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.




As a citizen of the Internet, I assume you’re aware of SOPA/PIPA.  It looks as if both houses of Congress have tabled the original versions of the legislation (largely because of the huge anti-SOPA/PIPA movement here on the Net), and are rewriting them to be more specific.



I am uninformed, and can only tell you my feelings on these pieces of legislation.



Very simply: I was alarmed by them. 



Supposedly they were all about stopping piracy, and that’s fine.  But the corporations pushing the legislation were playing a double game: they were pretending that it was all about cracking down on websites (mostly outside the USA) that illegally distribute movies and music and such, while they were really thinking of the law’s very real application within the USA as well.



Did you notice the word “corporations” in the above paragraph?






“Piracy” can be very broadly defined.  “Piracy” could be something as innocent as a Tumblr blogger posting Disney images.  “Piracy” could be posting a link to a song you like, or a video clip. 



Which means that almost all of us out here posting our favorite quotes and links and clips on our blogs and on Facebook are pirates!



Not so, not so, croon the pro-legislation people.  We’re only after the real pirates.  David Pogue, who alternates between intelligence and toadydom, decided that the Google / Wikipedia approach – to black out their websites in protest – was an overreaction, and that they were siding with the pirates.



Well, yes, David, they were.  This is because we are all part of a big incestuous system called the Internet, and it’s all about trading information.  And Google, and Wikipedia, and all the rest, were perfectly aware that, once the legislation was in place, it would not be used merely to go after Swedish and Korean and Russian sites, but to go after sites here in the USA too.  Sites like mine and yours and everyone’s.



How much of a pirate am I?  Not very much.  Last summer I watched the “Thor” preview on a probably-pirate Russian website, but – hey – a two-minute trailer?  If I go to Hell, or prison, it will not be for that particular transgression.  And sometimes I scoop up images to use in my blogs or on Facebook, and I do not always inquire about their copyrights.  And sometimes I quote books and poems and all kinds of things, and I do not add complete copyright information (though I try hard to credit the authors).



But I suspect that I too would be in violation at some point down the road if SOPA/PIPA in their original forms were enacted.



Because that’s what corporations do.  They restrict access



The Internet is a zoo. I love the depictions of it on shows like “Futurama” and “The Simpsons,” with people actually entering it as if it were a place, flying around among buildings marked GOOGLE and FACEBOOK and ONLINE GAMBLING and NAPSTER.  And that’s exactly what it’s like. 



Frankly, it has always seemed to me that I have the right to share media with my friends.  It’s like handing a newspaper or magazine to another person so that they can read something.  I paid for it; am I the only person who can read it?  Really?  And how exactly are you going to enforce that?



I didn’t call my congressmen this time.  But if this legislation comes up again, in anything like its current form, I will.



So there, David Pogue.




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