Do you ever suspect that some people around you, walking around like little Rory Calhouns, talking and breathing and in all ways impersonating people, are actually sacks of rats and garbage just taking the rough form of a human? Made up of dog shit and the messy lids of yoghurt tubs and apple stickers and blue cheese rind and nappybombs?
Yesterday I woke to the rather disturbing news that an author I greatly admire – Jennifer Fallon – had had her new book stolen and released to pirates and available for others to steal months in advance of its actual release. You can read the gross story here. But the gist of it is, someone Jenny trusted with an unfinished version of her newest novel, the Lyre Thief, chose to leak that beta version to pirates. I would just like to say, if that beta reader ever reads this: you are the garbage person. You don’t deserve trust or respect or frankly the company of regular humans.
Pirating books is a shitty thing to do. Providing those pirated books to others is even shittier. Taking advantage of the trust an author put in you to intentionally leak that book in advance of its actual release to the kinds of arsehats who run pirate book sites is a whole new category of shitty. Congratulations, you’re the CEO of Shit Mountain Adventure Park. I don’t recommend the snacks. Or the waterslide.
Pirating books – downloading them or selling them for download for money or for free – is stealing. It’s taking something you are not legally entitled to take, and it’s stealing no matter what veneer you try to put on it. You probably know this. So listen, if you pirate books – I don’t love it. It’s not cool. You telling me you pirated a book and liked feels kind of like you told me squatted in your neighbour’s backyard with your computer using their internet download quota. But I’m also conscious that it can be easy to roll with simplistic arguments to justify it, and even easier to go with a convenient option even if you know it’s not ideal, because you think you’re just one person and you’re not making any difference. I don’t think it’s right, but I get that.
Unlike the occasional pirate, though, I suspect the person who leaked the Lyre Thief belongs to the contingent of garbage-people who not only are totally OK with stealing people’s works, and have a bevy of reasons to pretend this is not morally awful, but who actively get angry at being called on it. Not embarrassed or uncomfortable or uninterested: angry. Because they have convinced themselves they are entitled to things for free, and any challenge to that is greeted with outrage.
Allow me to run through the usual arguments I see about why they’re justified in stealing your stuff. Spoiler: they aren’t good arguments.
It is NOT STEALING, it is only ‘copyright infringement’. Stealing intellectual property is different from tangible property because you’re not depriving the owner of the work! I’m not a thief!
Calling a rat a short-haired Mongolian toothy-dog doesn’t make it show ready. What the author of a book is selling is the right to read that book. Whether it’s in hard copy or electronically, you’re not just buying paper and glue or 1s and 0s. You’re buying the right to enjoy the author’s story. If you take that without paying (or accessing it some other legal way), you’ve stolen it.
I appreciate that it can FEEL like it’s different because hey, the author can still sell the book* – you haven’t taken a physical thing that now can’t be sold to someone else. But forget about the physical format of the book. It’s meaningless. What the author is selling is the right to read their novel, and that’s something with value that they worked for. You’re taking that value and not paying. You wouldn’t (I hope) sneak into a concert without paying even though in theory it makes no difference to the band. Be honest about what you are taking.
OK even if it’s stealing, it’s a victimless crime because no-one is harmed!
If you took something that someone worked on and offered for sale, without paying them, I’d say you harmed THEM, and anyone else entitled to profit from your access to the book (the publisher, the retailer you didn’t use, etc). You took the benefit of what they made and didn’t compensate them as legally required. OK, you’re not sneaking into their house and slashing their clothes and emptying their handbags but that’s not the only way to harm people. Having consumers pay for the right to read their book is literally the reason they publish that book; they offer it for sale and people pay for it – that’s the entire point.
If you’re just downloading, not actively copying and distributing things yourself (because that’s a whole extra level of terrible), you’re still contributing to the greater problem because your actions reward the person you downloaded it from, encouraging the kind of evil arses** who run these sites to continue to steal and profit from authors. You’ve got a part in the future harm to those authors – and their publishers and retailers and staff and anyone else who depends on the (legal) sale of books for their career. Maybe you’ve cost them sales, maybe you’ve made it that much harder for them to justify publishing another book or for the publisher to keep supporting them or for the publisher to take a chance on the next author who comes up. Maybe you’ve contributed to the author having to continue to work a full time other job, so that they can’t write as fast as they and their fans would like. You’ve definitely contributed to the general modern internet culture of devaluing art and claiming it as an entitlement instead of a privilege or a product of worth. Your part may be small if you’re just downloading but you don’t get to pretend it’s not a part.
[And, of course, the bonus crapcake type of jerk who steals at beta stage and leaks it, as in Jenny’s case, has also sabotaged the release of the author’s book, putting an unfinished work out before they even got a chance to sell a single copy and potentially negatively affecting those critical pre-orders and first week sales. The thief has taken the author’s control of their product and its value away from them. He or she has eroded the author’s faith that humans are humans and not sacks of shit, and made sure that aspiring writers and editors and great readers and fans are cut out of their pre-publication process forever. Thanks a heap, arsehat.]
But pirating books is the only way I can afford them. Ergo, I must steal them. Otherwise I’d have to go without altogether.
Leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of ways you can still get to enjoy the benefits of reading for free – libraries, friends – or very little money – second-hand bookshops, discounted books, very cheap e-books – that’s still utter bullshit. I can’t afford a new shirt so I’ll have to shoplift or else I’d have to keep wearing my OLD one? I can’t afford a car so obviously I have to steal one, because otherwise I couldn’t drive! What’s the alternative? Save up the money or…or… do without?
Guess what, sunshine, that’s what every person ever has to deal with when deciding whether or not they can make any purchase. If you can’t afford a car you catch the bus or walk or get a lift or you make sacrifices in other areas to save up for one you can afford. If you can’t afford it you go without, just like everyone else.
But books are too expensive! It’s not fair that an e-book costs $(insert whatever price a thief finds unreasonable).
Look, you totally have the right to assess whether a price is reasonable or not. I don’t think the almond croissants at my work cafe are worth $5.50, even though they’re delicious. So I don’t buy them.*** If you don’t think the book is worth $16.99 then by all means, do not buy it. Buy a book at a price YOU think is reasonable. Or wait for a sale, or for the price to come down. Up to you. You don’t know if you’re going to like the book? Your call whether you take the risk based on the blurb/sample/reviews/recommendation that led you to consider it in the first place. If you’re not willing to risk a couple of bucks in case you don’t like the book, then don’t. Spend your money buying a burger or a t-shirt or more twine to hold together your shaky human form. Whatever. That’s the alternative – spending your consumer dollars elsewhere.
I’m taking a risk when I pay to go to the movies. I have small kids and I don’t get to go very often, so it’s pretty disappointing when I fork out for the ticket and the bucket of sugar and the overpriced cardboard bites flavoured with yellow and salt and then the movie turns out to be 2 and half hours of noise and people with distractingly good teeth delivering dialogue my dog could have written. But you know what? I don’t sneak in and watch it without paying just in case. Someone else sets the price and if I don’t want to pay it I go without. If everyone agrees the price is too high, sooner or later the market will adjust to bring the price down to what people WILL pay. That’s capitalism, baby.
Additionally, this argument requires accepting that the thief would happily pay for books legally if only they were just within their determined range of what is reasonable. I’m dubious. Someone who’s proven they’ll take what they want regardless of whether they’re willing or able to pay for it will have a stretch making me think they wouldn’t just find a new way to justify things if the silly market obeyed their will and the price came down.
But I am HELPING authors! I would never have bothered to read the book if I’d had to pay for it, but if I steal one I will pay for others later. You’ve won me as a fan when you never would have if I’d had to forego one cup of coffee to read your first book. How dare you insult us by (accurately) calling us thieves?
This is the particularly odious one that these indignant self righteous serial thieves like to throw around. I’ve tried to keep the tone of this post below crazy-level-rant status but this argument is simultaneously hilarious (in a disbelieving you’re-not-serious sort of way) and rage-making, so I’m wavering a bit.
You’re doing authors a favour? Sure you are. It’s very generous of you to have made the author’s marketing decisions for them. Maybe you could steal some cakes from your local bakery and hand them out for free – after all, maybe the people who eat them might then shop at the bakery later? (Of course, you and others like you will still be stealing their cakes and giving them away, and after people pay zero dollars for something once, guess how much they want to pay for it the second time?). Even if it was demonstrably true that free books didn’t hurt authors, it’s STILL up to the author and publisher make the decision about whether they want to give away their property in exchange for added exposure. Bear in mind that pirating an author’s works to people willing to steal them is only giving them exposure to thieves, and I gotta tell you, people accustomed to getting something for nothing are not everyone’s favourite customers and fans.
I’m aware that this view I’m expressing here, this open distaste for the argument that stealing is OK and actually beneficial, will make people angry. Authors are expected to be gracious about the stealing because of the perceived benefit to their careers.**** Here’s the thing: if you’re the kind of person who will only give an author a try if you can steal from them first, then expect them to be grateful for the ‘help’ you’ve given – I just don’t know how to be delicate about this: you can fuck right off. If you take offence that people don’t want you stealing from them, go ahead and shove your offence up your arse. Pretty sure the author would gladly forego your dubious claims of future fandom and sales.
[At this point, rational people might be wondering what kind of lunatic would be actively angry at an author for preferring that their property isn’t stolen. To answer this question, have a browse on reddit every time piracy comes up and an author goes so far as to suggest that they’d prefer people purchase their works. This is not an outlier view. There are crowds of them. They don’t just want writers to accept their stealing and not call them rude names. They would really rather be THANKED for it. I swear to god actual supposed adults will even contact authors to tell them they liked their work and that they didn’t pay for it. What the fuck do they expect people to say to that? Thanks for the thievin’, hope you accidentally spill your coffee on your keyboard when you’re reading it?]
Anyway, I’m aware the tone of this has been, in places … well, less than charitable. But I also know that sometimes people do dodgy stuff without really meaning to be a terrible person. Most people who pirate the occasional bit of media probably genuinely mean no harm. If that’s you, just please have a think about it next time you do, and consider whether what you’re gaining is worth what you’re doing.
And listen, there is even hope for garbage people who’ve been pirating everything they read and trashing authors for daring to express displeasure over it. You too can stop being awful and become a real boy! Realise that by choosing to pirate books you’re stealing and facilitating stealing and you’re hurting people you should be supporting. Consider not doing that anymore. If you really want to start making amends, go and buy the back catalogue of authors you’ve stolen from. Keep the books and bask in the goodness of owning them legitimately, or give them to others and enjoy the sensation of ACTUALLY helping an author by giving them exposure. Before you know it you’ll be a regular human again.
If you’re the person who stole the Lyre Thief, well… I’m not sure how you make up for something that awful. Write to Jenny and ask.
One final note. If you got this far in my lengthy rant, consider checking out Jenny’s back catalogue. (In support of her I just bought e-versions of a trilogy I already own because honestly you can never have too many ways to read). She’s a great writer with a bunch of intelligent, non-traditional fantasy (and occasionally SF) novels, with a particular skill in political intrigue and multidimensional characters. There’s no bad choice you can make there. Go forth and purchase! Or if you already own them all, consider leaving a review on whatever site takes your fancy – every review helps.
One more final note. I mean no insult to garbage men or women – as in the type who drive trucks as opposed to the time who merely suck badly as humans. I love garbage truck drivers. They’re super friendly and they always wave to my kids.
* Not to you, of course. But, as you’ll argue below, you weren’t going to buy it anyway.
**If it makes you feel good to imagine an actual pimply gross butt here wearing a monocle and a smirk, then go for your life and know you aren’t alone.
*** Except when I’m really hungry and/or have poor self control and a wallet with a comfortable amount of dollars in it.
**** Some authors, including some big name ones and some that I like and respect, have agreed that piracy hasn’t hurt them, and has given them greater exposure to people who might not otherwise have tried them. I mean, I COULD speculate that it’s easier to hold that view when you’re already wildly successful. But really, it’s actually cool – if you don’t mind having that control taken from you, that’s fine. It’s your business and I’ve got no beef with it. But a lot of authors demonstrably are NOT OK with it, and that sure as hell doesn’t stop the pirates from stealing from them anyway. Invoking supportive (or non-caring) authors isn’t a defence unless those authors are the only ones being stolen from. And let’s face it – they aren’t. I’ve never heard a pirate say they only pirate off authors who specifically say they don’t mind. Sure, some pirates probably prefer they are OK with it because that reinforces their world view, but they’d keep stealing either way and they know it.