Lessons from the Tolkien Boycott

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How times have changed.

Back in the late 60s, Ace Books found a loophole in the copyright for The Lord of the Rings that allowed them to publish an “unauthorized” (i.e. pirated) paperback edition.

Since the only alternative in the U.S. was the much-more-expensive Houghton Mifflin hardback, the Ace edition sold very well.

When Balantine brought out the authorized (and higher-priced) paperback edition, it included, on the cover, Tolkien’s personal request that readers boycott the pirated version.

Readers and authors alike responded by not just boycotting the pirated edition, but Ace Books in general.

As a result, Ace not only agreed to stop printing the pirated edition but, in order to restore its good name, agreed to retroactively pay royalties to Tolkien.

As I said, how times have changed.

Today’s readers, rather than respecting Tolkien’s request, would lionize “Ace.com” as a defender of “information freedom.”

Today’s readers, rather than boycotting Ace, would steal and distribute copies to strangers in order to earn an anonymous “thanks!”.

Today’s readers would flatter themselves that they’re fighting “big media conglomerates” by getting their content on the cheap.

Today’s readers would claim they “never would have paid for the book anyway” so it was okay to read the pirated versions.

Today’s readers would have called Tolkien a “crybaby” for insisting that he get royalties for the decades of work he spent writing the Trilogy.

As I said, how times have changed.

Tolkien must be rolling in his grave.

The big crybaby.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I am oing to appologize for the word terrorism which might have been hyperbole. I still thing Tolkein was a crybaby and that there is more going on than is put out here but, in all honesty I am not thinking clearly right now and wasn't when I posted my earlier comment. I am not sure what I was thinking and this isn't making much sense. This is my third attempt at a reply and it is tanking. My appologies to al

    • @ Sanford…

      Well, hope you're feeling better and get yourself sorted soon. Might want to just delete that rascal, then try again when you've got a better handle on what you're hoping to say.

    • Sanford,

      I, for one, am more than happy to give you a pass on the use of the word terrorism. Also, the ideas that you're bringing forth are very much in the "zeitgeist" of popular culture, so there's no harm in your trying to state them.

      The first time I heard these arguments for "information freedom" was from my three best friends more than ten years ago. One of them still downloads pirated content but I give him a pass because he's a basically good guy and has been out of work for 3 years.

      As for posting when you're not thinking clearly… man, alive, I know exactly what you're talking about. In a way, it's even worse with me, because I write for a living, which means that even the most half-baked, off-the-cuff comments tend to read like polished copy.

      Anyway, no apologies required, at least in my case. Keep reading and commenting.

      Geoffrey

  2. @ Sanford: So if I don’t the terms and refuse to sign a contract with, say, Publish America and they steal and print my work, then sell it without paying me royalties, I’m “inviting” them to steal my work because I didn’t cut the deal they wanted?

    If a street vendor charges a buck more for a churro or a gyro than you want to pay, are you “invited” to steal from him because you don’t like his prices?

    And the use of the term “terrorism?” DId Tolkeinistas cut any throats or blow up Ace offices?

    Your use of that term is ridiculous.

    And to be honest, downright offensive to anyone who’s life has been impacted by real terrorism.

    The boycott wasn’t terrorism. It was fans and writers saying “we don’t like the way you do business, so we shall take our custom elsewhere.” That’s no more “terrorism” than boycotting a television show or retailer over some policy one doesn’t like.

    If you refuse to kiss Dirty, Sweaty Fat Man because he’s dirty and sweaty, are you committing “Terrorism” against him by denying him smoochies until he showers, changes shirts, and brushes his teeth?

    Now, I’m a fan of Baen and their market model. I think it’s both forward thinking and effective. But It in NO way compares to Ace’s blatant theft and sale of IP.

    For one thing, Baen, to my knowledge, doesn’t steal and print other people’s work without permission.

    Baen, might actually distribute work by agreeing authors for free, but when people buy other books from those authors, Baen… brace yourself… pays them.

    Baen editors don’t run around “liberating” people’s work and printing it without their permissions, Baen doesn’t sell books and then hold on to the royalties. So you really can’t use Baen as justification for Ace’s actions.

  3. According to Sanford:

    '…Tolkein and his publishers invited the “piracy” by making his books prohibitive in the U.S.'

    That doesn't really resemble what happened. Under the copyright law that existed at that time a British publisher could only export a limited number of copies to the USA under their British copyright. If they wanted to export a larger number they had to register the work under US copyright. The publisher dropped the ball, shipped too many copies here, and lost the copyright to the original edition. Ace saw a way to make a bunch of free money on some popular books; they published that original edition in paperback; Tolkien made slight changes for a "revised" edition; and then that revised edition was published by Ballantine under US copyright.

    Saying that 'Tolkein and his publishers invited the “piracy” by making his books prohibitive' is essentially saying that if you want something but can't afford it – or simply don't want to pay the price – then it's okay to steal it. That's no more true now than it was fifty years ago.

    I'd comment on your mention of libraries if I could comprehend what you thought you were saying.

    • Good points.

      I might note that the argument that "you are charging 'too much' therefore I should be allowed to steal it" is one of the founding principles of the "information freedom" movement. Another is "pirating your content is helping you by giving you 'free advertising'. A third is "libraries let people read for free, so all copies should be free."

      That none of these arguments make any sense doesn't keep people from surfacing them. In the case of Aaron Schwartz, for instance, these concepts were treated as if they were profound rather than sophomoric.

  4. So if I don't the terms and refuse to sign a contract with, say, Publish America and they steal and print my work, then sell it without paying me royalties, I'm "inviting" them to steal my work because I didn't cut the deal they wanted?

    If a street vendor charges a buck more for a churro or a gyro than you want to pay, are you "invited" to steal from him because you don't like his prices?

    And the use of the term "terrorism?" DId Tolkeinistas cut any throats or blow up Ace offices?

    Your use of that term is ridiculous.

    And to be honest, downright offensive to anyone who's life has been impacted by real terrorism.

    The boycott wasn't terrorism. It was fans and writers saying "we don't like the way you do business, so we shall take our custom elsewhere." That's no more "terrorism" than boycotting a television show or retailer over some policy one doesn't like.

    If you refuse to kiss Dirty, Sweaty Fat Man because he's dirty and sweaty, are you committing "Terrorism" against him by denying him smoochies until he showers, changes shirts, and brushes his teeth?

    Now, I'm a fan of Baen and their market model. I think it's both forward thinking and effective. But It in NO way compares to Ace's blatant theft and sale of IP.

    For one thing, Baen, to my knowledge, doesn't steal and print other people's work without permission.

    Baen, might actually distribute work by agreeing authors for free, but when people buy other books from those authors, Baen… brace yourself… pays them.

    Baen editors don't run around "liberating" people's work and printing it without their permissions, Baen doesn't sell books and then hold on to the royalties. So you really can't use Baen as justification for Ace's actions.

  5. A couple of points here. One is that Tolkein and his publishers invited the "piracy" by making his books prohibitive in the U.S. Two Tolkein and his publishers used terrorism to punish Ace for legally providing what fans wanted. Now on to you claims about today's pirates. The most successful publisher of late is Baen. One of the few traditiona outlets that are likely to survive the next decade. Rather than worry about piracy they give away large chunks of their work. Knowing that people are mostly honest and want to support their authors. Many people read the free books , or pirated copies , and go on to purchase the lines in question. I know of One John Ringo fan that started reading him for free and, when his economic condition improved wound up owning 4 complete sets of Ringo's work. 1 in signed hardback, one in Signed paperback, and an unsigned cope in both hardback and paperback The hardbacks for reading the paperbacks for loaning. The column you just penned effectively censures libraries as wel you know?

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