On Being A Professional Pirate

I’ve been paying particular attention to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios v. Grokster case on whether or not file-swapping services are at fault if their users decide to download copyrighted files. Same thing VCR manufacturers had to go through ages ago. And Grokster should continue to get the same verdict that the VCR manufacturers got.

It’s all about being a professional pirate.

As someone who knows a number of professional pirates, that small group of people who haven’t had to pay for a CD in several years and have a tetrabyte of computer space loaded with everything from feature-length first-run movies to porn, I can tell you that they’re largely a very fair group of people. They’ve downloaded Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and had such an incredible respect for the game that most of them went out and bought it.

I’ve been file swapping for years. It’s how I discovered Ani DeFranco, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Paul Westerberg, The Secret Machines. I got a hold of a handful of tracks from each, then went out to grab a CD or two or three.

In fact, the only artists who have to “worry” about file swapping are the crappy ones. The ones who put out entire albums that only have one snappy radio song that gets so much play that you figure you’ll listen to it until you get sick of it and then delete it. Highly combustible. So you grab your sticky pop crap from Ashlee Simpson or Britney Spears. Repeat until sick, then never listen to again. These are the sorts of people who should really only be making money from touring anyway. They’re entertainers, not singers, not artists.

As a writer, I used to be a violent defender of copyright. I was of the Harlan Ellison school of copyright: don’t steal my stuff, you bitches! Don’t post it anywhere! Don’t give it your friends! Squeeze out every dime!

My view changed in South Africa, when I realized that music, books, media, wasn’t cheap. And what that meant was that 80% of the population of an entire country was pretty much denied access to 80% of that country’s media, and the media of the world. And all of the thoughts, ideas, and feelings those media contained.

And I saw that as doing the world a vast, vast disservice. Reserving all the knowledge in the world for a handful of elite.

In fact, this is why India doesn’t really have copyright laws. China loves to steal stuff all the time. The idea is that by putting a monetary value to thoughts and ideas, you’re limiting the dissemenation of those ideas. It’s like education: it should be free for all.

However, all that said, I’m very clear on one point: if somebody reposts something of mine; a short story, blog entries, I want them credited to me, and I don’t want that person making money off my words. That’s it. That’s my only rule. Swap my stuff around like crazy. That’s why it’s here. But you better not be selling pamphlets full of it without my permission, and you better not be saying you wrote it. That’s a matter of politeness. It’s just rude to steal shit and claim it’s yours. Basic English 101 stuff.

As a writer, I think, your ultimate goal is audience. Do I want to make money writing? Do I want to get paid for it? Would I love a book contract that would pay off my student loans and pay for grad school? You fucking bet I do.

But I will not jealously hoard ideas. I will not demand that everybody at LJ pay me money for quoting my posts or stories in their entirety. In fact, my deepest thrill yesterday was backtracking to those LJs where they’d included huge excerpts or entire posts and as I’d scroll through them I’d go, “Wow. This is really well written. Whoever wrote this… oh, shit, that was *me*.”

I love the internet. I love that it allows for the free flow of information and ideas. Yea, sure, it ends up being a little bit like the game “telephone,” when you put it “Lucy likes little trucks with lots of ducks,” and it came out, “Oh, fuck,” at the other end.

But there’s something incredibly powerful about reaching a thousand people (or ten thousand or ten million) freely. If you’re any good, you can find a way to support yourself that way, as many writers and bloggers do, either by selling their books and stories via their blog, or fundraising for site upkeep.

And when you talk about swapping music, movies… The Lord of the Rings was not harmed in any way by file swapping. Those pirates who have the whole version on their computer with the 1 tetrabyte of space have also bought all three of the extended editions of the film.

What file swapping forces the media to do is be better. It makes their art worth paying for. I just put down $30 for Catherynne Valente’s The Labyrinth, and $30 for Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell. And not only did I pay to buy Good People Who Love Bad News, but Jenn picked up her own copy as well… even though we’d all but collected the entirety of the album through other means.

When shit is really fucking good, you’ll put down the money for it.

When it’s not… well, those are the people who are really, really worried right now.

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