Search This Blog

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Anti-Piracy Legislation: An Alternative Viewpoint

Right now, the internet is flooded with opinions about SOPA, PIPA, & OPEN (potential anti-piracy legislation), and bloggers are posting numerous viewpoints. So I'm not going to use this space to support or attack any particular, legislative position. Rather, I would prefer to talk about an alternative way of looking at the problem... 

First, let me begin by saying that I firmly believe the vast majority of people are good at heart. Most people are honest and want to be kind: They try to do what's right, even if they don't always agree on what that is. What is sometimes lacking is awareness and a clear road map outlining the way... We all remember the epic shift in attitude that took place regarding cigarettes, smoking, and tobacco following a long, intensive, advertising campaign about the possible harms of nicotine. It effectively took smoking from "cool" to "not cool" nationwide. In other words, it changed the way people thought about smoking, which then changed consumer behavior. 

Well, I happen to think the same thing is possible with the issue of piracy: that drastically increasing awareness (thereby appealing to what is right and good in all of us) may be just as powerful as enacting laws to punish offenders.

Let's take some of the most common reasons consumers give for purchasing pirated materials:

1. Saving money: "The  product was too expensive!" 
2. Entitlement: In this age of information, if it's out there, the consumer has a right to it.
3. Convenience: It's quicker and easier to download the pirated material. 
4. Anonymity: The consumer sees herself as "just one person" in a vast sea of people, so what difference does it make?
5. Sanction: "Everyone else is doing it." 

In a world where the HUGE success stories (the NYT Best Selling Author, the Emmy nominee, or the Grammy winner) are often front and center, it's easy for consumers to get an unbalanced picture of the norm and lose touch on an individual, human level. 

For instance, how many readers know that it takes the average author (writing part-time) up to one-year to write a book? (Sure, some books are written in mere weeks while others take years, and first drafts are finished much faster than subsequent revisions; but as a whole, that's the average.) Based on this, let's apply 10 hours per week as our definition of "part-time" and multiply that by 52 weeks: we end up with 520 hours to complete an average book.  Since the average author makes an average 6% royalty on a paperback, the pay comes to about 40 cents per book...or .00076923 cents per hour! No, I'm not kidding. (Again, some authors make a LOT more while others make substantially less; but very, VERY few authors actually earn a living from their writing, alone. And that's just a fact).

Now let's go back to the guy (or gal) who just spent 520 hours finishing a book: If the book sales 500 copies (most first, eBooks won't), then the author made .38 cents per hour.  Now, I don't know about you, but unless you really, really love to do something, it hardly makes sense to work for .38 cents per hour! (Smiles.) And, honestly, at that rate, even a very bad author probably deserves his or her royalties...(smiles again).

But back to my original theory: that the majority of people are good at heart and try to do the right thing. Assuming this to be true, let's now imagine a young man working on an auto-assembly line: He makes $197.60 for 520 hours of work (remember, we're using the average author's .38 cents an hour for our analogy), and his boss suddenly refuses to pay him, even though he's already completed the work.  Few people would be okay with that scenario. So where then is the disconnect when it comes to the author (or other creator)? 

Is it possible that people see the auto-worker as a down-to-earth persona whom they relate to, while they view the author as a more distant persona, existing on the other side of a computer, whom they have very little in common with? And if so, then how do we close this gap? 

Imagine seeing the following ads or commercials on a regular basis:

1. A woman walks into a department store. She sees that her favorite jeans are way too expensive, so she simply steals them. (Piracy reason #1: The  product was too expensive!) 

2. A man is shown (hour-after-hour, day-after-day, for one year) working on a painting. He puts it in a local art show, and a spectator takes it just because it's there. (Piracy justification #2: The consumer has a right to it because it's out there). 

3. When asked why he didn't buy the painting, the spectator explains, "It was quicker and easier to take it." (Piracy reason #3) 

4. The same spectator makes several reproductions of the art and either sales it cheap to strangers or gives it away free to friends. All in all, two-hundred people end up with the painting. (Piracy reason #4: Anonymity: Since each of the two-hundred recipients thought, I'm only one person; what difference does it make? -- no one took responsibility.  

#5. Finally, go back to the woman in the department store. Only this time, imagine fifty shoppers running up and down the aisles shoplifting their favorite jeans. (Piracy reason #5: Everyone else is doing it.)

Okay, so I think I made my point: The vast majority of people would see at least something wrong with each of those scenarios, so why then do so many people more-or-less ignore online piracy? Partly, for the same reason the average person used to think smoking wasn't harmful: because they only have half of the picture. True morality is not based on the fear of reprisals or punishment; it is a form of internal reasoning which motivates a person to do the right thing because it is right. Not because they might get caught. 

Does this form of moral reasoning exist in everyone? No, it doesn't (just check out my Dark Fantasy series), but it does exist in my opinion.  Which begs the following questions: 

  • How many people know when a work they've purchased is pirated? 
  • How many people can tell a pirate-site from a legitimate one?  
  • How many people have actually paused to think about the consequences of a single purchase? And why should they, from their point of view?
  • How many people feel compelled to say to a friend, "Hey, you know what? That's really not cool.  You should pay for the book (movie or song). One person does matter, and this is why..."

You might be thinking, very few people would actually say that to a friend. And I kind of agree...for now.  But I bet the tobacco industry thought that smoking was untouchable, too, fifty years ago: Wouldn't it be amazing if someday soon, a consumer going to an illegal piracy site was met with the same censure and distaste by his or her peers as someone who decided to chain-smoke in the middle of a public restaurant?  

Are education and awareness the only way to achieve that end? Probably not. Even the tobacco industry was eventually regulated, and fortunately, we were able to come up with laws that most (not all) could live with. But that's not what keeps the average person from lighting up in a restaurant today...think about it.

What does it take to make a society as a whole change the way they think about an issue?

Just an alternative perspective.


  1. I completely agree with your point of view and I personally would never pirate anything. For that matter I wouldn't even know how to begin to pirate a movie or a book, not to mention I would just feel guilty. I realize that there are a lot of people out there that would not feel the same guilt as I would. With that being said, my concern with SOPA, PIPA and OPEN is that they could possibly be going over board on the restrictions with their intent to protect the creator of the original art, be it music, books, paintings, etc. If there are any articles that can break down the bills to (sp?)layman's terms and answer my questions at the same time then I would be more than happy to read them. Unfortunately the only articles that I have found so far have only created more questions and frustration.

  2. I agree, Heather. There is a lot to be concerned about --and careful with -- in drafting legislation. That's why I would rather place my focus on a more positive aspect: educating people to make better choices on their own. :-)

  3. you make a great point, i bought your books off of amazon, by the way. what i don't like is how some ebooks you can't share,if i buy a book, and my wife has a kindle, why wouldn't the authors allow sharing?

  4. Very interesting point :-) (And thank you, BTW). I think one thing that is often misunderstood is that the creative process (writing a book) is controlled by the author, but once it is "under contract" for publication, all marketing aspects (& rights) belong to the publisher. Authors actually have NO say in pricing, available formats, where the books are sold, or how (a large majority have little to no say in their covers or even their titles! The latter can be changed at the publisher's discretion). That said, that might be a good point to take up with device owners such as Kindle & Nook: perhaps the idea of a "family plan" where one household can share downloads (kind of like being able to put purchased software on multiple computers owned by the same person).

  5. Great post Tessa! I agree all-around. DeAnna :)

  6. I agree with the more positive aspect as well!

  7. Oh and Nook does have a lending program but only certain books are on the list through Barnes and Noble