Ebooks, Copyright, Piracy

What, if anything, do we do about those big bad companies that sue Internet Robin Hoods and cute college students for giving somebody else's stuff away?
06/20/2008 01:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Okay, world, what do we do about copyright? What, if anything, do we do about those big bad companies that sue Internet Robin Hoods and cute college students for giving somebody else's stuff away? Hooray, we say, screw copyright, stick it to the man. But then since when are writers, musicians, or artists "the man"?

David Pogue asked Do Electronic Versions Deter Piracy in yesterday's New York Times. That followed his Can e-Publishing Overcome Copyright Concerns from late May. The first post tells a sad story: Twice he sent unprotected ebook files to people who said they were blind. Both times those books ended up widely pirated soon after. The second post is about the comments, comments in all directions, from do the Kindle to right on to oh come on to oh shut up (or so it seemed, as I read through them). 

This is the same David Pogue, NYTimes tech columnist, who did the great "I Want an iPhone" video (iPhone: the Musical), setting the standard for Internet tech write-reviewer-commentator parody. Or, even more to the point, the equally great TED Music Wars video. (I've put both of those at the bottom of this post, for entertainment value, and I hope with proper respect to copyright; I'm using the YouTube versions, posted by copyright owners, with embed code, and, I believe, permission to embed.)

In yesterday's post he links to Must We Give away Digital Creative Works?, by John Cadell. He calls it "Well argued," and I agree.

There are some truly troubling sides to this many-sided argument. Serious people who say copyright is dead and authors should write for free; or that authors should give away their books and make money selling other stuff (t-shirts? speakers' fees?); or that books are too expensive, or too exclusive.

In the earlier post he quotes the following "Slashdot" argument from author Steven Poole, in Free Your Mind:

I'll call it, for short, "the Slashdot argument". It says that books, music, films, software and so on ought to be freely distributed to anyone who wants them, simply because they can be freely distributed. What is the writer or musician to do, though, if she can't earn money from her art? Simple, says the Slashdotter: earn your money playing live (if you're one of those musicians who plays live), or selling T-shirts or merchandise, or providing some other kind of "value-added" service. Many such arguments seem to me to be simple greed disguised in high-falutin' idealism about how "information wants to be free". Perhaps it's not empty pedantry to point out that "information" doesn't want anything in and for itself. The information in which humans traffic is created by humans. And most information-creating humans need to earn dollars or yuan to survive.

In any case, I think the Slashdot argument can actually be disposed of rapidly with one rhetorical question, as follows.

Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?

Didn't think so.

I have to say, I'm biased. I'm one of those authors ... you know, the people whose work gets stolen? David Poole's entry into this issue was his experiment with giving away one of his books and asking for PayPal donations. Unfortunately no, not successful. Far from it. 

And I've also experimented, put some skin in this game, meaning, in this case, I've purposely given some of my stuff away. Not just this blog, and the other blogs I do, and a few hundred articles on bplans.com. I've been giving one of my books away for a year or so now. You can download the PDF of Hurdle: the Book on Business Planning at www.bplans.com. And at the present I'm giving away my newest, The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan, at planasyougo.com. Results are mixed, and, for that matter, motives aren't all that altruistic either, because people who like the books can buy Business Plan Pro, and I get a royalty on the software. That's another related story, because although Palo Alto Software donates lots of copies to worthy causes like Small Business Development Centers, the software sells for about $99, and through the serial number system we've seen more than 100,000 attempts (and nobody knows how many successes) at hacked or pirated copies.

My kids thought I was completely obsolete, about 10 years ago, when I insisted that there'd be no Napster in our house. Remember Napster? I was delighted when iTunes and the subscription version of Napster came along so that I could give them a better answer than "because it's stealing". (That is, "Okay, I'll pay for it then.")

And then there's this viewpoint, from a comment on Steven Poole's post:

What I don't get is that why creative professionals, artist, writers, record companies, publishing, newspapers etc are yelling that everyone else, the consumers, should come up with some new shiny business model that would rescue them. It's your goddam business, it's your job to figure that out. If my business was about to die, I wouldn't count on some weed smoking artist's help. You cannot blame it on technology or your customers. I don't even believe that someone can come up with some kind of scheme in a economic vacuum. You have to think and try things out.

Things that can be copied, will be copied, and their value will come near to zero. Fortunately there is lots of things and attributes that cannot be copied. Check Kevin Kelly's writings.

I have no way to conclude this piece, on this troubling copyright problem. I'd like some snappy irony. Actually, that Napster thing was supposed to be snappy irony, but I don't think it worked. So instead, I'm embedding the two David Pogue videos I mentioned above. If for some reason (it's not me) you can't see the following two videos, the links are in the third paragraph, you can click to see the source videos.