for him, and explained the potential benefits of such a business model to people in similar positions, but he’s never (to my knowledge) claimed free content as a) a panacea to the struggles of the obscure artist/creator or b) the road to an inevitable digital syndicalist utopia where everything necessarily costs nothing. (I’m quite willing to be proved wrong on this point, but I want citations from original source material, not flimsy op-eds from folk with axes to grind or political capital to reap.)

So, let’s be clear: no one worth arguing with has ever claimed that “everything should be free on the web”; until we get past this particularly tenacious straw man, we’re going to struggle to deal with the real issues. And so, it’s back to Philip Palmer’s otherwise sound essay. A few quotey bits:

I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing new under the sun.  The digital age didn’t invent plagiarism; nor did it invent piracy.  The web changes many things; but not basic questions about right or wrong; it merely AMPLIFIES the problems that always existed

Book piracy, for instance,  was pioneered by the public library service.  For many years, until the advent of PLR, it was considered moral and normal to give away books for zero money on a rental basis to members of the public.  This is a great way to impoverish authors.  Because a book that’s been borrowed a hundred times has only been bought once!

Second hand bookshops!  They are the buccaneers of the book trade. A second hand book may be sold a dozen different times but again,  the author only gets paid once.  We authors notice these things.

So illegally downloading books is no different, in principle, than going to Hay-on-Wye.  Fact!

Yes, that’s a sophistic argument; that’s Palmer’s point, I think. Now, here’s where it gets interesting:

When I started getting published I stopped buying second hand science fiction novels from authors still alive or not-rich.  So I’ll buy second-hand Stephen King, though only occasionally,  but I’d never buy Al Reynolds’  latest in a second hand bookshop, because  he’s a real writer earning a living. I do though buy all my Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels (my current passion)  second hand via Amazon, mainly because the old Del Rey editions are so stunning, and I’m pretty sure they’re out of print.

So that’s my moral code, based on the opinion that borrowing books from a pal and illegally downloading books are pretty much the same thing, ethically speaking. In other words, it’s okay to get stuff free sometimes, as long as you OFTEN pay.

Palmer’s point is that (with very few exceptions) we don’t have unlimited funds for buying entertainment, but we have a close-to-unlimited hunger for the stuff, and so we all come to our own ethical compromise with the world; Palmer puts money in the pockets of living authors who he feels deserve it, but he doesn’t want to contribute to Stephen King’s retirement nest-egg, nor send money to middle-men reprinting the works of the long-dead if he has a cheaper option available to him. He’s obeying the spirit of the piracy laws, though not necessarily the letter of them.

I take a similar approach to music, as do many people I know; I’m – by my own admission – a somewhat skewed data-point (because as a reviewer I get sent a lot of legitimate freebies) but I download hard-to-find and/or costly albums without too many qualms because I attend dozens of live shows every year, buy merchandise, patronise live music venues, buy music equipment and use rehearsal spaces. I’m paying my way within that economic sphere, and doing so with a fairly significant portion of my disposable income.

There are those who don’t pay their way, certainly, but I suspect they’re a minority; digital music recordings are valueless unless you want to listen to them. I can’t imagine many folk bother downloading albums just to consume hard drive space and have a longer list in their media player library; you collect music because you’re passionate about it, and if you’re passionate about music you probably go and see it played live if you have the opportunity to do so.

Digital media is a non-rival good; to take it for free is not theft but evasion of cost, and evasion of cost is a fundamental tenet of economic behaviour (with the possible exception of those with more money than sense); economic behaviour is not rational but emotional, and basing your response to a change in the underpinnings of an industry’s economy on the hope that you can stop human beings behaving in the ways they always have done is to doom yourself to failure. Successful businesses work out ways to monetise desire, but business models do not last forever; if they did, there wouldn’t be an internet (or cars, or electricity, or, or, or). QED.

This is a point borne out in the music industry, where – in spite of the withering of the recording companies – overall profits are actually growing consistently: live show tickets, merchandise, new instruments and recording technology, all selling better than they ever have before. There are studies based on the industry’s own figures that show heavy downloaders of music torrents spend more on legitimate content purchases than those who buy a few albums every year. Illegal downloading is not “killing music” (just as home-taping didn’t “kill music”); it’s killing a business model, and the record labels really don’t have anyone other than themselves for failing to adapt to a changing landscape.

As I’ve mentioned before, the publishing industry appears to have wised up faster than the record labels did, but it’s interesting to note that – as with the music industry – the smaller more artist-centric outfits are the ones who seem to be most willing to try new options. The more profitable the old model was, the greater the inertia of those who profited from it. Evolve or die.

This is the point where I usually get accused of celebrating the fact that it’s getting harder and harder for artists of all stripes to make money from their work. To which I respond: pointing out the realities of the situation, and the fact that all the idealistic thinking in the world won’t stop consumers behaving as they do (namely getting something they want as cheaply and conveniently as possible), is not celebratory; it is a matter of pragmatism.

The genie will not go back in the bottle; it is more productive to work out ways to cope with the genie’s freedom than it is to build elaborate doomed-to-fail genie entrapment devices, or to repeat idealistic platitudes about how the bottle shouldn’t have been opened in the first place and look for someone to blame for it. Yes, it sucks that the business models of many creators whose work I adore and wish to support are under economic pressure; however, no amount of me (or anyone else) saying how much it sucks will make a damned bit of difference. Play the hand you’re dealt, or fold and get out of the game.

A harsh thing to say, perhaps, given I’m a friend of (and contractor to) a number of authors… but would you want your doctor to lie about a life-threatening illness? If you want to survive, you have to accept the reality of the situation, take the pills, endure the surgery; I can’t help but think that content creators as a demographic are moving slowly through the five stages of grief psychology with respect to the economics of infinite goods. It’s a painful and necessary process, but acceptance is the only end-point from which you can move on.

In an ideal world, we’d all be paid enough in return for doing something we loved to have everything we wanted. If anyone has directions on how to get to that ideal world, by all means please let me and everyone else know how to join you there; in the meantime, I think we’re best off concentrating on finding a way to make a living here in reality.

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7 Responses to “The ethics of content theft in a digital world”

  1. Crosbie Fitch says:

    We are moving from a market in copies (at monopoly protected prices) to a market in work (in a free market).

    The most important memeological illness to overcome is to divest yourself of the copyright inculcated notion that the copy is the intellectual work. It’s not the same. It’s just a copy. My parrot can copy my poems, but he can’t compose them. So don’t pay my parrot for his copies, pay me for my work.

    Once you’ve done that you can move on from selling monopolies (to publishers who manufacture and sell copies to your readers), to selling your work (to your readers directly). You’re going to have to do this anyway because copyright has become ineffective, and the market for copies has ended (save for the inertia of printed ink on paper).

    Some people are giving their work away and sticking their hat out on the pavement. There are websites already facilitating such donation: and

    However, to make a living you need to sell your work, not give it away, but to haggle for a commensurate amount of money in exchange. Some facilities such as are enabling such propositions to be made, e.g. “If my fans can collectively offer me $X,000 I will produce & publish my work Y in exchange”. I’m working on more sophisticated facilities.

  2. Wintermute says:

    All those goddamn writers should stop using their brains and get a real job. Like construction. Hey, robot, give me back that steamroller! …Or maybe a gig PR whoring techevangelism for $20,000 a pop for tech companies.

  3. Wintermute says:

    I’m not entirely sure the Doctorow flaming was always was just a caricature effigy, though Cory has done a lawyerly job of lately playing apologist for himself since the Four Horsemen of the Anti-Singularity (Lanier, Carr, Keen, Postman) hurled their collective polemicist poles into the unchecked and unbalanced swelling ideology bubble of the TechEvangelists’ gadgety monotheism.

  4. Wintermute says:

    ‘no one worth arguing with has ever claimed that “everything should be free on the web”’

    Now that’s an outrageous claim! Hell, Jaron Lanier, one of the architects behind the internet itself (not to mention virtual reality) openly admits having taken part in leading the computer-nerd spiritual descendent of 60’s College-Marxism, centered around “Digital Communism”, “Campus Maoism”, “Open”, “Information Wants To Be Free”. The movement was seeded on campuses like Berkley, spread through Silicon Valley, deeply influenced the fundamental underlying structure of the web itself, and which permeate digital and tech culture like anti-authoritarianism and non-conformity continues to permeate Western and especially US culture on the whole. The concept of the “file”, this freely copyable discrete packet (and hugely inefficient in terms of storage space and bandwith usage, not to mention electro-smog), the web’s network architecture which allow easy and difficult-to-track “sharing” of files was not an inevitable emergence of some unspoken corollary to Moore’s Law or some law of physics, but was a specific deign decision directly influenced by the ideological ecology of the technologists who developed the now nigh-ubiquitous technology of the internet. Many of these people, Lanier included, along with many other Big Wigs in the geek/tech culturesphere (Clay Shirky) truly believed that all information, perhaps all material should be “free”, some went so far as to wish to do away with the concept of ownership and intellectual property itself, full Das Kapital ahead.

    I agree we should try to think constructively. Ironically, perchance poetically, maybe from the ashes of net neutrality and the open web — which, make no mistake, are coming with the emergence of the proprietary network-nations, forming like World War axes or megaglomerations, separate from the free intertubes — perhaps will arise a new fundamental meta-structure of this thing we call the internet, a true Web 2.0. Perhaps the iWorld and gWorld would be more closed, perhaps we won’t be able to shift files anonymously to each other, perhaps we won’t have a fallback excuse not to pay for content, Cory might not be able to code a root-level Dos exe that changes the CPU fan speed to emit a poorly transposed 8-bit rendition of a Sesame Street/Full Metal Alchemist mashup (and he will rain righteous libertarian fire and brimstone no doubt). But look at all those apps being sold in that terrible draconian tyranny. It’s practically an existence-proof of the micropayment system; in a local microcosm of those Walled Gardens. Look at the quality of iApps versus the relative ghetto of Android material — the first casualty of “free” is value — that was, after all, one of the primary functions of the broadcast medium-era “book publisher”. Such a system-network-society of course has the potential to become quite scarily evil indeed. 1984 and all that jazz, corporate glass eyes looking up your butt and down your prefontal cortex for neural constellations to hack and market with.

    But perhaps then people will wisen up and realize that a beholden-to-none except the people holding its dollar-reigns private entity called a corporation is not the best entity to be running all of a civilizations’ infrastructure, all the “rules of the Matrix” and such an entity might become “nationalized”. The information superhighway, maintained and run by that big, corrupt, inefficient, but at least publicly beholden thing called government. Like the old bick-and-mortar-and-asphalt highways, also built and maintained by the big terrible inefficient government, those instrumental veins of economy, of culture (On The Road), of reality, that were as super to a society as the skyways of the new mapless territory are to us.

  5. Wintermute says:

    While gathering in the rusting echo chamber of the RIAA 104th floor meeting room and knockin’ the stuffed Doctorow pinata for the schadenfreude does happen, the anti-authoritarian libertarian ethos-stroking exercised through bashing the Big Bad Slow Dumb Over 30 Dinosaur Music Industry has long gone the way of the bargain bin itself.

  6. Philip Palmer says:

    Glad you liked the piece Paul, and your argument about music makes perfect sense to me. I spent a fortune buying graphic novels but sometimes I sit and read in Waterstone’s and read them for nowt, because otherwise the bailiff would bash down my door.

    I wasn’t specifically attacking Cory, and to be honest you may be right this is a straw man argument. But it’s an argument I’ve heard from finance folk explaining why you can’t make money out of the internet – because everyone expects everything to be free! But it’s more complex than that – as you explain in some exhilarating detail.

    Now about this idea of writers getting proper jobs…NEVER! We’re good for nothing else.

  7. Paul Raven says:

    Wintermute: re “information wants to be free”, Charlie Stross has pin-pricked that shibboleth-bubble very effectively already; the phrase is real, but it is consistently misinterpreted by people looking for a convenient slogan to justify their own refusal to pay for anything. “Freetards” are real, yes, and there is a significant problem with a developed expectation that content is or should be free on the web, but that is not the position espoused by the punditry who are traditionally accused of leading this “movement for free stuff”.

    Philip: many thanks, glad you enjoyed… and I didn’t think you were gunning for Cory in particular, though your phrasing reminded me strongly of those who do. It is indeed a very complex matter, one governed by cultural polemics, economic psychology and the weird weird way the web is built. Solutions will arrive, I’m sure, but only when we start looking at things realistically. The last thing I want is for writers to get “proper” jobs! But unless, as a body of people, they start thinking constructively about ways to work around the marketplace problems, they may have to; think of it as a call to arms rather than an exhortation to hop on the bus to the DSS. 🙂