How to win piracy
I keep being accosted by a fat man with fire in his eyes. He never says anything, just cackles at me in his sweaty leather apron and then with a red-hot poker makes a pile of videos explode.
I'm sure you've seen him too. (Ironically, he can't be skipped on the legal copy of the film that you've paid for.) He's been around for a while, this guy, in an anti-piracy advert apparently devised by someone who has lived his entire life trapped in a room with only Fox News for company. Possible facts are presented with wild bombastic conjecture - piracy funding terrorism? It's difficult to watch whatever film follows while wondering if an al Qaeda cell is out there, desperately waiting for someone to stream Sex and the City 2.
To be honest, until a few minutes ago, I didn't realise that anyone did profit from online piracy. Naïve, really. Everyone profits from everything, one way or another. I thought it was fairly altruistic - you have a file, you upload the file, others download the file - like a big online library. Turns out that the websites that host the file make a profit from the ads nestled on their site, and Google also get a percentage from supplying the advert. Not quite terrorism - the anti-piracy ad must have been referring to the illegal hard copies of DVDs, CDs etc. That chap with the suitcase round the back of the covered market is clearly quite the money-spinner.
So anyway, there is presumably money to be made, but it never touches the hands of the creator or the downloader. Apparently - so I've read - it's a pretty substantial amount. How much does a website pay to have someone diverted to their site? Is it 1p per click? 10p? More? Or does a percentage of any purchases made get passed-
Oh god, I no longer care. Even writing that last paragraph was a struggle.
The reason this is on my mind is that, not long before I started writing this, I received an email drawing my attention to the fact that my first book is available to download illegally. For free, that is. With no profits going to either the publisher or myself (or any terrorist organisations, that I'm aware of). It's by no means the first time I've learnt of such a site.
I followed the link and sat staring at it for a few minutes, then copied and pasted the address into a tweet and shared it with the world.
Online piracy is a highly contentious issue, and the huge international businesses that are built around producing and distributing creative works are justifiably up in arms over the pirates who swoop in leech off of the artists' work. That is, after all, traditionally their job. (BOOM!) Instead of listening to these howling voices though, creators of artistic works should ask themselves, individually, if piracy is good for them. For me personally, I think it is.
From a business point of view, it's impossible to enter the numbers into the machine and put a positive value on piracy (is it impossible? It must be because I've never seen it done before). And so the only thing that shows up on the books is the immediate loss of the items that were downloaded instead of purchased. So it is A Very Bad Thing.
I should take this moment to say that the idea of losing sales isn't one that doesn't harm me and my fragile bank balance. I don't earn a lot. I can feel every single pound that doesn't make it to my royalty statements. Trust me when I say that if I thought one download was exactly equal to one lost sale I'd spend the rest of my life hunting these people down and flaying them with their own incisors.
But even though my gut reaction before the aforementioned tweet was one of fire and brimstone, I fortunately don't think one download equals one lost sale. (Fortunate for the pirates, that is: they ought to be fearing my spindly wrath.) It's my belief that, where I lose out on an immediate sale, my work has reached someone who probably would never have seen it before. Or who was aware of it but unsure about buying it. Either way, it's been read by somebody new, and I've gained something less fiscally calculable but far more valuable as a result. And really, if you don't count the little perks that come with this job, such as nearly earning a living wage, that's exactly why I write things: so that others can read them.
In reality - the reality of high streets and magazines and the everyday - there'd be no way I could compete with the big cheeses of the entertainment world. It costs money to stay in the public consciousness, to have catchy adverts or prime shelf-space in shops. On a website, however, we're all just equal links. It's kind of poetic, really.
And so if this person who has never read my work before likes it, maybe they'll spend real money on it or on other work that I do. They may like it enough to share it with other people who I might never have reached before. I could sell dozens of copies of my books if the right person downloads my work or, alternatively, I could sell none. Which is a shame, but then that person probably wouldn't have bought my book in the first place, so I've lost nothing.
Either way, one concrete result is that that person knows who I am now. In these clamorous times when everyone is vying for your damn attention, it's good to have a place nestled in someone's memory. Maybe my next book will sell just that little bit better as a result? Who knows. It's a gamble, true, but I'll tell you why I think the odds at the piracy table are slightly stacked in my favour.
(Just to clarify, I am talking about online piracy, here - I have no good things to say about the guy with the suitcase round the back of the covered market who sells knock-off copies of whatever Madonna's latest album is. Inserting yourself into the chain for direct cash and eliminating the choice of all the creative content that the internet brings undermines every positive thing I've mentioned above.)
Piracy doesn't work for everyone. The film and music industries are particular targets, and clearly a lot more films and albums are being watched and ignored than watched, shared and subsequently bought.
I think I know the answer to this - the way to win against piracy - and it's blindingly simple. You just have to create things that are not disposable.
The way everything used to run BI (Before Internets) was that you would buy something and then appreciate it. You buy the video, you watch it; you buy the book, you read it; you buy the album, you listen to it. Obviously sometimes you could appreciate these things before buying, say on the radio, library or cinema, but to be able to enjoy it on your own terms, whenever you wanted to, you first had to hand over cold hard cash to a merchant. If you were disappointed, tough beans.
Now of course, you can enjoy these things before buying, and the real question is 'why would you want to actually own anything?'
Not 'check out' or 'experience': actually want to have taking up space on your shelves? It's an interesting thing to think about creative content in terms of longevity. What was the last thing you bought so that you could enjoy it whenever the mood takes you? Or bought to be a part of your collection? To be on display as a wondrous object? To represent a part of yourself to the friend idly browsing your assembled belongings while waiting for you to find your wallet and get your shoes on?
We buy things because we want to buy into them, because they have some kind of striking relevance to us. Maybe in a sense because we want to reward the creators for producing something that we enjoy so much - and part of that is that we especially want to support the little guy; the new band or the plucky young novelist. We can see the items that are produced with love, care and dedication, and those that are produced just to make a quick buck (*cough* Transformers 3 *cough*). In short, what is valuable and what is disposable, exploitative junk.
I've written both of my books with love, care and dedication. The artwork has taken me years and the storylines have been battered and hewn into shape over many, many, many drafts. I've cut no corners and crowbarred nothing in to appeal to specific demographics. All in all, I'm pretty confident that readers can tell I wrote these books for them, not for their wallets.
And that is how you win piracy.
SONG du JOUR
'Born to Suffer for Love' by Mountain Firework Company
…who I'd never heard of before being burned a copy of their album by a friend. I loved it, I bought the CD, and as soon as they were playing a gig nearby I bought tickets to see them live. I took a friend who'd never heard of them. She loved them too. And now I'm sharing them with you, and I'm telling you most emphatically that if you like them you should try and see them live because it was honestly one of the best and liveliest gigs I'd ever been to.
There's no way an accountant can predict who a single download can reach.