A ripple ran through the otherwise serene waters of the Book View Café last week when a pirate site–or rather, a directory site with links to all sorts of pirated material, including vast quantities of members’ fiction, some of it very likely published here at BVC–came to our collective attention. There was a flurry of activity as we all contacted our publishers, or started writing Takedown Letters, or reported the site to the FBI. It is, at very least, time sink and an annoyance.
And then I got into an electronic conversation with an acquaintance who wondered why we bothered. “It’s not like many people are going to find the site, is it? So you lose half a dozen sales–you’re still getting royalties on books you sell elsewhere. Wouldn’t you do better to spend all that time writing?”
Oy. Where to start?
I have heard, more times than I want to count, the mantra “information wants to be free.” You want free information, try Wikipedia*. Or the library. If you want a story which has been labored over, researched, edited, revised, and finally offered to the public, throw a little something into the kitty. Unless the author or publisher have decided for whatever reason to offer it for free. But that is the author/publisher’s decision, not yours or the pirate-site’s managers. One of the things I like about BVC is that each of us is free to set her own price for a given work. Cause we’re selling access to our intellectual property. Someone takes that intellectual property without paying for it? Well, the term I learned at my mother’s knee is theft.
Aside from the loss of income that comes with piracy, there are larger legal issues. I am not (unlike several of my BVC colleagues) a lawyer, but one of my responsibilities at my soon-to-be late job was to act as Permissions Editor, the person who gives, or licenses, or denies, the right to quote or otherwise use material from one of my employer’s books. I am the one who writes to kids who want to use an illustration from one of our books in a report on juggling or paper craft (permission is granted), or the director of an overseas language program that wants to use our Juggling book as a tool for teaching English (granted, with conditions attached) , and to the manager of a summer camp that wants to run off 150 copies of a crafting book to use with his camp groups (permission denied), and to people who want to use the designs for paper fashions for their own craft businesses (denied). It’s not capricious, the reasoning behind these permissions, nor is it particularly sentimental (“awww, let the kid have permission, he’s just a kid”). Regarding the denials: in the case of the camp manager, it’s about loss of income. In the case of the crafter, it’s about protecting our intellectual property.
That “IP” thing again. Well, yes.
If you hold the copyright (or trademark) to something, one of your responsibilities is to protect it. This is why big copyright/trademark holders like Disney, to use the classic example, has so little sense of humor about their various trademarks and intellectual properties. First, there’s the issue of loss of income (if someone is making Spider-Man jammies without licensing the image, that could mean substantial chunk of lost income opportunity). But second, and more importantly, if Disney/Marvel have to go to court to defend, Spider-Man, they need to be able to point to all the times when they stopped someone from using Spidey, to show that they continue to take a vital interest in the mark.
So when someone produces an electronic edition of my sorta-vampire story “Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight,” I’m not only losing the opportunity to make some money on the story, I’m endangering my right to say “I came up with those characters, that situation, that plot, and no one else did.” Some of the big guns–J.K. Rowling, for example, has stated publicly that she’s not opposed to fiction using the characters and situations of a little-known series she wrote about Wizardry school for fan fiction–and there’s a thriving, vast community of people who play in that world. But I am pretty certain that the minute someone tried to publish Harry Potter at Cambridge, Ms Rowling’s solicitors, and her publishers’s solicitors, will put an end to it. Because at that point it’s no longer homage and appreciation: its wholesale appropriation for commercial purposes.
No one in their right mind becomes a writer because they’re going to make a fortune at it. It does happen on rare occasions, but not often. I became a writer because I liked the process, because I liked the people I could invent and blow life into, because I liked putting them into troublesome situations and seeing them get out of it. I have worked hard on every damned thing I’ve written, because it doesn’t come easily. And when I see some cyber-types attempting to appropriate my property with cutlasses in their teeth and larceny in their hearts, well: yes, I will deploy takedown letters and call the FBI and make public their infamy.
Buy from licit sources. Throw a little money into the tip jar.
*although I annually make a donation to Wikipedia, in the spirit of “if you use it, you really ought to.” Because, in fact, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and taking bits of other people’s lunches gets old after a while.