Monday, January 23, 2012

Opinion — What To Do About The Pirates In Our Midst, Intellectual Property Theft

The first order of business is to disclose that I have a vested interest in protecting intellectual property rights (how intellectual is, of course, debatable.) I write mysteries for a living. I’m about as far as you can get from “living large.” I have a one-bedroom apartment, no car, and for the most part, drink inexpensive wine. If I don’t have some severely expensive medical emergency or I live too long, I should be able to exist in this lifestyle for the rest of my life. From a world population perspective, I am very fortunate. Blessed. Even so, I have to work for a living to stay off the streets.

When the e-book revolution came about, my regular publisher adapted. My most recent books are now available by my publisher, Severn House, at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and many other places around the world. I also formed, at some expense, my own book-publishing capability to reissue some of my earlier books now that those copyrights have reverted to me. Life Death and Fog Books has now published the early and I might add, immodestly, critically praised Shanahans and one, never before available, stand-alone novella. As I said, there was expense involved and certainly financial risk. I may or may not earn back my admittedly small investment, let alone make a profit. Maybe it pays off. Maybe it doesn’t. That’s business. In San Francisco, the minimum wage is $10 an hour. I seriously doubt, when all things are considered, that I earn that much on most of my books. I’m explaining, not complaining. And I’m aware that I’m belaboring the point. But writing is what I do. And like house painters, chefs, web site designers, etc., who I hope also enjoy what they do, I would like to be paid for the product of my labor by those who use it.

I discovered a few months ago that one of my books was available on a web site for free download. I was concerned and wrote about it here. Some writers have taken the position that they consider this a cost of doing business. And, of course, it is. Like pilferage. And, in fact, I can imagine various sets of circumstances when this sort of piracy would be admirable. Maybe if the web site were part of prison program, helping those challenged by job loss and/or providing some free books for those in poverty, I’d be in agreement. But the web site I saw, the one that offered the free download, had national brand advertising on it. The owners of the site were receiving income using the stolen labor and expenses of others.

I think most people will see this as theft. If there was some good reason for sharing, then receiving advertising income for it pretty much eliminates any altruistic motive. I am far from the only one troubled by this. The federal government is concerned. But what should they do about it? Two giant industries, with billions of dollars at stake, are battling each other to determine the content of laws that might be enacted to combat piracy. The huge entertainment industry — movies, TV, music — wants the harshest possible laws in ways that, in fact, may destroy the magic of the internet and provide the strategy and techniques for future censorship.

I’m not inclined to be sympathetic to companies like Viacom and Disney any more than I might be sympathetic to Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. Their opposition is made up of high-tech firms, some of them huge and extremely profitable, like Google and You Tube, some of them nonprofits offering valuable free services like Wikipedia as well as many independent businesses, nonprofits and free access bloggers. They believe currently proposed laws, rightfully so, will not only destroy their existence by making them responsible for things they cannot control, but the whole beauty of the Internet. I would ask if this second group is willing to help create a playing field that doesn’t allow, even encourage the theft of products of others — independent musicians, writers, and artists, among them?

Apparently lawmakers who had initially taken hardline stances in favor of the ham-fisted legislation are changing their minds. That seems like good news. Even so, we must pay attention to what the lawmakers do. Tampering with the free-flow of information on the Internet is an extremely dangerous undertaking with regard to individual freedom. Our legislators need adult oversight. Meanwhile, SOPA and PIPA, the legislation now being considered and apparently reconsidered, should be given concrete shoes and dropped in the Potomac.

UPDATE: I wrote this post last Friday. Since then, I’m told, the New Zealand government has shut down one of the sites that provided free downloads of books, including my own. Arrests were made. In addition, the overreaching laws initially proposed by the movie industry are losing support. One final note: in the Republican debates in South Carolina, all of the four remaining candidates agree with President Obama that the proposed laws, as written, should not be passed.

Incidentally, sometimes it is difficult to know what information has a copyright and what doesn’t, which of course, is part of the argument that such companies as You Tube pose. As for my own little blog, most of the time I’m pretty sure that the images I use in these posts are copyright free (promotional material for movies and books are generally provided by publicity departments for just that purpose). However, I’ll quickly remove any material I’m not entitled to publish. Please feel free to leave your comments about the subject.

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