I want you to pirate my books.
No, really. Go for it.
Why? Well…that’s a complex question, with an even more complex answer, but one that I think I should answer. I’ve mentioned a few times now on Twitter that I’m okay with people pirating my book, and while I’ve had discussions with a few authors who took exception (and rightfully so, I don’t claim that my stance is for everyone), I’ve never fully explained why I feel this way. With SOPA on the table and the Internet in lock-down mode, I thought it might be a better use of my time to talk about why I think even piracy itself is not the key issue here, but copyright protections.
Let’s talk a little bit about Myriad Genetics. Disclaimer, we’re going to talk a bit about patent laws, and they’re a little different from copyright laws, but I think you’ll come to understand my exact argument and why the two parallel one another in a short bit. For those of you who don’t know, Myriad Genetics is a company out of Salt Lake City that holds a patent on a breast cancer gene. That’s right – a company can patent a gene. Even the genes that are in your body now. Seriously. Companies hold patents on at least 20% of your genes. It sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. That patent means that no one but the patent holder can conduct any research or perform any gene therapy on information based on those genes.
Which brings us back to Myriad Genetics and its breast cancer gene patent. Myriad developed a fairly effective test for breast cancer based on that patent, and decided to hold it hostage. Okay, they didn’t go full-on evil right away, to be fair. For awhile they participated by sharing their information on cancer mutations with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but at some point decided to move all their knowledge in-house, effectively holding it hostage for exorbitant rates.
Now, I don’t think that companies should develop these things out of the kindness of their heart. I’m nothing if not a craven capitalist (albeit with a socialist bent), and a profit needs to be made. I get that, and I’m not here to argue against capitalism itself. At the same time, it’s hard to even argue this as true capitalism, as they have been granted a monopoly on knowledge, which shouldn’t really apply in the ideal free market (and listen to me now, the liberal espousing the free market), as I’ll speak to later.
Ultimately, the market will have the last laugh on Myriad, as the test itself has fallen woefully behind modern standards and is way too costly, thanks to their scheme. I see several problems here, though:
- The exorbitant fee. This is quite obviously price gouging, as other, far more comprehensive sequencing tests are a fraction of the cost. They do this simply because they can.
- The ethics. “First do no harm.” What does this mean for those patients who need the testing and simply cannot afford it?
- Government compliance. As I said, I’m a lefty. I think smart regulation is a good thing, as it serves both companies and their long-term costs, even if they kick and scream about it, and the common welfare. My problem lies with these regulatory functions being captured by the corporate sector and twisted as a self-serving function of business itself. I’d say one and two effectively demonstrate the problem here, even if the company was legally in the right. Legality and morality are hardly entwined.
And so we come to the crux of my problem with current patent and copyright law, and why I’m okay with pirating. I’m going to shift gears to talk about copyrights, as it pertains more to my sphere of work, but government protections get stuck in a self-serving loop in both respects, just moreso in copyright law.
Essentially, I have two major issues:
Copyright law is rewritten to serve the existing power establishment. American copyrights were built into the constitution right from the beginning, and once stood for a maximum of 28 years, allowing creators a government-granted monopoly to offer incentives for creating and sharing new ideas and works. As stated, “patents and copyrights are exclusive rights of limited duration, granted in order to serve the public interest in promoting the creation and dissemination of new works.” This relied on the concept of ideas ultimately belonging to the public sphere once they had been expressed, as has all great art from way, way back (though not all of recorded civilization – let’s just say we’ve come a long way). In 1831, they added another 14 years, expanding it to 42 years, supposedly to compete with copyright laws in Europe. In 1909, Congress expanded the scope of the law and added another 14 years, now giving us 56 years, doubling the original intent of the law. Right now you may get a creeping feeling that something is amiss. Again, compensation for the artist was cited, disregarding the original concept of ideas serving the public good.
1976 saw the most radical expansion of the law, and it’s from that point that I cannot in good conscience support copyright law. This expansion changed the period to the life of the artist plus 50 years! And works for hire got 75 years. Average life expectancy in the 1970s was close to 73 years, so now we’re looking at a maximum of close to 150 years, from the previous 56. Just writing that makes my blood boil, because there’s no doubt who set that up: the companies that profit from those creations, not the artists themselves. In 1976, where was the individual musician? Toiling under the major music cartels. The individual author? Shackled to traditional publishing. And let’s not delve too deeply into Disney’s role in all of this; its heavy lobbying clearly served to continue to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain.
And that’s what it boils down to, for me: all this talk of protecting the artist had really become about protecting the companies’ ongoing profit margins. The founders’ initial ideals were never to support ongoing profit, but to spur and reward new ideas. The system has evolved into protecting old and stale ideas in what is essentially perpetuity at this point. Of course, they weren’t done. In 1998, they expanded the protections of life + 50 to life + 70, moving the goal posts again. Oh, and let’s not forget the odious DMCA, which began the government’s (and corporations’) encroachment into the digital space and set us on the road to SOPA. Year after year, the government ceded more and more control to these companies, and as the companies became desperate to protect shrinking profit margins (the cause of that shrinkage of only debatable connection to piracy), copyright law became more and more militarized, losing sight of the original purpose of the venture. This leads into my second issue; that is,
Ideas and knowledge should be free. Again, go back to the original purpose of legally protecting these works: ideas ultimately belong to the public domain, and copyrights are simply an incentive to add to that body of knowledge. Every artist and creator stands on the shoulders of those who came before them. It’s impossible to claim that any one idea was just born purely out of nowhere, popping into someone’s head without any influence whatsoever, as culture drives those ideas. Without access to that culture, without the dissemination of ideas, innovation and further creativity become stagnant. It could be argued that a nation’s culture itself suffers when ideas are kept behind lock and key.
Whether it’s the key to a genetic marker that could save lives or a new approach to creating music, these ideas are the lifeblood of civilization, not just assets. I don’t dare to compare my own work to any of those, or the cancer gene, but I do look at these abuses and feel that, ultimately, for my own moral compass, piracy is far lesser of those two evils, and in fact some things that are pirated fall under just that same problem: useful knowledge that is kept from the average person under lock and key of exorbitant cost.
For all these reasons, while I don’t advocate piracy for anyone else’s work, and I don’t insist that everyone else feels the same way, I am quite fine with pirating of my own works. Those ideas are no longer my own; they belong to the public, no matter how small that sphere who are interested in the ideas may be. I’m all right with that. No, more, I’m honored to be part of that ongoing cycle.