Why Piracy is Never Okay

bigstock-Me-thinks-I-m-a-pirate-6100732-1Since the bloggers on this site are mostly authors who no doubt believe in the concept of copyright (because presumably they’d like to get paid for their work), I thought I’d go through the arguments that get surfaced every time I point out that piracy is a form of petty theft. Here are the arguments, in all their illogical and fanciful glory:

1. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because I wouldn’t buy this content anyway.”

This is like saying it’s okay to steal a car and drive somewhere because if you had to rent or by a car you would have stayed home.

2. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because I wanted to check it out before buying it.”

The Internet is chockablock with reviews, comments, samples and trailers–all offered legally for free–to help you decide if you want to buy something.

3. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because the copyright owners are charging too much.”

By this logic, you should be able to stay at the Ritz Carleton for $1 if you think that $500 is too much. Pricing is the seller’s decision, not the buyer’s.

4. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because it’s free publicity for the copyright owner.”

Yes, it’s true that unauthorized copies can create buzz. However, whether to offer copies for free is the decision of the copyright holder, not you.

5. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because I subsequently buy stuff from the copyright holder.”

This is like saying if you shoplift something today, it’s okay as long as you buy something else from that store tomorrow.

6. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because big media CEOs are paid too much.”

News flash: the CEOs are going to get paid regardless. The person who actually gets financially hurt by piracy is always the content creator.  It’s in their contracts.

7. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because it’s so easy to make copies.”

Just because stealing is easy doesn’t make it right. Hey, stealing candy from a baby is easy, too. Just grab it and run.

8. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because I bought it and it’s mine.”

Unless you bought the copyright, all that you’ve bought is a single copy of the content. You can sell that copy, but making another copy is stealing.

9. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because I shouldn’t have to pay for another copy of something I already own.”

Once again, you do NOT own the content, unless you purchased the copyright.  If you want another copy of the content, you must pay for it. If you don’t, you’re stealing.

10. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because it costs nothing to make another copy.”

It may cost YOU nothing, but every unauthorized copy lessens the financial value of the copyright by making it less likely that a paid copy will be purchased.

11. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Say whut?  By making an unauthorized copy, you’re stealing something of value from the copyright holder.  You are most definitely hurting somebody.

12. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because DRM is such a hassle.”

Anything that prevents theft is always a hassle. Exploding tags in clothing stores are a hassle. Locks on car doors and houses are a hassle. Your point is…?

13. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because hackers will nullify any DRM scheme.”

DRM schemes combined with vigorous prosecution of site owners who make a profit from posting pirated copies can and does reduce piracy.

14. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because it’s the copyright owner’s fault that it’s not easy enough to buy the content.”

Excuse me? Not easy? Ever heard of Kindle, iBook, Nook, Kobo, etc.????  What you mean by “not easy” (of course) is “costs more than I want to pay.”

15. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because [successful author|musician|media company] has enough money.”

Yes, how DARE they make more money than you make… just because they entertain millions of people and bring additional happiness into their lives. Those a**holes.

16. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because hackers will always be able to make copies anyway.”

Yes, and burglars will always be able to break into some houses regardless of how secure we try to make them.  Your point is…?

17. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content  because I can’t find someplace to buy this content.”

Well, maybe whoever owns the content doesn’t want to put it online. Or doesn’t care.  Why would that make it okay to steal that content?

18. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because ‘information wants to be free.'”

Information doesn’t “want” anything. The people who use that stupid phrase are actually saying that they’d prefer that high quality information were available free to them. Such people undoubtedly also want free gourmet food, a free mansion and free designer clothes, and so forth.  They’re called freeloaders.

19. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because copyright is a bad idea that restrains creativity.”

If you think copyright law is bad, lobby to have it changed.  However, don’t be surprised if some people think you’re being mendacious and foolish.

20. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because ebooks should be treated exactly like printed books.”

And why should that be true, exactly?  Ebooks are NOT printed books.  They’re something quite different.  And sometimes, when you receive an ebook, you’re buying a limited license to the content which is different than buying a printed book. If you don’t like that or don’t think the contract is fair, your are free to go read something else. Your frustration does not give you the right to steal.

21. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because everybody does it.”

You and your chums may think piracy is normal behavior, but just because you lack ethics doesn’t mean that everybody else lacks them.

22. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because piracy eventually made the music business bigger.”

This is not at all true. Music piracy clobbered music industry revenues from recordings and destroyed the ability of mid-level musicians (the ones who can’t pull big audiences into concerts) to make a living with their music.

23. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because there’s nothing copyright holders can do except drop prices so low that it can compete with free.”

For all practical purposes, dropping prices may be all that we can do. That doesn’t make piracy okay, though, it just proves that piracy is hurting the copyright holder by forcing them to drop prices.

24. “It’s okay to pirate copyrighted content because I feel entitled to high quality content for free and am willing to steal in order to get it, but I’m a good person, so therefore it must be okay to pirate copyrighted content.”

This, of course, is the REAL translation of the previous 23 reasons.

I’ll end this post with this thought:

Integrity is measured by what you’ll do when nobody is watching and you won’t get caught. Everyone’s integrity has a price. Almost anyone (other than Jesus Christ maybe) would be tempted to steal $1b if there were no risk whatsoever. When you steal content, you’re setting the price of your integrity at few dollars.

And, frankly, that’s pitiful.

As per Steve’s request, if there are any comments to this post, I’ll restrain myself from making observations that might offend somebody’s delicate, shell-like ego.

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure. https://www.patreon.com/amazingstoriesmag


  1. Hmmm. It's an interesting concept, and I'd really need to know a lot more about the details. I'm not familiar with the details of the Canadian Songwriter's solution, so which has likely already addressed a number of the questions I'd have.

    On a purely practical level, there would be a wide variety of challenges to overcome, including (a) governance systems, (b) administration policies, (c) technology to ensure unambiguous measurement (i.e. minimize both false positives and false negatives). While these are all surmountable issues, their resolution would be non-trivial, subject to intense debate, and would contribute to the costs of the system's administration.

    The next question that comes to mind is one of ethics and sovereignty: does a pan-national organization have the right to inspect the digital communications of individuals in a particular nation? The civil liberties debate would be lively, to say the least.

    The process by which the cost per Internet bill would be determined would be quite difficult to design and administer so as to balance citizens' desires, ISP costs, and creator rights. How would the cost of this administration be apportioned between the participating nations? How would that cost be factored into the disbursement of revenues raised? How would the revenue be apportioned between elements of the traditional publishing revenue chain? (e.g. would agents get a cut?)

    This then brings us to the question of whether a pan-national organization has the right to increase the cost of (effectively tax) individual's access to a communications medium, particularly when we consider that this will disproportionately affect the poorer members of society.

    These are just my quick off-the-cuff questions. In an ideal world, these issues could probably all be figured out and resolved equitably.

    But in practice, I wouldn't hold my breath. 😉

  2. You are completely missing the point. I won't bore everyone, but you can find some basics at about.me/justinbeach. The point though is, even if you've worked in copyright law for the last 20 years, you still don't know enough. In addition you are belligerent, condescending and incapable of having a serious conversation. I was excited when Amazing Stories came online. I was hoping for a forum on science fiction/ speculative fiction – instead you seem intent on turning it into your own private soap box for you ill conceived notions of copyright. I have said, repeatedly, that I am done talking to you – if you reply to this or anything I say ever again I will simply vanish and give this site up as lost. It's not about copyright anymore, it's about you.

    1. I actually do feel bad that I clearly offended you. I became annoyed at your insistence that I'm ignorant about this subject matter when in fact I'm a subject matter expert. In addition, your snarky remark about my writing career was entirely out of line.

      As for this post being somehow representative of the wealth of content that's already been posted on this site, if you stop reading the site, it's your loss. This is MY post, it expresses MY opinion about a subject that concerns me deeply. It's one post; it's not the site.

      Could I be more diplomatic? Sure. I usually am. But frankly, I'm too angry about this issue to pull my punches. I deeply resent having my work stolen and I have little patience with people who use weak analogies and fuzzy thinking to justify it.

  3. Well, that's the third time you've referenced my putative experience on this subject. You want to play that game… fine.

    I have written professionally and extensively on the subject of piracy and the legal issues surrounding it. As proof of my long involvement with these issues, here's a link to a PDF of my groundbreaking investigative article on the subject:

    High-tech seas: Software piracy is linked to organized crime and terrorism.

    Over the past ten years, I've covered the Acacia patent war over streaming media, interviewed Microsoft's chief counsel on the company's plans to overcome online software piracy, and written extensively on how a subscription model changes how software companies must report their revenue.

    In 2007, I worked directly with the corporate lawyers at CBS to establish the ability to show non-satire fan films at official Star Trek conventions.

    Within the past year, I used the Chinese legal system to threaten action against a China-based ebook piracy site, an effort that was not only successful, but which demanded and recieved an apology. Here's the email (the name of the company redacted because I have no interest in giving them publicity):

    Sent: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 10:09 AM

    To: Geoffrey James

    Subject: Re: Copyright Infringement Notice

    Hi Geoffrey,

    We are sorry for your copyrighted work(s) is being made available

    for copying on our site. We will remove the copyright infringing

    material provided by user immediately.

    Yours sincerely,


    As for your lame attempt to somehow characterize my business writing negatively, yes, in addition to being a blogger on this site, I am also the author of one of the world's most popular business blogs as measured by pageviews and which has won awards from both the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

    Over the years, in addition to having 9 books published by the likes of Wiley, Random House and Penguin, I've written for Wired, Men's Health, Computerworld, Electronic Business, Forbes, and dozens of other publications. I have so many projects running in parallel that I have TWO literary agents.

    So, now, your turn. What are YOUR qualifications for writing about piracy? Other than having conversations with "literally thousands of people," that is.

  4. Justin said, " If I loan a neighbor a book and they read it once and return it is that piracy? Because if I make a digital copy, email it to that neighbor and they read it once and delete it that is definitely piracy."

    This all boils down to what is and isn't covered by "The First Sale Doctrine."

    According the "The First Sale Doctrine," when you buy a paper book, you are buying the paper, the glue, and the ink, NOT its contents. In other words, it is perfectly legal to sell the used paper book or loan it because it's a physical object. You cannot, however, copy the contents to print a paper book for sale or put the content online because the contents are copyrighted.

    Because it is only content, you don't buy a digital book. You license it. (Read the legalese that comes with most ebook distributor sites or with ereader hardware, and you'll find a statement to this effect.) The license states what the copyright owner will and won't allow, and most ebooks list what is and isn't allowed like printing a copy for individual use or allowing text-to-speech software. Some ebooks within closed systems like the Kindle, Nook, and most library systems allow loans under certain conditions. The copyright owner has agreed to these conditions.

    Justin said, "There are publishers who believe that selling a book at a used book store should be (but is not yet) an act of piracy under the law."

    Unless "The First Sale Doctrine" is repelled, that will never happen, and I doubt its repeal ever will despite what some publishers want.

    Justin said, "Under the rules of many current DRM programs you do not actually own the thing you pay to download, you own a license to it. So, for example, in a case in Germany iTunes noticed strange activity on a woman’s account and took away her access to everything she had paid for (several thousand dollars worth of media). Under the rules there that woman has to prove that she wasn’t doing anything illegal (not vice versa) before she can regain access."

    It is the "First Sale Doctrine" which prevents resale, NOT DRM which merely states the license terms. Like everything else in law, particularly here at the frontier of digital content, stupid things will happen like what happened to this woman, I'm afraid, but that gives no one an excuse to toss the law aside.

    If you don't like the law, live with it or get it repealed. That's the civilized thing to do.

    If you'd like to read the legalese on the subject, go to my article on "First Sale Doctrine" and follow the links to the Copyright Office documents.


    1. I've read it, I don't agree with it and am all for repealing it (as well as most of the copyright reforms passed in the last 15 years or so.) The problem isn't me though. As I said somewhere up above, I've been having this discussion (and working in media) since the late 90s. I've had copyright/internet conversations with literally thousands of people – authors, visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, journalists, TV people, agents, lawyers, publicists and (obviously) consumers, which includes everyone even if they are artists themselves.

      People, including most artists, do not get the current copyright law. They don't understand it. There are too many 'doctrines', exceptions, clauses, exemptions and reforms and they all change depending on which country you live in, which country the work was created in and (in the case of digital) which country the web site was housed in.

      Consumers don't sit down with a book of legalese and the remote control, just the remote. Because they've become confused they stopped following the debate, especially young people. They do what works for them and what is convenient and are almost or entirely ignorant of the whole debate.

      Until copyright achieves uniformity, is fair, reasonable, understandable and meshes with the way people use media – there is no debate and the longer it takes to get there the less likely it is that anything beyond the current status quo will ever take shape.

      1. You're conflating two entirely separate issues. The first issue is the boundries of fair use and the reuse of intellectual property to create new works. The other issue is piracy, which is the copying of entire copyrighted works. The former requires nuance and interpretation; the latter does not.

        People know that they're "getting away with something" when they download, for free, content that they otherwise be forced to purchase. The webmasters who profit from free downloading are fully aware that they're stealing something from the copyright owners.

        The only reason that there's a "debate" is because people like yourselves keep trying to argue that there's some a controversy surrounding piracy. There's not. It's HIGHLY illegal, a fact known by EVERYONE who EVER popped a DVD into a DVD player. Assuming they can read.

        The only controversy surrounding piracy is whether or not existing laws will be enforced and whether mechanisms will be put in place to make it more difficult to profit from piracy and make pirated material more difficult to obtain.

        As for your conversations with "literally thousands of people," apparently either you know a heck of a lot of very stupid people or you're only listening for statements that confirm your own already-formed opinions.

  5. (I'm replying here to Marilynn's comment because the blog won't let me reply to her directly – sorry for breaking this out of the thread!)

    Marilynn – thank you for your thoughtful and articulate response! You're completely right that music and books shouldn't be equated: that was part of my point, that they are two very different mediums with very different economics. Piracy affects both differently. Any rational examination of society's response to book piracy needs to take those differences into account. Drawing an incorrect or simplistic equivalence between the two mediums may lead us to make decisions (commercial and legislative) which harm creators and consumers just as much as they help. The ethics may be simple, but the response sadly should not be. If we don't improve our understanding of book piracy and its economic impact on the entire distribution chain, how are we to rationally respond?

    Also, you're absolutely right that early piracy in the US led directly to the development of our copyright regime. I may have been guilty of over-simplifying my point for the sake of a rhetorical flourish: piracy did not directly help Poe, Hawthorne, or many other American authors. But it did help the US postal system, newspaper industry, and book publishing industry cost-effectively develop both the large-scale infrastructure and audience that all of those authors (and countless others) benefited from.

    In that sense, piracy was helpful in creating the United States' literary environment, and for doing so rapidly (particularly when compared to much of continental Europe at the time). All authors work in a particular environment, which shapes the work they produce, how that work gets distributed, and how the audience consumes it. Thus, Twain et al. wrote and published in an economic and cultural environment where piracy had been (for good or ill) highly influential. Would they have written and published the same excellent works in a different environment? That's as much of an unanswerable question as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. But if we want a measured societal response to book piracy, I think it is one still worthy of consideration.

    Also, thanks for the recommendation on Adrian Johns' work. I haven't read it, but I'll definitely take a look.

    1. I wonder, Chris, about your thoughts on this: I've suggested a system that would allow copyright owners to get paid for "pirated" downloads but very few have had any comment on the system (the Songwriters association of Canada has embraced something similar).

      Basically it would work like this:

      A group of countries (Say US, Canada, UK, EU, …) would come together and impose a fee on ISP bills – say $10 just to put a number there. When a work is registered for copyright it would be assigned a unique ID number. Creators would attach that unique ID number to their products and it would then be traced.

      Each month creators would be sent a cheque, from the monitoring agency, based on the size of the cash pool and the number of downloads their work received. This may not be ideal, some consumers would be paying in while "pirating" nothing, others would be consuming far more than they were paying in. Creators would also be unable to set prices, it would be a simple mathematical equasion BUT it would result in money in the pockets of content creators and it would allow fan enthusiasm to translate into profits.

      So if a fan was really enthusiastic about a work and provided a download link, the artist would profit from that enthusiasm. From a consumer perspective it's seamless. All they know is that they are getting the content they want, quickly and easily. The financial transactions 'take care of themselves' .

  6. Right now, Disney brings out its classic archives to resell every time the media changes. When VCR tapes began to be replaced by DVDs, Disney opened its archives of films like SNOW WHITE and FANTASIA to put them on DVDs. But instead of just slapping them onto the new media, they used the very latest technology to make the colors brighter, the images sharper, and the music better suited to current electronic systems.

    Every time one of the old films is brought out, it gets a makeover like this which costs lots of money and man hours.

    If these films went into public domain, Disney would no longer have a reason to update them. The films online would be bad copies of faded copies, and as the online technology changes, those bad copies would have to be translated, yet again, and the quality of the picture and sound would degrade even further.

    Parents would have to worry that online versions of the film had been edited by someone who didn’t approve of certain elements of the film, or that some sicko has inserted adult material into it.

    Considering all this, I’ve decided that having a free public domain version of FANTASIA is far too expensive for those of us who want future generations to enjoy a classic Disney film.

    The only way we authors can win the copyright battle is to win the hearts and minds of our readers. As I said earlier, readers love books, and, if they understand that theft will hurt the authors they love, they can be a powerful force in stopping the downward slide of publishing. Some authors even have volunteer groups of readers who surf the pirate sites in search of books to be removed. That's how we can win this war.

    Most of the garbage put out by pirates and their fanboys is nonsense. Pirate sites make millions of dollars through advertising, and for all their talk about freedom and the unfairness of copyright is hypocrisy. For example, I've never heard the first example of any of these sites offering financial or legal assistance to anyone who has uploaded or downloaded their pirate goods when they are caught. Instead, these pirate lords spout a bunch of nonsense, buy a new Ferrari, or move to Thailand.

    For those interested in fighting piracy of their works, I suggest the group Authors Against eBook Theft which shares information on specific sites, launches group attacks, and contacts advertisers to tell them they are sponsoring theft. To join, go here:


    1. Thanks ever so much for providing something that my posts lacked: an action item.

      I might also add that The Author's Guild is active in protecting author's copyrights.

      The current issue of their member's magazine has a horrifying description of what it's like to be an author in Russia, where there is no copyright protection whatsoever.

      The URL is https://www.authorsguild.org/

      They also have a fund that helps authors who are in financial or medical distress.

  7. Whatever the arguments, this battle is essentially over. An entire generation has grown up on free downloads and most of them (at least from the conversations I've had) are no longer even paying attention to these debates.

    To make matters worse, companies that facilitate piracy are learning from their mistakes (learning from the law suits, arrests etc) and building more sophisticated systems. Some of the latest will make it nearly impossible for the facilitating company itself to monitor who is sharing what with whom.

    The only way I think to realistically, defeat piracy at this point would be massive government control over the internet. (Roughly the great firewall of China combined with unlimited, warrantless, government access to everything you do online – from monitoring your web traffic to reading your email.)

    The good news is that, despite their protests, the music and film industries are actually doing fine.

    A glance at international music industry numbers show that they are for the most part holding steady. There are improvements in some areas (digital sales) and drops in others (physical sales) but all in all they are not hurting as much as they would like you to believe.


    The film industry is actually doing VERY well. They have had record years every year since 2009 and are looking at a prolonged period of growth according to analysts.


    There are some artists, and some studios that have lost money and new artists and studios have emerged (same for music) but that has always been the case, especially in a time of rapid change.

    Publishing is in transition. Sales of printed works are slumping, digital sales are booming, sales of physical newspapers and magazines are drying up and publishers are struggling to adapt to a digital environment (with some doing better than others). However, I have no doubt that digital publishing will emerge from the fog as a viable industry.

    One thing that has changed in all of these industries is size. As the barriers to entry have come down some of the big record labels and big studios have taken a hit and small, independent labels and studios have emerged. That is, in part, because small companies are better suited to the internet – they tend to be less entrenched in their ways and are able to adapt more rapidly as the environment changes. I see no reason why this won't also happen with publishing.

    I also know many artists in music, film and publishing who are doing quite well. Some of them with labels/publishers and some completely on their own. They are not selling at gold/platinum or best seller levels but when you're pocketing 100% of revenue you don't have to worry as much about volume.

    So, the arts and cultural industries are fine and are going to be fine (I've yet to see any hard evidence to the contrary) but the "war on piracy" has about the same chance of success as the "war on drugs". It is, as one former LAPD police captain once quipped "Like trying to bail out the ocean with a spoon".

    1. Everyone please note how this writer has simply repeated the freeloader arguments I rebutted in the original article. No surprises here.

      The reason pirate sites can generate income is that they operate in plain sight and have advertisers; if the pirate sites were forced underground, their SEO would drop to nothing, their advertisers would go away and piracy would become much more difficult for the casual user and therefore less common. The big violaters with "secret sharing" models would be caught (and prosecuted) by the big copyright holders. The business model would become less viable, making piracy less common.

      To draw the obvious analogy, government action hasn't been able to eradicate child pornography but it has forced it underground, thereby making it far less common and far less accessible. By your logic, the fact that child pornography still exists is reason that it's pointless to pass and enforce laws against such material.

      The statement that prosecuting piracy sites would require "massive government control of the Internet" is scare tactic bullsh*t. Shutting down sites that repeated violate copyright and prosecuting their leech-like owners is NOT the same thing as suppressing political dissent. The attempt to conflate "Internet freedom" with "the freedom to not pay for content" is sophomoric.

      That industries that hire and pay creative people have been able to make money on electronic media does not mean that they would not be making MORE money if there were less piracy. The idea that stealing a product and distributing it for free doesn't create massive financially damage is ridiculous. It's like saying, "hey, I stole my neighbor's car, but they were still able to buy another one so, hi-de-ho, no harm done."

      Ah, but you know "many artists" who are "doing quite well." Uhhhh…. so what you're telling me is that they wouldn't be doing better if they could charge more for their work? Do you realize how ludicrous that sounds, even beyond the fact that anecdotal evidence is meaningless?

      You also seem completely ignorant of the difference between a shift in distribution media (and the industry changes it's wrought) and the impact of piracy. Newspapers didn't fold because of piracy, but because there wasn't a good reason to remain in the paper distribution business. Some newspapers failed to succeed online is because they held onto cost structures that depended on print advertising that turned out to have a financial value (in terms of generating new business) that was a fraction of what advertisers were paying for it.

      None of that has anything whatsoever to do with piracy, so it's weird that you'd even bring it up.

      As for your "war on drugs" analogy, this is simply a rhetorical trick to try to make copyright enforcement look impossible by comparing it to a failed government policy. However, the analogy actually proves the opposite of what you're trying to prove because in the "war on drugs," government action pushes prices UP, thereby creating more profits for the seller. Did you even bother to think that through before you posted it?

      In short, your response consists of fuzzy thinking, circular arguments, flawed logic, anecdotal evidence and ill-thought-out analogies. However, I'm sure it provides some "intellectual cover" (and I say "intellectual" while holding my nose) to the freeloaders whom you apparently number among your friends.

      1. I'll only say this, I find your overall attitude toward everyone who isn't in full agreement with everything you say belligerent and condescending. I find your writing and your arguments unimaginative and dismissive or ignorant of reality. I have been having these arguments and following the issue from the IT side as well as the policy/legal side since the late 1990s. I have no need to have this argument with you here because you've already lost, not this particular argument, but the overall fight against piracy. I have no further interest though in your writing or your thoughts (here or anywhere). Have a nice life and try not to give yourself too many ulcers.

          1. 1) More like not having much time to try to convince the lone Japanese soldier on an otherwise deserted island that WWII is over.

            2) "The statement that prosecuting piracy sites would require “massive government control of the Internet” is scare tactic bullsh*t. Shutting down sites that repeated violate copyright and prosecuting their leech-like owners is NOT the same thing as suppressing political dissent. The attempt to conflate “Internet freedom” with “the freedom to not pay for content” is sophomoric."

            – Actually it is EXACTLY what the film and music industries are lobbying for.

            3) Are you the Geoffrey James whose sole work of any note was "The Tao of Programming is a book written in 1987 by Geoffrey James. Written in a tongue-in-cheek style spoof of classic Taoist texts such as the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi which belies its serious message." – which would be out of date and draws heavily upon the works of others and whose subsequent works have primarily been about business to business sales techniques?

          2. Geoffrey, I've been observing this discussion with some interest, less so for the substance of the "debate" and more for the rhetorical devices that are being employed.

            Before I get to the substance of my thoughts, I would like to point out that I have not (yet) formed a strong opinion on the matter of digital piracy for several reasons, namely:

            (a) I recognize that copyright protection does have value in providing creators an economic incentive to create their work in the first place, which is a societal benefit.

            (b) I recognize that the economics of creative industries are in flux due to shifting distribution technologies. Regardless of the media in question, this shift is changing the economic relationships between creator, publisher, distribution chain, and consumer.

            (c) The financial impact of (b) – regardless of where one falls in the debate – is poorly understood and scarcely quantified.

            I've been in the media research industry for my entire professional life. That means I've built a career measuring and quantifying how people across the world consume (both economically and behaviorally) media of all kinds: books, television, film, radio, web sites, music, etc. And yes, part of that has been researching the ways in which piracy occurs.

            While your breakdown of your opponents' arguments is rhetorically effective, you employ many of the same rhetorical devices in your own arguments. Most particularly, you over-simplify the economic relationship between piracy and lost opportunity. In all of your posts and comments you mention opportunity costs to creators (and everyone else along the distribution chain, though you rarely seem to be defending them) as the primary harm perpetrated by piracy.

            Here's the thing: I am unaware of any scientifically valid econometric analysis of *book piracy's* opportunity costs to creators. That there is some opportunity cost should be obvious, as it is simple common sense. However it is *certainly* not a 1:1 relationship. Your claims that creators "would make more money" if nobody pirated are true, but only to a point.

            Because opportunity cost is an often slippery economic concept, I'll use a somewhat simplified example:

            Let us imagine two consumers. Consumer A buys a book in hardcover legally at a retailer, and spends $17 to do so. Consumer B downloads a pirated copy of the book, and spends $0 to do so.

            If the opportunity cost relationship were 1:1, that would mean that the distribution chain (retailer –> distributor(s) –> publisher –> creator) "lost" $17. But they didn't lose that $17. They lost the *potential* (not guaranteed) sale of $17.

            Have you ever tried to get a bank loan against unguaranteed revenue? Almost all banks would tell you not to count chickens before they're hatched. And they are right to do so, because it is a question of that revenue's probability. Absent the possibility of piracy, there is a probability greater than 0% but less than 100% that Consumer B *would have ever bought the book*.

            But that probability varies across media, is closely related to the nature of the creative product, and for books is currently *unmeasured*. It is that probability which determines the true opportunity cost of piracy, and until it is quantified, the strength of your argument is perforce uncertain (your argument may not be invalid, but your rhetorical confidence should at least be tempered by a greater degree of nuance).

            You often cite the music industry as a principle case study of the effects of piracy. However, the probability gradient for lost music sales is *different* from that of books, due to music's historical distribution model. Music is consumed in individual portions (songs), yet before the popularization of the MP3 it was distributed in bundled form (albums). MP3s had two simultaneous effects:

            a) They brought the marginal cost of distribution to zero through increasing rates of return, and;

            b) They decoupled the object of consumption from the object of distribution (people could get the individual songs they wanted w/o the others they didn't).

            The combined effect of (a) and (b) was what led to the music industry's calamitous turmoil in the '90s and early '00s. The technology effectively gave consumers a significant degree of pricing power.

            You'll also note that the rates of music piracy *plummeted* (at least in the West: geographic distribution effects remain a factor) when the music industry accepted that the cat had been let out of the bag, and that de-coupling was unavoidable. When consumers could begin purchasing individual songs for $0.99, Western rates of individual music piracy dropped like a stone and the music industry as a whole had the opportunity to regain some measure of balance.

            Wholesale music piracy (i.e. where a pirate downloads 1000s of songs and then burns them to CDs which are typically sold on street corners in developing nations) is an entirely different factor, with its own economic structure and economic factors. Please note, however, that it existed *long* before the MP3 was ever developed. MP3s changed wholesale pirate's cost model (decreased costs), but they had a similar impact on wholesale pirate revenue to a similar degree as legitimate publisher revenue: wholesale pirates rely on cost imbalances and legal barriers to legitimate sale, but still employ a similar economic model as a traditional distribution chain.

            In short, that the music industry's economic balance is *different* from what came before is an unavoidable economic consequence of technology and its impact on that industry's distribution models and probability gradients. And while one may say that the status quo "should have been maintained", it is the equivalent of shouting at clouds. Throughout history, technology shifts have always upended the economics of media creation, production, and distribution, and that's just the way it goes (just ask the monks who used to illuminate manuscripts). The question becomes how does a particular industry adjust to that shift? And while the music industry's balance has changed, it *has* adapted. That change has benefited some (Amanda Palmer?) and harmed many others. But the industry *does* adapt.

            Having looked at music, let's take a look at the book industry. Here the probability gradient is very different. For one, the rates of book piracy are *far* lower than the rates of music piracy were at just about any point in history. In point of fact, the current rates of book piracy are (at least in some studies) *still* lower than the rates of music piracy. Why? Because books do not suffer from the same de-coupling factor as music did.

            People consume books in their entirety (except for anthologies, which are a very tiny niche). One does not read "just chapter 4" of a new Stephen King novel. One reads the entire text from beginning to end. This significantly lowers the opportunity cost probability factor because consumption (economically and behaviorally) is already aligned with the publishing industry's distribution model. How much is the probability factor lowered? I don't know. Neither do you. Nobody has really measured it (yet). To assume that it is 1:1 (as your rhetoric implies) or 0:1 (as many of your opponents would have it) is equally invalid.

            A final point that I would like to make relates to the history of media. Do you realize that without piracy the current world of publishing – and all of the economic benefit creators derive from it – would not exist? United States publishers, and US literacy itself, owes much to enterprising individuals in the 17th and early 18th century who explicitly relied on the distance and gaps in legal enforceability between the United States and Great Britain to print and distribute books *to which they had no right*. How is this different from consumers in countries with restrictive media regimes (e.g. China or Vietnam) from doing the same to books today?

            Without such piracy, would the United States ever have produced writers like Hawthorne, Twain, or Poe? Before you make un-nuanced claims that piracy is an unequivocal social evil, I suggest you learn more about the history of media. I particularly recommend Paul Starr's The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, as it might offer you more insight into the ways in which publishing has been affected by distribution technologies at many points in its history.

            Legal barriers to piracy, enforcement of laws, etc. are valid tools that a particular media and a particular society have to respond to the changing economic environment. To argue that piracy is universally bad and should be squashed is the rhetorical equivalent of a child's temper tantrum: it does nothing to advance an argument for *how* to protect creator's rights and simultaneously satisfy consumer demand.

            As I said, I do not necessarily disagree with your conclusions. Nor do I necessarily agree with them. I would like more data before coming to a firm stance on the social good or social ill of book piracy, and for that matter on the actual economic impact that it has on the average creator. But sympathetic as I am to your arguments, I would appreciate a little more nuance to them. I'm all for moral clarity, but demagoguery helps no one.

          3. This is not a nuanced issue. Piracy is stealing. If consumers want to consume entertainment content that belongs to a copyright holder, then they should pay for it.

            Those who do not pay for it are freeloaders and petty thieves.

            It is not a "child's temper tantrum" to protest when somebody steals something of value from you. It's the justifiable outcry of the genuinely victimized.

            You could just as well argue that society would be improved if people could just steal whatever they feel they need.

            We're not even talking about a real human need here, like food, shelter and clothing.

            We're talking about entertainment, which is isn't even important enough to get on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

            Why should it be free? Who benefits, other than the freeloaders?

          4. Geoffrey – I think you're doing your side of the argument a disservice by claiming that it's not nuanced. It is a fundamentally nuanced issue, as you conceded earlier when you pointed out the various fair use exceptions.

            Traditionally, theft requires the stealing of a physical object. The ethical justification for theft being wrong is that by taking something, it deprives the rightful owner of the use of it. To use Chris' terminology, in the analog age this opportunity cost relationship was 1:1, but in the digital age it's not 1:1.

            There is a distinction between someone taking a physical copy of String Theory For Dummies from me and someone pirating a copy. If they take my physical copy, I have lost a tangible object. If they pirate a copy, then I have not lost anything that I had, only something that I might have had in return. This is explicit when you consider fair use. Someone can use a portion of my intellectual property legally. However, someone cannot take page 115 of String Theory For Dummies from me … that would be theft, because I would be deprived of accessing page 115 of that copy of the book.

            So when you claim that there's no nuance, that pirating is completely equivalent to theft, you are denying the very foundation of your claim. The "no nuance" argument would seem to be that piracy is perfectly fine, because you aren't actually taking a physical object. It is only by adding nuance that you understand the importance of copyright law in the first place and, therefore, the reason why piracy should be avoided.

            New technologies certainly push this beyond the idea of copyright of books. For example, I could in theory use a 3-D printer to make an exact duplicate of something that I purchase … or, if you had a sufficiently sophisticated camera, something that I just saw and took a picture of … or something which someone else bought legally and then scanned into their computer and shared. (In fact, I understand that many publishers tried to have photocopiers banned when they were created, on similar grounds.)

            Figuring out how to balance different priorities in an age of near-infinite abundance is incredibly complex, but denying the nuance involved is not, I think, a helpful step in the process.

          5. This is a specious argument. By the same logic, if you key my automobile (thereby making it intrinsically less valuable), I'm not really damaged because I can still use my car to drive places.

            When content is pirated (which is a completely distinct action from using a brief quote in criticism or analysis), it steals value from the content. This was true when the only way to pirate a copy was to retypeset it and print it manually and it's true now it's absurdly easy to make copies.

            Brief quotes in the context of discussing a work does not steal value that work. What constitutes fair use is nuanced; we're talking about making an exact copy of something and offering it for free to thousands of people. It's just not the same thing.

            Unless you're willing to throw out the entire concept of copyright and intellectual property, piracy is thievery because it's an involuntary transfer of value away from the owner.

            The problem with pretending the argument "nuanced" is that it leaves "wiggle room" for pirates to keep pirating, when in fact they should be prosecuted in relation to the financial damage they've inflicted.

            I might note that that I have NEVER refused a request to provide one of my books for free to anyone who has asked. Within the limits of my contractual obligations, I have NEVER refused a request to reproduce one of my blog posts (In my day job, I write a very popular non-fiction blog).

            Sometimes I even pay the postage to mail a book to an interested reader. I've always been quite generous with the content I've created, so excuse me if I'm resentful when somebody thinks it's okay to steal from me or my peers.

          6. Sorry that you consider your resume to be a personal attack against you. But, really done this time "battle of wit with the unarmed" and all that.

          7. You obviously meant it as an attack, which illustrates the fact that you've completely lost the argument. I'm not going to bother running through my extremely long résumé or your rather pitiful and desperate attempt to characterize about 1/10 of it. My resume is irrelevant, as is yours, whatever that may be. It's your ideas that have failed to convince or even adhere to simple logic. You may, for all I know, be a vast benefactor of the world. It's your ideas that are silly, regardless of who you are.

          8. Chris said, "A final point that I would like to make relates to the history of media. Do you realize that without piracy the current world of publishing – and all of the economic benefit creators derive from it – would not exist? United States publishers, and US literacy itself, owes much to enterprising individuals in the 17th and early 18th century who explicitly relied on the distance and gaps in legal enforceability between the United States and Great Britain to print and distribute books *to which they had no right*. How is this different from consumers in countries with restrictive media regimes (e.g. China or Vietnam) from doing the same to books today?

            Without such piracy, would the United States ever have produced writers like Hawthorne, Twain, or Poe? Before you make un-nuanced claims that piracy is an unequivocal social evil, I suggest you learn more about the history of media. I particularly recommend Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, as it might offer you more insight into the ways in which publishing has been affected by distribution technologies at many points in its history."

            Actually, you are wrong here. All this did was help create the copyright system. England and American publishers were stealing from each other so the copyright system was put into place to protect the authors.

            PIracy also had nothing to do with Hawthorne, Poe, etc., gaining an audience or becoming the greats they are. They did that all by themselves.

            I distrust the analogy between music and publishing because music has a much larger audience than publishing, and it is a repeatable media. Few people listen to a piece of music they like once. Books, however, tend to be once and done. Why buy when you've already read it for free? There's also a question of renumeration. Musicians have performance as an added income, authors do not.

            A book I recommend on copyright history is PIRACY: THE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY WARS FROM GUTENBERG TO GATES by Adrian Johns.

  8. I'm a firm believer in not only the primacy of intellectual property rights but also the need for (yet more) copyright reform. For most of the 20th century, a copyright was valid for 28 years and could be renewed for another 28 years before the work fell into public domain. The law was changed in 1976 to make copyrights effective for the creator's lifetime and 50 years after his or her death.

    As I recall, musician Eubie Blake inspired the change because he was in danger of losing the royalties from his greatest hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," while being very much alive. An extension certainly was justified in his case.

    While the creators of art deserve every reward for their achievements, a too-restrictive copyright law can impoverish popular culture.

    It's clear that today's copyright laws are designed to enrich Disney and other massive entertainment conglomerates. What we need is a happy medium that guarantees reasonable benefits for creators while allowing parts of our heritage to become part of public domain.

    1. As much as one might feel uncomfortable about "massive entertainment conglomerates," Disney employs 150,000 people, many of them in creative work or supporting creative work.

      Disney products and theme parks entertain more than a billion people a year; that's a lot of happiness to the company's credit.

      I'll bet there's not a single author on this board who wouldn't be thrilled beyond belief if Disney optioned one of their books. We're not talking about a vampire squid here.

      I'm also not clear on how popular culture is somehow "impoverished" because people who didn't create something aren't allowed to use it to make money for themselves.

      Would the world really be a better place if everyone were making and selling their own Mickey Mouse cartoons? Why can't those people just create their own stuff?

      1. It's a bit more complicated than that, Geoffrey. When a friend of mine was writing a book about Hollywood musicals a few years ago, he wanted to quote snippets from some of the songs. Not the entire lyrics, mind you, just samples. He told me he approached the Irving Berlin estate for permission, and they demanded an outrageous sum for each song used.

        When he mentioned the fair-use provision of copyright law, the estate threatened to sue over any use of the lyrics. Since he had received only a pittance as an advance for the book, he gave up his attempt, having the money to neither buy the rights for using the lyrics nor engage in a legal fight.

        That's how excessive copyright laws can impoverish the popular culture.

        1. His big mistake was approaching the Berlin estate. Corporate lawyers have one function: to say "no." You go to one when, and only when, you want that answer.

          Your friends should have hired his own copyright lawyer and confirmed that the snippers would be covered by fair use.

          The likelihood of a lawsuit was probably nil in any case.

          1. You cannot argue in favor of the absolute moral right of a copyright holder to control use of his creations, and then say that it was a mistake to approach the copyright holder. As per the arguments you are outlining, approaching the copyright holder appears to be the *only* ethical way to use anyone's intellectual property.

          2. If the usage is reasonably covered by fair use, there's no reason to approach the copyright holder. If there's a potential issue, you're better off consulting your own lawyer rather than relying on the opinion of somebody else's lawyer. Yes, this might entail some risk but remember we're dealing with opinion not law. The issue is totally different from piracy.

  9. As an author, I'm highly divided on the issue of copyright. On the one hand, pretty much everything you're saying is perfectly true.

    On the other hand, our current copyright laws in the US are kind of absurd. Sherlock Holmes isn't unambiguously in the public domain? What the hell's up with that? The pre-Disney-fied copyright legislation – in which a copyright could be retained for 56 years, if the holder re-authorized it after 28 years (my numbers might be off a bit) – seemed perfectly reasonable. Yes, there might be occasional case of someone who writes a novel at age 20 and then the work suddenly finds a second life, perhaps a film version, after the author hits age 76 … but that doesn't seem particularly likely, does it?

    1. Well, Jack Vance sold his first story in 1945 when he was 29. That's 68 years ago. If he had sold the story when he was 18, that would be 79 years ago.

      And he's still alive, of course.

      In any case, why should copyright be tied to the lifetime of the author? Why shouldn't an author's ancestors inherit the rights to something an author created?

      Think about that word: "created." Seems to me the act of creating something establishes ownership that goes beyond, say, buying a piece of land.

      My personal opinion is that copyright should be perpetual and subject to an estate tax, just like any other form of property.

      1. Personally I don't see a contradiction between thinking piracy is always wrong, and thinking the copyright system needs to be changed. If you think a law is unjust you should try and change it, not disregard it.

        I think that the current life +70 years is a fine compromise. It lets the author leave his heirs some additional revenue, while getting the property into the public domain a generation or so later. The renewal option, however, needs to be changed. Not only so properties may come into the public domain in a timely manner, but also to remove all ambiguity as to what is in the public domain. Figuring out if something is public domain should be as simple as looking up the date of death and counting decades on your fingers.

      2. Keep in mind that copyright law (not to be confused with ethics) primarily exists to foster creative works, not to protect the rights of the artist. This is not my off-hand opinion, but written directly in the Constitution and repeatedly stated by the courts. The ends are the promotion of arts with the means to the ends being copyright, not the other way around. It is an important distinction which is at the center of any discussion on how long copyright protection should last. If it is stifling creation, then it fails its purpose. I can’t say that I have studied the problem well enough to know the perfect balance, but I would say that perpetual copyright would be stifling. An interesting question to ask regarding perpetual copyright might be, would culture and creative expression over the last few hundred years be lessened had Shakespeare’s heirs fiercely protected copyright the entire time?

        For a related SF tie-in to the topic, read Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson. The story also argues the point that copyright can be stifling to creativity.

        1. Ensuring that people who create things get paid for their work stifles creativity in exactly what way? Maybe you think having a day job in order to support yourself is inspiring?

          Agian, though, how would it stifle anything. Why does the "arts" need to steal content from its heirs in order to be "promoted?"

          1. At what point did I say that “Ensuring that people who create things get paid for their work stifles creativity?” Pause for a moment to read the Constitutional clause provided by Andrew Jones below. It is, as I stated, designed to promote creativity by ensuring that creators get paid. The purpose of the clause is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and it clearly states that this is achieved by “securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” It may seem a minor semantic distinction, but the purpose of the law is not to ensure that creators get paid. Instead the logic goes that if creators get paid, they are more likely to create. I want to get paid as much as the next guy, and if the promise of good pay is there I am more likely to create. I don’t see myself any more likely to create if you throw in the bonus that my great-great grandson might be able to sit on his butt his whole life. That in fact, would not only stifle creativity as in the examples of Shakespeare and others mentioned here, but it also might cause my great-great-grandson to lack the financial motivation to make creations of his own.

      3. However, you believe that Disney's ability to employ vast numbers of creative people is a benefit to society, correct? And where did they get this from? Not entirely from Mickey Mouse. Look through a list of the Disney film catalogue and you will see that they have regularly co-opted stories that are part of popular culture. Disney's prominence is due as much to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and other films as it is to Mickey Mouse. If the Grimm Brothers' estate owned Snow White, it's unclear that a young Walt Disney would have been in the position to have purchased the rights to it to make his film … and his fortune. Mickey's adventures as Jack the Giant-Killer, Mickey's Christmas Carol, and his foray as one of the Three Mouseketeers would have all been prohibited.

        Had Jack Vance existed in antiquity and came up with a story, he would have had no creative rights to it whatsoever. Once Homer told a story, there was nothing that he could do to keep some other drunk in the bar from going out and relating the same – or a slightly modified – story. The first person to write the Gospel would have been able to go after all subsequent Gospels because he wrote the story first and the other authors plagiarized from him (beyond the limits of fair use)!

        As someone who creates things, I'm glad that creatives have more protections than they did in antiquity, and that the government enforces these things. However, the fact that using a clip from Gone With the Wind in a video segment could be considered theft is bizarre and stifling to creativity.

        As someone points out below, the legal basis for copyright in the United States is to promote creativity. This is embodied in the "copyright clause" – Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 – of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the government the right to:

        To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

        In other words, a truly "perpetual" copyright is specifically unconstitutional … and for good reason.

        1. No question IP laws can get ridiculous. Witness the dopey patent battles in high tech. However, it's not like creative work MUST build directly upon specific prior work. As for the GWTW segment, I think that's more an overly narrow interpretation of the fair use doctrine.

          In truth, though, my personal opinions about perpetual copyright are irrelevant, since there's absolutely no chance whatsoever that anyone is going to take MY advice on that subject. What is relevant is the existing copyright laws and the general refusal of the government to enforce them.

  10. Well said!

    But, I'd add that the number one reason not to pirate is being selfish and smart. If you take away the profit from the author, the author stops writing so you don't get your favorite reads.

    I've been on a mission for years of educating readers and authors on copyright and its issues. My articles are not so pithy but full of information. Authors and readers are more than welcome to link to them or post them with my permission.

    Two I recommend are linked below. The others can be found by clicking the copyright label on the right side of the blog.

    “A Reader’s Guide to Copyright,” A simple explanation of what copyright is and what the reader needs to know.


    “The First Sale Doctrine and Ebooks,”  Is it legal to resell or share an ebook?


    1. I would be interested in your views though on where the line is.

      In the movie/tv industries (for example) if I record something on my PVR and watch it (without commercials) that is not piracy but downloading a copy that someone else recorded on their PVR is piracy.

      If I check out a book from a library, read it once and return it that is not piracy. If I loan a neighbor a book and they read it once and return it is that piracy? Because if I make a digital copy, email it to that neighbor and they read it once and delete it that is definitely piracy.

      There are publishers who believe that selling a book at a used book store should be (but is not yet) an act of piracy under the law.

      Under the rules of many current DRM programs you do not actually own the thing you pay to download, you own a license to it. So, for example, in a case in Germany iTunes noticed strange activity on a woman's account and took away her access to everything she had paid for (several thousand dollars worth of media). Under the rules there that woman has to prove that she wasn't doing anything illegal (not vice versa) before she can regain access.

      According to the author of this threat there are NO NUANCES, so I'm wondering if you agree and where exactly you draw the line.

      1. I hate these threads, sometimes.

        Justin, for some unknown reason, my reply to your questions didn't land where it should. Look above for my comments with the first words being "Justin said."

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