SOPA, PIPA, piracy, lending, and freedom


I wrote about SOPA and PIPA a few weeks ago.  It now looks as if Congress is going to try again to push these pieces of legislation through, in a very slightly altered format.  The corporations are pushing them, you see; they feel that they’re losing money, and that the only way to prevent this is to prevent people from posting stuff like songs, and quotes, and interviews, and video clips, and chapters from books, and maybe sometimes whole books.



I hate the idea of an author or an artist losing money.  Authors and artists deserve to be paid for their work.  However: I keep thinking of the analogy of lending.  I buy a book, and it’s good, and I want my friends to share the pleasure, so I lend it to them.  Am I violating a law?  (Last summer I read “The Hunger Games,” and enjoyed it enough to go out and buy the two sequels in hard cover.  To this date I have not read them; I’m saving them.  But I have lent them to at least five people, who have adored them.  Have I done anything wrong?)



I was delighted to read the following from an author I enjoy very much, Neil Gaiman:



“… Places where I was being pirated, particularly Russia where people were translating my stuff into Russian and spreading around into the world, I was selling more and more books. People were discovering me through being pirated. Then they were going out and buying the real books, and when a new book would come out in Russia, it would sell more and more copies. I thought this was fascinating, and I tried a few experiments. Some of them are quite hard, you know, persuading my publisher for example to take one of my books and put it out for free. We took “American Gods,” a book that was still selling and selling very well, and for a month they put it up completely free on their website. You could read it and you could download it. What happened was sales of my books, through independent bookstores, because that’s all we were measuring it through, went up the following month three hundred percent.


“I started to realize that actually, you’re not losing books. You’re not losing sales by having stuff out there. When I give a big talk now on these kinds of subjects and people say, “Well, what about the sales that I’m losing through having stuff copied, through having stuff floating out there?” I started asking audiences to just raise their hands for one question. Which is, I’d say, “Okay, do you have a favorite author?” They’d say, “Yes.” and I’d say, “Good. What I want is for everybody who discovered their favorite author by being lent a book, put up your hands.” And then, “Anybody who discovered your favorite author by walking into a bookstore and buying a book raise your hands.” And it’s probably about five, ten percent of the people who actually discovered an author who’s their favorite author, who is the person who they buy everything of. They buy the hardbacks and they treasure the fact that they got this author. Very few of them bought the book. They were lent it. They were given it. They did not pay for it, and that’s how they found their favorite author. And I thought, “You know, that’s really all this is. It’s people lending books. And you can’t look on that as a loss of sale. It’s not a lost sale, nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free.”


“What you’re actually doing is advertising. You’re reaching more people, you’re raising awareness. Understanding that gave me a whole new idea of the shape of copyright and of what the web was doing. Because the biggest thing the web is doing is allowing people to hear things. Allowing people to read things. Allowing people to see things that they would never have otherwise seen. And I think, basically, that’s an incredibly good thing.”



I apologize for the long quote.  But he speaks well, doesn’t he?



I asked myself his questions.  When I was in school, how did I discover my favorite authors? 



Let’s see:



        I stupidly bought “The Two Towers” through the old Scholastic Books network (do they still exist?) and couldn’t make head or tail of it.  (It begins with the line: “Aragorn sped up the hill,” for God’s sake.  Who the hell is Aragorn?)  My eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Lorenz, lent me his copy of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and then it all made sense.  And then he lent me “The Return of the King.” He was a good man.

        Our school librarian, no doubt now long dead, Catherine Schwarz, was always feeding me books through the library system.  It was through her that I discovered E. B. White, and Don Marquis, and Harry Golden, and T. S. Eliot.

        In the Battle Ground Public Library, where I spent occasional evenings waiting to be picked up after school, they used to perch books up on the tops of the shelves.  Among them: “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “A Wizard of Earthsea.”  I read both, and now I am a fanatical lover of both Thomas Pynchon and Ursula LeGuin.



Do libraries pirate things?



Did Mr. Lorenz pirate Tolkien when he lent me his copies?



Do I pirate the Hunger Games books when I lend them?



I don’t think so.



Keep fighting back against these Internet-control bills, kids.



I think this may be an important battle to win.


The Providence Public Library


The Providence Public Library is a grandiose pile of masonry on the corner of Empire and Washington downtown.  I went in a few times in the late 1970s, but it seemed very hoi polloi to me. (What a nasty little snob I was in those days!)



Also, I was entering that phase in my life in which it was important that I own books rather than just borrow them.



Thirty-five years have passed, and my home bookshelves are groaning with books, loved and unloved, read and unread.



And a few months ago, for some reason, I don’t know why, I went back to the Providence Public Library.



And I fell in love with the place.



Let me tell you first that it’s open for less than forty hours a week.  It opens at 12:30pm four days a week, which is a crime against humanity.  I didn’t know that when I first started going there; I got there around 12:15pm one day, and was surprised to see a line of people waiting to get in.  And do you know why most of them were there?  To use the small bank of public-use computers.  By the intense look on their faces, they were job-hunting.  What does that tell you about the usefulness of the public library?



The other sections of the library – the reference stacks, the reading rooms, the music rooms – are very quiet.  Well, maybe “quiet” is a stupid word to use about a library.  Let us say instead: deserted.



Which is itself a sin and a shame.



But I have to admit I enjoyed it.



I wandered into the fiction section as if by instinct.  I was the only person for miles, amid racks and racks of books, acres and acres of books, with that musty elementary-school smell all around me.  Do you remember those crackly plastic covers that library books always had when we were in school?  They still have them.



I got my bright blue library card that very first day.  I have been back at least once a week, and I get such pleasure out of it.  I return my last week’s reading in the little basket, and I wander light-headed through the stacks. 



And I’m borrowing them!  I’ve finally gotten away from the idea that I have to own books!  I used to love the idea that I owned them, they were mine, I could keep them on a shelf and pull them down anytime I wanted to . . .



Sometime around the ten-thousandth book, this stopped making sense.



Let’s face it: ultimately we own nothing, not our homes nor our cars, not even our precious books, not even ourselves.



We can only ever borrow things and use them for a while.



And maybe libraries are a perfect expression of that.



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