Sunday, January 22, 2012

Acceptable Theft

So, you may have noticed a bit of hubbub recently about the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. I'm not going to talk about the bills, because the proposed legislation and potential enforcement risks have been dissected ad nauseum elsewhere. But I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately and I'd like to talk about the way our society seems to have come to view artistic products in the digital age - because in all the furor over the acts no one ever seemed to acknowledge that digital theft is wrong. That stealing a song or an ebook online is the same as shoving a book or CD under your shirt and sneaking out of Barnes & Noble or Best Buy.

You know why? Because it isn't exactly the same. The difference is in the consequences. You will get arrested for shoplifting, but downloading is viewed not only as an unpunishable offense, but almost as a right, a fucking privilege of the digital age. But see, freedom of information is not the same thing as taking someone's artistic endeavors without paying for it (their livelihood, but I'm trying to stay away from that argument because I know I'm too personally affected by this issue to be even remotely objective if we start talking about the fact that as a copyright holder I am one of the victims of this perceived-as-victimless crime).

Yes, the bills were likely unconstitutional and had a bevy of problems, but the rhetoric linking protecting copyrights to a dictator cracking down on the next Arab Spring was a bit much for me - not because the bills weren't a clumsy, "buy a bigger hammer" approach to the problem, but because not once did anyone acknowledge that piracy is wrong and there are people who are hurt by online theft. Fix the bills, propose new ones, don't just protest the very idea of cracking down on online theft!

If you'd rather hear this from Guns N Roses, check out Duff McKagan's Quit Whining About SOPA & PIPA. Where's the Public Outrage Over Online Piracy?

John Stewart - whom I am usually a fan of - brushed aside any impact piracy has on artists, authors, and musicians and tacitly encouraged his viewers to pirate copyrighted material from the Big Bad Corporations who make all the movies. Yeah, because theft is totally okay as long as you steal from someone who can afford it. Awesome.

You know there's a reason the phrase "starving artist" is a cliche. It's because most of us aren't bazillionaires who won't notice a few hundred thousand illegal copies of our books and songs being downloaded. I don't get a giant advance. I get paid on royalties (a percentage of each individual sale) - and just think, if I actually got paid for all those pirates who steal and read (and some of whom illegally sell) my books, I might be able to splurge and afford health insurance this year. (And I have epically failed at keeping this from getting personal. Oh well.)

But it's not about the legality. It's not about the bills. It's about the pervasive societal view that it's okay to steal, as long as it's this one particular kind of theft. It's so damn easy, but that doesn't make it right.

The thing is, there are legal, ethical, non-stealing ways of getting books for free. Become a reviewer. Go to author blogs (like this one where I have TONS of chances to win them, as do many authors). Join Goodreads and be on the lookout for their giveaways. Go to your local library - many of which are starting to lend ebooks. Use the borrowing feature on your device and trade with your friends. But piracy is THEFT.

How about a deal? I won't pick your pocket on the street if you don't download my books for free. Sound fair?

Bottom line: if you don't protect creative endeavors and intellectual property, eventually you won't have any art to enjoy anymore. Sorry, but that's just how it goes. If you take away a creative professional's ability to make a living doing what they love, they can't create the stuff you love anymore.

If you disagree with me, I'd love to hear your argument. Or if you have any insights into why we as a culture can't respect digital property I'd be curious to hear that as well. Or, better still, if you have any ideas on how we can shift perception to show that intellectual property is worth protecting, that would be amazing.

Your thoughts?

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