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Writer’ Craft # 97 – Is pirating books bad for writers?

November 5, 2012
Michelle Murrain

Michelle Murrain

Michelle Murrain is a science fiction writer who has published four novels. Michelle also works as a nonprofit web developer, and has been a neuroscientist and professor. She lives in Northern California.


Like most artists, one of the things I care about most is having people see what I create: read what I write. I write because I am compelled to tell the stories that come through me, and my characters threaten me with all sorts of bad fates if I don’t write them. I write science fiction that goes against the grain – there is not a ton of violence or blow-em-up action. I write strong women protagonists, and gentle men. Many of my characters are queer. In these days of dis-intermediation, one has to spend a lot of time and energy into putting oneself out there if one is going to make a living writing (unless one is already a star.) I have an aversion to dealing with those sorts of things on a regular basis, so barring miraculous circumstances (I’m still waiting for one) I’ll live my life scraping by on half-time work so that I can spend as much time as I can writing.

In addition, I am a long time open-source software advocate, and have witnessed first-hand the value of open copyrights. My approach to the whole issue of copyright and book piracy is influenced by those perspectives.

The idea going around is this: if people pirate my ebooks, that’s a bad thing because I’ll make less money on my ebooks. There are several flaws in this reasoning, from the macro, to the micro. First, the micro: very few people who will pirate my ebook would have spent the money on it anyway. Unlike movies and TV, where it is often much easier to see something via a pirating method rather than one that you’ve paid for, with ebooks, it is the exact opposite. People who go out of their way to read pirated ebooks probably would not have spent the $ to buy mine.

Then there is the little bit more macro: does pirating really hurt artists? I think the jury is still out on that one. It has been said that the biggest enemy for artists is obscurity, and one could easily argue that my book in more hands is only a good thing. The sister/partner/uncle who hears about my book from the pirater is a sale I got that I would not have gotten otherwise. The most obvious entities that pirating hurts are the intermediaries. And artists are increasingly going directly to their fans, and this is not the sort of atmosphere that fosters pirating – pirating is fostered most in the atmosphere of limited and expensive distribution, and distance between artist and fan.

Then there is the big picture. I would like to live in a world in which art (including writing, music, film, theater, visual art, etc.) is freely available to all, and all can partake of it as they’d like, and without regards to their financial capacity. And, the other side, is that artists are able to do their art, and be sustained in at least a reasonable fashion by making art. The second part of the equation I work on by contributing to Kickstarter campaigns and the like as I can afford to (and, of course, buying books.) I can contribute most, however, to the first part of the equation. Which is why even though my books are for sale, I also give them away free, and they are licensed with a Creative Commons license, which gives other artists the freedom to riff off of my work, as long as I am attributed. (I bet, if someone really likes my work, and makes a film from one of my books, I’m going to benefit big time, even if I didn’t sell the rights to them.)

Also, by the way, there is at least one science fiction writer who does quite well selling Creative Commons licensed books, and that is Cory Doctorow. He might still be the exception that proves the rule, but I hope not forever.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. J Hatfair permalink
    November 5, 2012 7:33 am

    I think that is the impact of the internet that we still have not felt in completion-that it creates avenues of worldwide distribution for art on an unheard of scale. I can now see masterpieces in my living room, hear symphonies, watch movies and performances, access information and stories, a hundred things that were inconceivable 100 years ago.

    I cannot imagine how this will work economically, but I hope it equalizes things. We have all complained of the truly excellent (painter, writer, muscician, filmmaker) whose outstanding work does not get the audience it deserves because the avenues of distribution are held by manufacturers that need to be assured of certain amounts of profit before they will distribute.

    I think, in this manner, the internet is tying us together in ways that will change our most fundamental natures.

  2. November 5, 2012 12:56 pm

    A fascinating discussion. Bt I have to say, as a writer and theater artist, I am really disgusted by pirating and consider it theft. If folks want to give their stuff away for free, that is their choice and therefore ok with me. But for too long, artists in this country are not compensated for their work at all, or very cheaply, because the going theory is that they love what they do so much that they are thrilled to pieces that folks hear, see or read their work.
    So, here goes: Do doctors who love their work so much they give it away for free? Welders? Lawyers? Other health practitioners? Carpenters? Software engineers (most of ‘em)? Hardly.
    Just because you love your work and feel fortunate, it doesn’t mean you should starve for it. So open sourcing, freeware, etc. is fine if you can feed yourself and your family, and maybe somebody else is paying your rent and utility bill. Other than that, folks, I say, pay up for art. (grrrrrrrr)

  3. November 7, 2012 5:57 pm

    There is at least one major author who actively encourages people to pirate his books: Paulo Coelho. He wrote The Alchemist. It seems like a counter-intuitive argument, but he’s apparently making more money because of pirates.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/01/paulo-coelho-readers-pirate-books

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