Posts Tagged ‘digital piracy’

The Pleasure of Piracy

October 11th, 2013 No comments

In a Granta article from 2009, Peruvian author Daniel Alarcón discussed the rampant state of book piracy in Peru. If you think the present day electronic copying of ebooks is a problem, this is nothing to the large scale copying of physical books in Peru: a new book by bestselling author Paul Coelho was widely available on street corners before it was even in the shops.

Alarcón, a newly published author at the time, lamented the loss of royalties when he found his book had been pirated. But at the same time he acknowledged that piracy was also a badge of honour – an author whose new book was not pirated had somehow failed.

It made me think how I would feel if my (as yet unpublished) books were pirated. And I concluded: I would be delighted. I’d be happy that someone had taken notice, that they’d felt the book was worth pirating. I don’t want to be a full-time writer, to need to make a living from writing – I’m happy trying to find a balance between working for money and the writing work that I do for myself for pleasure (which is pretty much the theme of The Tyranny of Careers in a nutshell.)

Of course in order for a book to be pirated, it must be published in the first place. It is the publisher that has lost the most – it is their decision that your book is worth publishing that encourages the piracy. Philip Pullman recently complained about the loss of earnings for full-time writers, and the unfairness of some readers taking for free what others have to pay for.

These are valid complaints. But even so I want to take Alarcón’s ambiguous view of the Peruvian book pirates as a guide for good writing. I do not want to view any kind of creative work in the same way as work to earn money. As I wrote in a previous post, I think a healthy society is one where art/creative work is a part-time activity undertaken by as many people as possible. I don’t want to write with the expectation of money – if it became a grind I would give it up. If I am never able to earn money to live on from writing perhaps I will only produce a book only once every five years say, rather than every year. This is fine. An every-five-years book will hopefully be more considered and therefore better than an every-year book. It is not like there is a shortage of books in the world to read.

In fact I would go further: if I am not happy for any work I produce to be pirated, if I am not happy to do the work but make no money from it, then it is not work worth doing.

Poorer Artists Does Not Mean Poorer Art

October 27th, 2011 No comments

Since the beginning of digital piracy on the internet, much has been written about piracy’s detrimental effect on artists and their ability to earn a living from their art. Musicians’ songs, once in digital form, can be endlessly copied and pirated, without any reimbursement for the musician, and in 2010 musicians’ royalties declined for the first time. Similarly, complained author Ewan Morrison, in the future writers will suffer the same fate, once ebooks become mainstream and replace paperbacks, and are pirated in a similar fashion. With the result, says Morrison, that potentially great books will no longer be written, just as great albums and films will not be made because musicians and filmmakers cannot make a full-time living. And so, the argument goes, the drive towards a price of nothing for digital artworks means the quality of culture declines.

I’m not sure our cultural future is so dark, or even worsening at all. Or that artists making less than a full-time living is even a bad consequence. Below are the ways in which critics suggest culture and society is diminished, and why I think they are mistaken.

Less art will be produced when the payment motive is removed

But even in the absence of upfront advances or the promise of any money at all, musicians will still write songs and authors will still write books. All first songs and books from established artists are created this way. A genuine artist’s first impulse to make art is never, ‘Am I going to get paid for this?’

In fact, because of the same digital technologies that are reducing the payment of artists, more art is being produced, because people are more easily able to create for themselves. This is no insignificant consequence. To produce songs, blogs, videos, etc and distribute them to even a small number of people is to feel the pleasure of creativity, and the more people who can do this the better.

This part of the argument also claims that established artists will stop making art if they are not making the kind of money to which they have become accustomed: middle-aged musicians cannot sustain a living from touring in the way that young musicians without families and responsibilities can. But is this true? It is certainly the case that musicians will earn less money, that the era of the mega-rich rock star will decline. But musicians can still make some money from playing live, and from PRS royalties, just not huge amounts of money, maybe not enough to earn a full-time wage. So maybe they will be part-time artists. More on this below.

If culture appears diminished by a reduction in the number of full-time artists, society is enriched by the increased numbers producing art part-time.

When produced by amateur artists, the art is of lower quality

But many penniless bands, probably supporting themselves with part-time jobs, have produced great debut albums before they earn any money. There is no correlation between the wealth of an artist and the greatness of their art. How many musicians have produced their best work in the mega-rich rock star phase of their life? Or even the comfortable middle-aged period of their life?

Also, how is this decline in quality measured? The value of culture is only ever measured by its visible output. Commentators ask: where is the new music scene, where are the new authors and filmmakers, and why does new art often recycle the past?, reinforcing the idea that less good, original art is being produced. But there is a huge amount of new art produced in every medium. It is just not as visible.

As a culture we don’t ratify much of this new art as ‘great’, because the very process of a culture labeling something is done through the the medium of mainstream media. But great art is anything enjoyed by an audience of ten, a hundred or a thousand regardless of whether it receives mainstream acclaim. (Off the top of my head, here’s three artworks from which I have enjoyed via the internet, found through personal rather than mainstream recommendation: ImprovEverywhere, Irina Werning’s Back to the Future, Steve Cutts’ In the Fall). I’m sure many people have a similar list of lesser-known artists.)

A society that does not pay its artists does not value their art, and is poorer for it

Society will always value artists and art. Artists’ value to society is not dependent on how much we pay them – their value and how much they are accorded status is dependent upon how much they affect our culture.

The idea that a spectator does not value art when it is free has arisen because of the increase in quantity and availability. When we are spectators of art it is up to us to pay attention to how we experience it. If we choose to listen to music as background noise, or go to a gig as an extension of socialising, these are valuing problems unconnected to the price of the music. There are difficulties in experiencing art in times of abundance, but that is a different discussion to the one here.

That people value art is shown by the fact that they are still willing to pay, even when digital piracy means music and films are available for free, and one of the reasons for this is to reward the creator. Artists may be paid less than they used to, but they will still be paid something, and after the work has been produced rather than in the form of an advance.

Artists deserve a full-time wage

If a drive towards a price of nothing does not mean a reduction in total quality, and will not stop artists producing art, is the objection simply that artists deserve to be paid for their art in order to make a full-time living?

Artists do deserve to be paid for their art. Companies and commercial ventures cannot expect artists to work for free when they are not themselves, even if this expectation persists because many artists will work for free for non-profit events. But despite this many artists will continue to be paid, and some well-known artists will still make a full-time living.

But if many artists won’t earn a full-time living, I’m not sure this is such a bad consequence. Creative work does not have to be a full-time activity. Part-time artists will need to supplement their income from art with other work. But isn’t it this type of artist, the one who has to do a regular job, and therefore lives a life more similar to us, the one whom we most admire? We are suspicious of art made by the wealthy and pampered, by the millionaire rock star, suggesting it has not come from genuine experience to which we can relate. So far I have made very little money from writing, but I’m not sure it would have been of higher quality had I been paid more, or had I been doing it as a full-time job. (It may not have any quality, that’s for you to judge of course).

For me a healthier society is one with a greater number of part-time artists, most of whom supplement their earnings from art with other kinds of paid work. Producing art makes people happy. Let’s all be amateur artists.