Steal This Book: Some Words on Piracy

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The ethics. “First do no harm.” What does this mean for those patients who need the testing and simply cannot afford it?
  3. 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.

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  1. I have no problems with copyright or patents but things have gotten way out of hand and need to be reigned in. We are rapidly reaching a point where big business has more say on national policy than the people and this a step back to reevaluate things is needed.

    Copyright infringement is not the same as murder, yet it seems that some would see the punishment be as harsh if not more so.

    • Pretty much exactly how I feel. Heck, copyright infringement isn’t even the same thing as theft, but it’s often equated to that.

  2. I’m re-reading 2001: A Space Odyssey. What strikes me most about the famous opening sequence depicting the rise of man from ape is the assertion that the most utilitarian achievement in our development was the ability to communicate. Communication allows knowledge to be passed explicitly from generation to generation and prevents individuals/clans from having relearn everything anew – which is potentially dangerous and intellectually limiting. Censorship is anti-communication. As a writer, reader, and thinker, I not only enjoy the freedom of access to materials I find valuable, but also believe that open dissemination of knowledge is our best defense against our darker human impulses. I don’t pirate books, music, movies… but I will be willing to pass them around in the underground if our access to them is waylaid by government interference. You wrote, “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.” I agree. One of the wonderful things about books (and probably movies, etc) is the inter-textual dialog they can present. The great books talk to each other via homage, refutation, direct mention of parallels. It’s delightful. Censorship will hamstring that sort of dialog. Censorship is the biggest pirate.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. Rachel, this is a very thoughtful piece. In addition to being an author, I am an attorney and I could not find a single point of your argument that was anything short of legally sound and morally correct. I think that you have made a very important point and done so with wonderful thoughtfulness.

    Oddly enough, I woke this morning thinking about the changes in bankruptcy laws under the George W. Bush administration that basically took away the right to debt discharge for individuals even though corporate bankruptcy is based primarily around discharge. We have been sold into a new kind of serfdom in this country and SOPA and PIPA were very nearly the newest manifestation of this sin.

    Recently, I have noticed my own blog becoming increasing political as we can no longer remain silent. Thank you for an interesting post and for taking a stand.

    Best wishes,
    D. M. Kenyon

    • Jonathan, I owe you an enormous apology. I got tangled up in the web links and understood your marvelous post on SOPA as attributable to someone else. I am so sorry for that mistake. By the same token it has been a fortunate happenstance in that it has caused me to look over you blog and become more familiar with you and your work.

      I am sorry about the mistake, but delighted to get to know what you are up to in greater detail.

      D. M. Kenyon

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