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Books Technology

Good copy, bad copy

I found Coffin Dodgers on a couple of pirate sites yesterday, and it really annoyed me. Assuming it’s actually there – there’s no guarantee that just because a free download site says it’s got a book that it actually has the book – it means I’ve fallen victim to the wrong kind of copying.

There are two kinds of copying. There’s good copying, and there’s bad copying.

(This is a long post, so I’ve split it so it doesn’t overpower the entire home page)

Good copying doesn’t harm, and might just help. Good copying is when somebody enjoyed the book and passed it on to someone else, or when someone enjoyed it on Kindle and wants to convert it to a different format for a different device, or wants to print it out, or whatever. None of these things harm me, and they might just help: someone who enjoys Coffin Dodgers now, for free, might recommend me to someone who buys it, or they might buy the sequel.

My take on it is that I wrote Coffin Dodgers because I wanted it to be read. Of course I’d like to make some money out of it, but that isn’t my main concern (although unlike many other writers, I can afford to say that because I already have a job).

As Michael Marshall says in the post I linked to earlier on:

of course a little bit of this is not the end of the world and of course a degree of laxity with regard to sharing materials is part of how the net works and what makes it the extraordinary resource that it is

As I say, I don’t have a problem with it – anyone who’s spent any time at all hanging around this blog or reading my columns will know that I’m against draconian internet regulation, and that I think the claims of damage due to piracy are usually massively overblown.

The problem, though, is that there are bastards out there. Hello, bad copying.

Bad copying has a financial component: it’s when copies are provided for money, and the creator doesn’t get anything. The sites I’ve found offering Coffin Dodgers – or at least, claiming to; I’m buggered if I’m going to join up to find out if they have the book or not – run ads and charge for membership. It’s not much, but you can see why the copyright industries go crazy when they see sites linking almost exclusively to illegal content pulling in hundreds of thousands of pounds in ad revenues. I covered a case recently where, in just three years, the owner of one website made a claimed £147,000 from selling ad space around links to copyrighted content.

Piracy isn’t generally speaking an ethical decision, but a financial one: people pirate because free is cheaper than any price tag, and because they’ll get away with it. Personally I’m a fan of downloading leaked albums I’ve pre-ordered in CD format or on iTunes, or TV programmes I forgot to set the Sky+ for. I don’t think I’m being evil by doing this – I’ve paid for my pre-order, my TV licence and my Sky subscription – but I do think it would be hypocritical of me to whinge if somebody’s sharing Coffin Dodgers on a file sharing network or by email or IM. However, I don’t think I should applaud if somebody on the other side of the planet is making money at my expense.

In my case it’s the principle that’s annoying – I’ve sold two and a half thousand ebooks legally, which is nothing; never mind being on the radar, I’m not even in the same airspace as proper writers, so if even one person has actually downloaded Coffin Dodgers from a dodgy site I’ll be amazed – but I can see where the WE MUST SHUT THE ENTIRE INTERNET demands come from and why writers with proper profiles and serious numbers of readers get so pissed off.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do worry that the copyright debate has become too polarised. It’s become about absolutes, total internet freedom versus total lockdown, and there’s much, much more to the copyright debate than that.

The purpose of copyright isn’t, as many people assume, to stop people copying things. It’s bigger than that. It’s about encouraging the creation of new and valuable things by giving creators, for a limited period of time, protection so that they can benefit from their efforts.

It’s been corrupted by never-ending copyright extensions, by rights-grabbing contracts and by the belief that if Mickey Mouse ever falls into the public domain, the skies will open and the four horsemen of the apocalypse will ride out, but that doesn’t mean that copyright itself is a bad idea.

Ian Betteridge put it very well a few years back:

We should always remember that copyright is an artificial monopoly granted because it has a beneficial effect for society as a whole, not privilege that’s designed simply to benefit a particular class or profession

I think the corporations have perverted that, and I think the internet has made it exceptionally difficult to enforce, but I’m not convinced that the answer is to just forget about copyright law altogether. We just need to differentiate good copying and bad copying, and to protect the former while trying to prevent the latter.

Easier said than done, I know, but it’d be nice if we tried.