The Perception of Piracy

Jul 3, 2012 | Opinions

I got into a discussion over on Roz Morris’ blog last week on the nature of piracy. It got me thinking on a rather interesting aspect of the whole thing: how authors perceive it, versus what it actually is.

I’ve said before that combating piracy is a fool’s game, a waste of effort and energy that would be better spent elsewhere. But something that Roz said quite stuck in my mind:

We must stop sending the message that it’s okay to rip off creatives, for heaven’s sake. Our status has already been eroded enough by the entertainment business. In TV, films, books, the visual arts – and I dare say in music – the creative’s efforts are belittled as though we’re nothing more than happy noodlers. We must stress that creative work has value or none of us will have a living at all.

This seemed strange to me, in many ways. Who is sending out this message? Why is piracy such a major issue? This attitude seems common, among authors at least, but I have to wonder where it’s coming from.


It seems that this attitude stems from a fundamental disconnect between the idea of piracy, as authors think of it, and the reality of piracy. It’s basically antagonistic in nature in that it assumes that readers are just waiting for the green light to pirate everything in sight, laughing maniacally as they do so at the poor authors who are left to starve. But this clearly isn’t true in the case of other mediums; musicians still make money, even though their music can be pirated. Movies still make money, RIAA scaremongering aside. Even photographers, whose work is most likely to be copied freely, still make money. Have their money making methods altered due to the Internet? Of course. Do some people get their work for free? Of course. But this doesn’t change the fact that they do make money, and it’s never been shown that piracy has a major negative effect, so why would authors in particular think the sky is falling?

Some creatives talk about how piracy was beneficial for them. This doesn’t constitute a message that it’s okay to rip them off. Some listeners or viewers talk about why they pirate – but it’s not because they think it’s okay to rip off creatives. There’s always another reason; they have no money, it’s not available in their region or in their language, they want to sample it first. It’s not malicious, and it’s certainly not personal.

Saying that the status of creatives has been eroded in entertainment suggests that they had any kind of status before the advent of the Internet. To that I say: Hollywood accounting is called as such for a reason, and the abysmal treatment of musicians by the major record labels is so well known as to be a cliché.

Piracy is a response to an unfulfilled need, not a bogeyman waiting to steal bread from the mouths of authors around the world. That authors are so afraid of it suggests, to me at least, that they haven’t done the research on why piracy happens, how it can be beneficial, and why it may have no real effect on sales.

On Having Value

“We must stress that creative work has value or none of us will have a living at all.”

This was the one part that stood out the most to me. I’ve talked about value before, and it’s very relevant here because this statement is completely untrue in every way. Stressing that a work has value is completely meaningless; the RIAA and others have been throwing money at educating people for years, and it’s had no effect on piracy rates nor on sales. And why would it? Expecting people to value a particular work simply because they’re told to is ludicrous on its face. It’s essentially like trying to overrule their own personal tastes.

The idea that piracy will mean authors can’t make a living is also patently false. Authors can make a living now, and they will always be able to make a living, provided they adapt to the reality of doing business online.

I can’t help but think that the immediate, knee-jerk reaction of piracy = end of the world is a result of authors paying a little too close attention to the RIAA, MPAA and others who seem hell-bent on breaking everything to do with modern technology. Ultimately they have to sell an emotional argument to creators in order to get them on their side, and it seems to be working. This, of course, doesn’t stop the authors who come from a technical background from disagreeing with them very loudly, but the fact that this attitude is so widespread really does drive home how well these one-sided campaigns are working.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: authors have nothing to fear from piracy. It’s good to be aware of it, but it’s also pointless to have an emotional reaction to the idea of someone getting a book for free. At the time of writing, piracy seems to be either a benign influence or a mildly positive one on sales, and authors would do well to remember this before they spend their reserves of personal strength railing against it.