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.

17 thoughts on “Good copy, bad copy

  1. Hunnymonster says:

    Aren’t the claims of criminal incomes usually inflated by similar factors as drugs seizures though – where the quoted ‘street value’ in the media is often 10-15x higher than the real street value (yes I realise there’s adulteration happening). I’m sure it happens so when the inevitable POCA seizure happens the £30 fine and slap on the wrists for the offence, then the penalty of the asset seizure makes up for it… but I’m a cynic :)

    A bit like walking into HMV and discovering that the ‘street price’ of that CD you bought (yeah, I still buy them – I’m old school) is 4x what you paid for it to be shipped halfway across the world and back. (Yes – genuine UK market CD, shipped to a warehouse in HK, sold and shipped back)

  2. Squander Two says:

    I’m sure it is inflated, but the fact is that there are people doing this for a living. If you don’t have to create the stuff, you can of course make far more money than those who do, because you can sell limitless amounts of it.

  3. Squander Two says:

    It strikes me that this is the huge advantage of building shops into the OS. Most Kindle owners, faced with the choice between clicking a couple of buttons on the Kindle itself or surfing to some other site on a different machine aren’t going to go to all that trouble to save a pound or two. The Kindle Fire will no doubt do the same thing for films.

  4. Hunnymonster says:

    Same as some people won’t walk 200 yards to another shop to buy a physical item for less… case in point over Christmas the boy wanted to spend some of his Christmas cash on a PS3 game, so we went to a shop (HMV actually) and the game was £42, I’d already looked before we left and it was between £15 & £20 online so for the instant gratification I was content to pay a premium… not 100-200% premium. Went to another store less than 3 minutes walk away and there it is, self-same game for £18… you can guess where it was bought – but we saw people in the first shop actually parting with folding money willingly at the higher price.

    No wonder people are in debt – they might as well stand in the street setting fire to £5 notes!

  5. Hunnymonster says:

    Of course – I’m not defending the piratical ones at all, but the enforcement in no way helps itself when it inflates the loss – both by using the fabled “every hooky copy is a sale lost” and multiplying it by the list price (which virtually nobdoy pays) model.

    Of course £50k loss to pirates is far more attention grabbing than “possible £5k loss probably more like £2k really”.

  6. Gary says:

    It’s the old end justifies the means argument: if exaggerating like fuck is the only way to get the results we want, let’s fucking exaggerate :)

  7. Gary says:

    I think there are reasons over and above pure prices – you might want to support tax-paying high street shops rather than tax-avoiding online ones, for example, and as you say there’s a premium for instant gratification – but you’re right, I do think people are often unaware of just how badly they’re being stuffed in the high street. It’s not always the retailers’ fault, though: the cost of being there has rocketed in recent years.

    I do think the cost of new games is why there’s such a thriving pre-owned market. I wonder how many more copies they’d sell if the prices weren’t so silly, especially when so many games are targeted at young, skint teenagers.

  8. Gary says:

    Yes, definitely. My time is valuable. I’m not going to fanny around on the pirate bay when the legal version is there, cheap and simple to buy.

  9. Hunnymonster says:

    Agree that there are other considerations than purely price – but when you’re talking about HMV-in-the-street and HMV.com as being in competition that’s plainly bonkers – as I mentioned I’m content to pay a premium for instant gratification (or more instant by paying for expedited delivery) – I’m not prepared to have my wallet pillaged and it makes me wonder who these people are…

    Mind you when I worked in retail as a “Saturday Boy” (both selling and doing some of the repairs) at Tandy (remember them) some of the customers that came in, I used to wonder how they functioned in society on a day-to-day basis :)

  10. Squander Two says:

    Yes. There are a lot of things I like about actual shops which the online experience can’t emulate — and vise versa, of course. I really don’t like the idea of going into a record shop and using a listening post to give a record a listen and then going home and buying it online. On the other hand, there is only so much premium you can charge for that before I abandon my principles because you’re taking the piss.

  11. Hunnymonster says:

    And you don’t get cooties and contact with other people’s earwax from the listening post headphones at home either ;)

  12. Hunnymonster says:

    I only ever speak for myself… but *you* might be getting cooties and someone else’s earwax in your ear next time you use a listening post :D

  13. Gary says:

    Remember, though, that until the rules change this year many online operations are based in jersey so they don’t have VAT. It doesn’t explain all of the price differences – the ceiling is about £18, so it doesn’t apply to most games – but it does account for a huge chunk of cd and DVD prices.

  14. Tony Kiernan says:

    So, you’re suggesting that going after the facilitators/advertisers rather than, say, Megaupload? Interesting…

    (I don’t even know if there were ads on Megupload)

  15. Gary says:

    I honestly don’t know what the answer is. SOPA wanted to cut off sites’ ad networks and payment processors, as well as blocking at domain level, which seems way OTT to me, and I think megaupload demonstrates that existing laws are perfectly capable of being used to catch the really big players.

    Ultimately, I think, the war on piracy is like the war on drugs: expensive and futile. Until we accept that, we’re going to keep on fannying around with lobbyist-driven nonsense that doesn’t stop the problem but that does cause all kinds of collateral damage.

    Maybe the answer is to decriminalise file sharing/downloading and to create a rights body for royalties, like ALCS or PLR, with a small levy on ISPs. Those organisations pay me money for photocopying rights and library lending respectively, and while it isn’t much it’s better than nothing. That’s one reason I think iTunes Match is a step in the right direction: sure, it can legitimise your pirate downloads, but at least you pay something for it.

    Basically I’m suggesting an online PRS, with sampling stats from the likes of Netflix, Spotify, etc.

    There are loads of problems with that idea, but it’d mean ISPs weren’t having to dick about filtering sites or dealing with copyright industry complaints.

    Incidentally, did you see the MPAA guy threatening politicians and basically admitting to bribery? “Those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.”

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