Future Tense: Piracy Revisited

Alex Castle

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about piracy.

I said that the RIAA and the MPAA had forgotten what business they’re in.  They think they’re in the business of selling discs.  They’ve forgotten that they’re in the business of delivering entertainment.

In the comment section that followed the piece, a poster identified as Mark17 asked:  “Why should I pay for music, movies, or software when I can get them for free?”

I’m going to answer that question, Mark17.  But I don’t think you’re going to like the answer.

First, send me your address.

I’m going to walk into your house/condo/apartment/trailer uninvited.  I’m going to go to your fridge.  I’m going to take out the steak you were saving for Sunday barbecue and grill it for myself.  I’m going to help myself to a couple of bottles of beer and the chocolate ice cream in the freezer too.  On my way out, I’ll take a few books from your shelves, maybe some DVDs I’d like to watch, and I’ll take your MP3 player too.  Maybe I’ll pick up your car keys and drive off in your 72 Pinto, if I’m feeling suicidal.

And no, you can’t complain.  Why should I pay for your property when I can take it for free?

What’s that you say, Mr. Mark17?  That I’m stealing from you?  That’s funny you should say that.

When you download Star Trek, Season II, Episode 42, you’re stealing from me.  When you download the John Cusack film, Martian Child, you’re stealing from me.  When you use uTorrent to download the David Gerrold Folder via isohunt or Pirate Bay, you’re stealing from me.

See, I’m entitled to residuals from scripts I’ve written or stories I’ve sold to movies and television.  I’m entitled to royalties on the books I’ve written.  When you download that stuff — “for free” as you put it — you’re stealing from me.  You’re taking the money out of my wallet.  You’re taking a piece of my income.  You’re taking the food out of my fridge.

The person who uploaded it did so without permission.  When you download it, you’re receiving stolen property.
It isn’t “free.”  It’s stealing.

Most of the people who answered you in the subsequent comments understood that.  Hell, even my son learned that lesson by the time he was nine—and he had an impulse-control problem.

I’ve been involved in this discussion about how computers will affect copyrights for more than thirty years—ever since the earliest days of usenet. I’ve heard all the justifications for file-sharing other people’s copyrighted material, including my twp favorites:  “You should be grateful!  I’m helping you get better known!”  and “Well, all you guys are rich!”  (Hello?  Are you Robin Hood now?)

My point, two weeks ago, wasn’t that stealing was justifiable.  It was that the producers of books and music, TV and movies, are wasting too much money chasing after file-sharers.  It would be a far better investment of their time and energy to create online distribution channels much more attractive than illegal file-downloading.  The Kindle and the Nook and the iPad are all good examples.  So are Zune and iTunes and Netflix.  I don’t have to worry about downloading malware and I’m guaranteed to get a high quality download.

Okay, now that I’ve made that point, there is one point I want to revisit.  I touched on it a couple months ago, but it’s worth a second look.

Back in the late seventies and early eighties, the most popular word processing program was a thing called WordStar.  It ran on CP/M.  Later, it was ported to DOS.  The first version ran in less than 64K of RAM (including operating system), but it allowed you to work on documents much larger than 64K because it was designed like a Tardis.  It was larger on the inside than it was on the outside.  Once you learned it’s control-key combinations, you could move through a file like chili through a baby.

Throughout its life, WordStar was also the most pirated program of any kind.  (Except maybe DOS itself.)  There was no copy protection in those days, no serial numbers.  So you could copy a program onto a floppy, copy it onto another machine, and go to work.  I think, and I’m not the only one who thinks this, that the widespread copying of WordStar also contributed to its success—it made it a standard.  Everyone knew how to use it and most documents being passed around were in WordStar format, so you needed WordStar to access them.

Every time WordStar came out with a valuable upgrade, I think a lot of those people with copies they’d borrowed or been given or helped themselves to, found it was easier to pay for an upgrade than look for another copy.  I think that as a lot of students moved into jobs, they had their employers buy them copies.  I think that there was a significant relationship between WordStar’s profitability and the number of free copies floating around.

It’s worth noting that today, Photoshop is one of the most pirated pieces of software in the world—if not the most.  It’s also one of the best-selling.  Is there a connection?  I think so.  Photoshop is the standard.  Nobody else can get real traction against Adobe’s star product.  Does that mean Adobe should condone illegal downloading?  Hell, no.  But there are more hackers and crackers and downloaders out there than there are geniuses at Adobe.  I think it’s in Adobe’s best interests to focus on making their products better and not inconveniencing the customers who pay the bills.

Just like WordStar, every eighteen months, Adobe issues a significant next-generation upgrade.  And I suspect that every eighteen months, as a lot of dabblers become serious users, they’re going to want a legal copy, with all the extras and benefits that come with it.

This is why Adobe, and a lot of other companies too, make trial versions of their software available online. It’s to give you an experience of the program, enough to encourage you to want to become a paying customer.  I just wish it were a three month window instead of 30-days.  30-days isn’t enough time for me to get hooked.  Three months is enough time to develop a serious addiction.

But it’s a different issue with books and movies.

Most books are read-once.  Most movies are view-once.  Most television shows too.  So once you’ve read the book or viewed the download, you’re pretty much done.  There’s not a lot of incentive to go out and pay for a copy.  The author is out of luck.
Now, I suppose that if you were to download and read two or three David Gerrold novels from the internet, it might inspire you to go to a bookstore and see if there are any more — but it might equally inspire you to go back to the internet and look for the next books in the series too.  And as much as I appreciate the public library effect of the internet—at least the public library pays for their copies.

I get emails, several every day, asking me for another Star Wolf novel, another book in the Dingilliad, and please please please will you finish A Method For Madness?  My big fear is that after I’ve spent six months or two years or seventeen years working on a book that’s so important to me that it’s worth that personal investment of time—that before I and my publishers can make any money off it—you and all the other little Mark17s in the world will have downloaded it “for free” as you put it, destroying any chance I might have of putting a little more cash into my retirement account.

So, here’s the deal, Mark17 — the next time you think you’re getting something for free, you might want to stop and remember that there are real human beings behind the music and books and movies you’re downloading.  It’s not “free.”  It never was.

That’s just the excuse you make to yourself to avoid having to deal with the hole you just carved into your own integrity.  But you and I both know, you’re still a thief.

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, www.gerrold.com

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