All right, I lied.
The thing is that I did have something I sort of wanted to write about, but by the time it got to be time to write it yesterday, my energy level was in the sewer and I convinced myself it was a bad idea. I’m finding my energy levels to be incredibly volatile in the current situation (and this is not becoming a ‘pandemic’ entry, I swear) and that’s something I’m gonna have to adapt to.
However. Here’s what I wanted to write about.
Piracy, and not the ‘fun’* kind. There was a bit of a Fuss about book piracy last week and into this week, and I had some Thoughts, but was really going to let it go (because, basically, who the fuck am I) but then I saw a friend in the world of music with similar issues, and since this is clearly a thing, here we go, for what it’s worth.
This is especially fun because I get to argue with me from 30 years ago.
I didn’t have pirated books back then (it wasn’t really technologically practical) but I did have pirated videogames. Almost every game I had for my computer back then was copied. If you had asked me, I would have had my reasons. Video game publishers are big companies and won’t miss the money. I’m a broke kid who wouldn’t be buying a game in any event, so it’s not like they’re out money. They got money from a sale at some point, this is just basically lending the games around. And on like that.
My friends and I copied music for each other, too (those double-deck cassette players seemingly purpose built for the task) and again, the thinking was (if we bothered to think very much about it) that musicians were clearly rich as fuck, we were not, and so it was, in a way, only fair.
I know exactly when my thinking at least started to change. It was year 1 of my ill-fated foray into journalism school, and we had to write an article on an issue in society. I chose software piracy and did some interviewing; one of the people I talked to was a family friend who had some sort of job with IBM. (Look, again, 25 years ago) I raised a question: ‘What do you say to the argument that people copy software because it’s too expensive?’ His reply: ‘That if you can’t afford a BMW, it doesn’t mean you get to steal one.’
I wrote up my mediocre article and it got the grade it deserved (the idea of me as a journalist gets more hilarious the better you know me) but the point is, and I remember this quite distinctly – I never really came up with a counterargument to that point. I’m not going to claim some moral epiphany here, I still had pirated software for years afterwards, but I also know my certainly about the whole deal had been fractured.
Basically, since then, the more I’ve learned about every creative industry (creation of computer games included), the more I have learned that basically all of my assumptions about them were wrong. There are, of course, titanically wealthy authors and musicians who no, probably don’t feel it much if they lose a sale to piracy. But for every one of those, there’s at least dozens who are just scraping whatever income they have out of their art, either literally to get by, or to see if they can (in this strangely terrible world we have built for ourselves) afford to divert time from things they know will make money to their art.
Everything that gets torrented or downloaded kicks those decisions in a particular direction, and the net effect is going to be less people making art, and more people giving up on it as a thing they can do. It would indeed be lovely if our society was such that people who feel art in their soul could pursue it for nothing but the joy of it, but the world we have thus far chosen to build requires all of us to make money somehow. If there’s no money in art, for most creators, the decision will have to be to do something else.
So there will be that small number of people who make a living at it, the gate to getting into that group will be exceedingly narrow, and the array of voices we will have in whatever field of art we’re talking about will be less. And we will be worse off because of it.
It doesn’t take much thought to carry this a little further and realize that the people who will suffer most from this are those whose position in society is precarious to begin with, the marginalized and underprivileged. Those are the voices we need to amplify, not stifle by making pursuing their art something they literally cannot afford to do.
This is without getting into the wider issues here: similar to the artists themselves, there are of course tremendously wealthy and powerful publishers of art. But there are also lots where, even if we know the name really well, the margins are razor thin, and the decisions about how many things they can put out, or if they are even going to continue to make a go of it, are absolutely impacted by how much of their stuff gets stolen.
Even for those big publishers that, no, probably aren’t going to close the shutters because a thing was torrented, they are making decisions based on sales. So, do they give that particular author another deal (and thus, get more art in your hands), or do they not? If the sales aren’t there, they won’t, and so your artistic world just got a little smaller.
For every piece of art we consume, there’s also a bunch of work we often don’t think of attached to it, as well. For a book, there’s editors, layout people, cover designers, agents; a whole pretty-darned-rickety industry that gets that story in your hand. Even if the artist themselves, or the publisher, is crazy rich? Gonna bet that most of those other people attached to the project are not. All of them are ultimately depending on someone paying for the book to get paid themselves. The whole thing gets closer to collapse the more of us decide we’re not paying.
Basically what this all comes down to is recognizing that we do, as a society, value art. Almost everyone I have ever known likes some type of it – there’s either music they like to listen to, stories they like to read, images they like on their wall, games they like to play. We surround ourselves with art nearly constantly.
The bizarre thing is that for a society of art-lovers, we seem strangely reluctant to pay for it. Can’t we just enjoy it? And again, it would be lovely if that was the case. But, every piece of art we enjoy exists because of someone’s labour, and it almost always comes to us because of many people’s labour. To say ‘nah, I’m not gonna pay for it’ or ‘you should give it to me for nothing’ is to say that you think the worth of that labour is zero, and that’s a terrible judgment to make.** It’s especially indefensible if you claim to be on the side of workers, and ordinary people.
If it’s really what you think, though, at least have the decency to not call a thing literally worthless and then also insist on taking it at the same time.
We all love art. Love the people who bring it to you as well, and please don’t steal it or help facilitate it being stolen. Our world needs art very badly, and we’ll have less of it if we starve our artists.
Take that, me from 30 years ago.
Thanks for reading.
* – Real piracy was not, in fact, fun or charming and the transformation of brutal vicious killers into whimisical jolly good fellows is an interesting phenomenon that we are absolutely not getting into.
** – there is an (I hope) obvious exception here for providing access to art to underprivileged people who would never be able to experience any of it otherwise, which is another objectively good thing to do. However, these should always be things that the artists consent to being a part of. And no, ‘you can tell us and we’ll stop’ is not anywhere near the same as getting permission before you begin.