Actually, the issue isn’t piracy. It’s copyright law.
But let me backtrack a bit.
I’ve gotten several emails from one of the regular readers of this column, pointing out to me that writing is just typing, it’s not real work. Real work involves shovels and hammers and paint brushes. Real men do real work. Real men roll up their sleeves and build things. Real men sweat.
And while I might argue with the idea that the hyperactivity of a person’s sweat glands confers some nobility, I would never dismiss the value of actual physical labor. I put myself through school working in restaurants, everything from waiting on tables to washing dishes. I sorted mail for the post office. I learned important lessons about service. I took on other jobs as well to keep myself alive. I’d come home tired, but almost every night I sat down to write.
I had a typewriter (a big mechanical thing, kind of like a computer keyboard connected directly to a printer but without a CPU, you made it work by physical labor) and almost every day I would hammer at it for hours, not getting up from the desk until I was too exhausted to roll another piece of paper into it or until my back hurt so much I could barely make it to bed. When I sold my first novel, When HARLIE Was One, it was a validation that all that typing hadn’t been worthless.
Actually, I didn’t ‘sell’ the novel. That’s a semantically misleading construction. I licensed it. The novel belonged to me. It still does today. Good or bad, it is my intellectual property. Ballantine Books paid for the privilege of publishing, distributing, and selling copies of the book.
And even that’s semantically misleading, because in truth, Ballantine Books and I were in a limited-partnership. They would print the book and distribute it, they would collect the money from the distributors, and they would give me an agreed-upon percentage. So in truth, they never paid me a nickel. What they did was offer me an advance against my share of the royalties. I wouldn’t see any more royalties until the book earned enough to pay back that advance.
Book publishing still works pretty much the same way today. I write a book, I take it to a publisher, they offer me an advance, they print copies and distribute, and we both pray to whatever deities or universal powers we hold dear that we will have a chance to sell enough hard copies (or Nook or Kindle downloads) to justify the effort, before the whole thing leaks out onto the internet via someone who thinks it’s so good he just has to share it with everybody—and thinks he’s doing everybody a favor. Or just because he wants the cachet of having been the first to upload it. (Like that means something?)
See, here’s the thing. The book belongs to me. It’s mine. I created it. It’s my intellectual property. You can buy a copy, but what you own is the right to have a copy. You’re not buying ownership of the content, you’re paying for access to the content. You’re buying admission.
Copyright law protects the right of the copyright owner to determine distribution of his intellectual property. He can license the production of copies or he can donate it to the public domain and give it away for free, but the decision on where and how to distribute his work and how much he wants to be paid for access to it is his decision, no one else’s.
When you buy a copy of the work, there is an implied contract. (I’m not going to do the sidebar on contract law. You’ll have to trust me on this one.) That contract entitles you to ownership of the copy and access to the intellectual property contained within. Nothing else.
When you buy a CD, you’re paying for access to the music on that CD. When you buy a movie ticket, you’re paying for the privilege of sitting in the theater and seeing the movie. When you buy a book, you’re buying access to the intellectual property within. You’re paying for ownership of a specific copy, not ownership of the content. You’re buying a specifically-defined access to a specific intellectual property.
Whether it’s a hardcopy or a digital copy, the principle is the same. You’re licensing personal access for personal use.
Personal use includes fair use. Fair use includes making a backup CD so you can play the music in your car or ripping the disc to your MP3 player. Fair use includes lending a book to a friend. Fair use includes watching or sharing the DVD with family members. Fair use includes repeat readings, multiple listenings, second and third and tenth viewings. Fair use even includes reselling the physical book or disc on eBay.
Fair use does not include copying the material and selling copies to others. Fair use does not include copying parts of the material into something else and selling copies to others. Fair use does not include making copies to give away to others. Fair use does not include uploading digital copies to the internet for other people to download. Fair use does not include anything that would hurt the ability of the copyright owner to control the distribution of his intellectual property. Fair use does not include anything that would hurt his ability to license the material as he chooses and receive fair compensation in return.
As I said a few weeks ago, the internet destroys/transforms everything it touches. The internet represents a tectonic shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance.
Before the internet, the distribution of books and music and movies required the investment of physical resources. Trees had to be chopped down and turned into paper and cardboard and cellulose. Oil had to be processed into vinyl and plastic. Printing presses had to roll. Record stampers had to hammer out disks. Spools of celluloid ribbons had to roll through vats of chemicals. More oil had to be burned to generate the electricity to manage all these processes of production. More raw materials had to be consumed to package all these things. And even more oil would be burned transporting all these things to the stores and theaters, where people might burn more oil for the opportunity to trade paper money and metal coins for access to the experiences encoded on the paper or vinyl or plastic.
That’s a culture of scarcity. The cost of books and movies, records and tapes and CDs was determined to a large degree by the cost of materials and manufacture and shipping. The per-unit profit on any individual item wasn’t enough to justify the expense. The retail channel depended on mass marketing and sales. It sort of worked. When it worked well, it worked very well.
Today, we are shifting to a culture of abundance. A digital copy is identical to the original. A musician can record a song, make it available on the internet, and with the exception of the electricity involved, no physical resources are consumed in the distribution of the music. Textbooks and manuals can be downloaded to Kindles and whole forests can be saved. Movies can be distributed to theaters as digital files, instead of as expensive ($3K per copy) 35mm prints.
Sidebar: Somebody accused me recently of wasting paper every time I print a script. I had to laugh out loud. I’ve been working on the same ream of paper for almost a year now. The only time I print anything out is when I need a copy of a flight itinerary or Mapquest directions. I think I sent a letter last month. For most of the past decade, just about every story, article, column, or book I’ve turned in has been an electronic file sent by email. And most of my personal papers have been digitized as well. I can’t speak for others, but I’m well on my way toward a paperless office. When my printer broke, I went three months before I needed to replace it.
A couple of months ago, I began the process of preparing When HARLIE Was One and a couple of other out-of-print works for electronic distribution. I didn’t have a digital copy and I didn’t really feel like scanning and doing OCR on a 400 page paperback book. So I went online and downloaded a copy of my own book. The irony of this has not escaped me.
But this culture of abundance and easy access carries a hidden cost. Electronic distribution encourages us to disrespect the value of intellectual property. It’s just too easy to copy and send a file. Near-instantaneous downloading is such a convenient access, we take it for granted that information should be easily available. The technological ease of digital distribution has created a situation where users are at odds with owners of intellectual property.
Copyright law has not kept up with this situation. Even worse, the big distributors of books and music and movies are becoming copyright extortionists. Example: Disney has always been very aggressive about protecting its intellectual property and I can’t blame them for that, but sometimes they’ve missed the point. (As I noted in a previous column, back in the seventies, they sued Sony, fearing that the Betamax VCR would cause widespread copyright infringement and cost them millions of dollars. The Supreme Court ruled that even if some people might use tape machines illegally, that still did not justify the denial of fair use rights—and they did Disney a big favor. The sale of pre-recorded videotapes for VHS and Betamax put hundreds of millions of dollars in Disney’s coffers. Sales of DVD and Blu-ray discs have become a critically important source of revenue for all the studios.)
More recently, Disney lobbied hard for copyright extensions to keep Mickey Mouse’s first films from sliding into public domain. And while I can certainly understand the corporate intention to protect their most popular character, the end result has also been to lock up every other work from that period as well. Many of those works are now copyright orphans, floating in a legal limbo because there are no surviving copyright-holders.
The intention of copyright law, and patent law as well, is to give the creator/inventor/producer of the work a time-specific opportunity to earn a fair profit from his labors. Yes, information wants to be free. Yes, innovation needs to be shared. I know all that, you don’t need to remind me again—but if artists and innovators have no opportunity to be fairly rewarded from their work then we all suffer.
This is not only about having an incentive to create, although money has always been a good motivator—it’s more importantly about creators and innovators having the resources to keep creating and innovating. Denial of profits means a denial of assets for continued production.
I can’t speak for any other writer, artist, musician, filmmaker, or inventor, but it’s been my experience that the money we make from the work we license almost always gets reinvested into creating the next project on the to-do list of dreams.
David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website,