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.


The trouble with drones

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

When military hardware and software IP disputes meet: via Slashdot we hear of a pending lawsuit that may ground the CIA’s favourite toys, the Predator drones. In a nutshell, a small software firm called IISi alleges that some of their proprietary software was pirated by another firm, Netezza, who then sold it on to a government client which was revealed by further presentations of evidence to be none other than the Central Intelligence Agency. Plenty of grim irony in there, even before you factor in the allegations from IISi that the hacked software may render the drone targeting systems inaccurate to the tune of plus-or-minus forty feet. So it’s not all bad news for the CIA: at least they can start blaming collateral damage on shoddy outsourcing.

In other drone news, Chairman Bruce draws our attention to Taiwan, whose ministry of defense confirms that it is developing UAV designs of its own. We can assume that, in the grand tradition of Taiwanese electronics products, these will be cheap-and-cheerful alternatives to the more respectable brands of the Western military-industrial complex, ideal for tin-pot totalitarians and networked non-geographical political entities working to tight budgets. Hell only knows where they’ll get the software from, though.


Piracy cutting into the comics industry, too

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

It’s not just regular book publishers who’re suffering from an increased demand for downloadable content; the comics industry is suffering too. I noticed some justifiably embittered tweets from UK comics writer Paul Cornell this Friday just gone:

Just saw download site with 2356 illegal downloads of Knight and Squire. You have no idea how angry that makes me. Bloody thieves. #

Just heard: average number of illegal [comics] downloads = *four times* legal sales. That’s why your favourite title got cancelled. No margin left. #

I’d be interested to know if the piracy of novels is happening on a similar scale to that – if anyone has a source of reliable stats and numbers, please pipe up! But I rather suspect comics is getting it far worse when considered as a percentage of total sales, and a number of possible reasons present themselves: the comics demographic is younger and more tech-savvy (and hence more used to the idea of there being a free version lurking somewhere in the pipework); scanning a comic is an easier and shorter process than OCRing a novel (and less susceptible to transcription issues); and comics (the print versions, at least) are ridiculously expensive, with limited availability of legit digital versions.

The latter issue is probably the big driver here; I don’t know much about comics industry pricing (and, again, would welcome input from anyone who does), but I sure know what stopped me from buying a few issues every month*. Whether the pricing is justified or not is an open question, but regardless of the reasons, it’s a lot of money for such a small (though beautifully-formed) nugget of art; however, I’m not sure that comics prices could be lowered radically enough to enable the big houses to carry on as they are. It’s a more plausible solution for the music industry (and is finally starting to be seen as such by people on the inside of the machine [via]), but comics aren’t so easily reproduced as infinite goods.

Or are they? Via MetaFilter, here’s an interview with Neil Gaiman where he discusses the experience of reading comics on ereaders, and the phase-change occurring in the comics landscape:

Perhaps I don’t have the allegiance to paper that I ought to because anybody who invests in The Absolute Sandman, all four volumes, is now carrying 40 pounds of paper and cardboard around with them. And they hurt and they complain, “Oh, I feel guilty.” And I look at it and go, you’re not getting anything that is quantitatively or qualitatively better than the experience you’d be getting on an iPad, where you can enlarge the pages, you can move it around, it’s following the eye, and you can flip the pages.

[…]

Everything about the web has been about leveling the playing field. Yeah, it’s why Scott [McCloud] was right in Reinventing Comics, and why it’s a terrible book. Because it’s a manifesto. It’s not a book. It’s a manifesto to something that doesn’t exist yet, and, furthermore, his solution is wrong, which is you can micro-monetize this stuff. But the basic gist of the manifesto is simply: The moment you’re on the web, you don’t have to publish the book, you don’t have to get the book into Barnes & Noble, you don’t have to pay for ink and paper and the office costs of somebody to promote it. And all of that is true. You are absolutely playing on a flat field with somebody who has millions of dollars of marketing behind them.

In other words, comics (and books, to a similar extent) are just hitting their iPods-and-Napster moment, where available technology is not only good enough to significantly enhance the reading experience over dead-tree, but also sufficiently ubiquitous to make controlling distribution very difficult. That level playing field isn’t here yet, but it’s coming… and the first phase is the erosion of the comparatively easy profits the publishing outfits were able to make beforehand, where a lack of knowledge (or perhaps just a resistance to trying new ideas?) means that those huge marketing budgets just don’t provide the leverage they used to.

Music is a little further ahead on this particular developmental curve, in that we can see new business models emerging at both the individual artist level and the record label level… though it’s interesting to note that organisational size seems to be inversely proportional to innovative agility and the willingness to embrace (or even just grudgingly accept) the fundamental change in the rules of engagement.

All of which isn’t to say that I’m sat here with a wry smirk and a hint of I-told-you-so in you eyes; I have many writer and artist friends (Cornell very much among them), and have no wish to see them unable to make a living from their art due to technological shifts. But all the best wishes in the world won’t change the observable fact that the economics of abundance are ripping their way into almost all of the arts… and economics isn’t noted as a phenomenon that cares about individuals. Perhaps even more so than prose fiction publishers, the comics industry needs to get to grips with digital content channels real fast if it wants to survive; you only need look at the current travails of Guy Hands and EMI to see what happens if you stand stoically on a slanting deck, stuffing wads of money and lawsuit paperwork into the hull breach while the band keeps playing “Nearer My God To Thee”.

[ * That said, I haven’t moved to downloading comics as an alternative to buying them, though I certainly have done with music; I rather suspect that if I’d been a comics freak from as early an age as I was a music freak, however, I’d be telling a different story. The underlying point: the people downloading your work don’t see it as stealing; they just see it as a way of getting more of the media they love for less financial outlay. And while there’s a logical case to be made that they are stealing, time and money spent chasing and enforcing that judgement is time and money that would be more effectively spent on looking for new ways to meet that demand. All King Canute got for his troubles were wet feet. ]


Ebooks: with popularity comes piracy

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2010

Plenty of stories recently about the massive uptick in ebook sales (though many of them are playing a little fast and loose with the figures), but with an uptick of interest in an infinitely reproducible good comes a proportional uptick in people interested in getting it for free.

eBookNewser points to an Attributor study that seems to suggest the arrival of the jeebusPad – which has made some publishers very excited, perhaps by dint of being arguably the first piece of ereader-functional hardware with a bit of sexiness to it – has brought with it a 20% increase in search queries for pirated versions of ebooks.

Attributor began the project by investigating the relative importance of the cyberlocker sites (sites that store personal digital files) in the book space, including Rapidshare, Hotfile and Megaupload. Google Trends allowed Attributor to extract data and compare the relative importance of terms searched for pirated content.

The study showed that the popularity of Rapidshare as a host for pirated content has steadily declined since Attributor first raised awareness about the site in August 2009. However, other, smaller cyberlockers, have increased their position in the piracy market, with a 54 percent increase in overall demand for pirated material since August 2009.

Further, recent innovations and availability of new technologies has catalyzed e-book syndication opportunities. The chart below shows a spike in the demand for pirated e-books around May 2010, only one month after the release of the Apple iPad. More than 250 iPhone, iPad and iPod platform users searched for pirated copies throughout the study, pointing to the immediate need to raise awareness and education about syndication proliferation in the age of digital and mobile media.

ebook piracy stats from Attributor

[image ganked from Attributor article; contact for immediate take-down if required]

Now, I’m no stats boffin, but it looks to me that the green curve there is actually just continuing much as it was before the iPad’s arrival; the downtick around its launch date could be down to any number of factors, but I remain to be convinced (or have more thoroughly explained to me, perhaps) how the increase since then is out of character with the curve as it was before.

(Try holding a ruler up against the screen; the downtick from June 2009 to June 2010 looks to me more like a momentary anomaly than a trend that supplanted a previous trend only to be supplanted again.)

A generous helping of cynicism salt is required to season Attributor’s interpretations, of course, because they’re in the business of selling ‘solutions’ to the piracy problem (good luck with finding one that can’t be circumvented by a handful of bored teenagers with a crate of Mountain Dew, folks); their implicit demonisation of “content lockers” will be a familiar meme to those who follow the digital end of UK politics, also (content lockers enable piracy, therefore they should be banned or policed; no suggestion of banning cars for enabling people to be knocked over yet, though).

What’s fairly obvious and believable, though, is that demand for pirated ebooks is climbing steadily, and has been doing so consistently. And that spells trouble for anyone looking to make ebooks a part of their business model… indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar growth curves for interest in pirated music files from around the time when the first affordable mp3 players began to appear.

The publishing industry appears to have woken up and smelled the coffee much more quickly than the record labels did, but whether they can successfully cut the Gordian knot of abundance economics remains to be seen… and while it’ll doubtless mark me as a Doctorow 5th-columnist*, I feel pretty safe in saying that DRM and closed hardware isn’t the sword for the job.

[ * Content crypto-Marxist? Or, y’know, just a pragmatic realist? Depends on which angle you’re looking from, I guess. 😉 ]


DRM may suck, but avoiding it is no panacea to piracy

Paul Raven @ 09-08-2010

As a fellow-traveller of the copyleftists, this is the sort of story I’d rather not be reading. But it’s an important one, because it underlines the problem that all the optimistic rhetoric in the world can’t sweep under the carpet: the point-and-click adventure game Machinarium was released without DRM, and despite (or perhaps because of) great reviews, suffered from an estimated 90% piracy rate. The developers are now having a “pirate amnesty” where they invite people with pirated copies to cough up $5 – a quarter of the original asking price – to legitimise their installation.

So much for the myth (albeit rarely stated directly) that DRM-free games are less likely to be pirated because they give the players their oft-demanded flexibilities of installation and migration; disappointing, perhaps, but hardly surprising.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the piracy rate would probably have been similar even if DRM had been baked in to Machinarium. So what’s the way out of this bind? My guess (and it is a guess) would be a lower price point – maybe if the asking price had been $5 from the outset, more people would have coughed up in the first place. The counterargument to that usually goes along the lines of “but that won’t cover the overheads of making the game!”; the counter-counter-response is “well, charging $20 obviously hasn’t achieved that either”. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Then there’s the MMO/metaverse model: charge very little or nothing for software and access, and make your rake-off through in-game items. We know this one works, because if it didn’t there’d be no goldfarming outfits in developing nations… but how to adapt it to single-player gaming experiences? Or maybe you have to look at sponsorships, in-game advertising and product placements… none of which sound particularly appealing, but would probably become accepted by players pretty quickly once there were no other options…

… and given the way things are going, that might not be too distant a day. What this story makes clear is that DRM is a blind alleyway: whether you include it or not, you’ll still have your work pirated. The web burgeons with suggested alternative business models for computer games, but to my knowledge no one has yet made one of them really stick.


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