Neil Gaiman: Piracy boosts sales

It’s very telling to see someone extraordinarily popular, extraordinarily widely-read, and with a great deal to lose, put his own works up on the internet for free as an experiment, and change his mind about piracy when the empirical evidence proves his original thoughts on the matter wrong.

Just yesterday, I bought a copy of Watchmen — my first ever — despite having read it years ago. Why would I have bought it, if I already know the story? If I already read it for free once before? Because the content is worth it to me, and I never would have known that for certain if I hadn’t read it first.

I know some of my readers consider this opinion of mine to be damaging to their own bottom lines, and will dissent in the comments, as they’ve done before. Every time I point out one of these cases, where someone tries pricing the distribution of their content correctly, or every time some creator discovers their content is being distributed at the correct cost without their consent and does the unthinkable — engaging with the copyright infringers as fans — they mysteriously become single anecdotes, rather than data, when their sales improve as a direct result. Why do I figure their sales improve in these cases? Because the content is worth it, and like me and the Watchmen graphic novel, people might otherwise have failed to realize that they would have enjoyed it and considered it worth their money. I’m thinking that since these experiments happen so infrequently, and since they especially happen so infrequently when done by content creators with a great deal to lose, that these particular instances show that content quality matters far more than artificial scarcity.

Is piracy a panacea for flagging sales? Of course not. Like how word-of-mouth about how terrible Gigli was hurt their sales, inducing the studio heads to scapegoat the fact that folks used texting to spread the word, it’s the quality of the content that really matters. Prove it’s worth the money to people, by way of letting them try the actual product rather than a slick and polished piece of marketing, and they will buy it.

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.

The worldwide copyfight will continue apace, of course. The intellectual descendants of SOPA/PIPA are still being proposed and still being lobbied for by those content middle-men with their hands on the levers of power. To them, maximizing their own profits is a far higher priority than maximizing the profits of the content creator.

Neil Gaiman: Piracy boosts sales

48 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman: Piracy boosts sales

  1. 1

    Many of my just-starting-out and less popular writerly friends have commented bitterly on the fact that Neil Gaiman doesn’t have to worry about lost profit from pirated work because he already gets quite a lot of money. When you are just starting a career and number your sales in the hundreds, not the tens or hundreds of thousands, work lost to piracy (and profit going to the people who have stolen it, sometimes) is a much more bitter blow.

    And, it doesn’t necessarily equal “more publicity/more sales” down the line, either, because it will never equal the kind of exposure that one gets from having a book on a shelf in a bookstore — and because of the way that purchasing for legitimate sites from publishers works. Initial orders from publishers are always, always small, unless you are already a big name, and then the bookstore gauges what demand is for the product by how fast the first few copies sell from each availability point. People getting their copies from a pirate site rather than from a bookstore means that the bookstore is less likely to restock initial copies, which means that even if people want to buy a legitimate copy of a work later on, it may not be available any more because of the low initial demand; legitimate sites will only restock or pay for continued availability of something which sells quickly off the bat. It feeds into a losing situation for a new author.

  2. 2

    Let me just make clear, I think that SOPA/PIPA sucked badly as any attempt to address the issue (and I was out there lobbying to kill them), and I think that the publishing and recording industries wildly overstate how much profit is lost due to piracy in order to gloss over the fact that much profit is lost simply because the product offered sucks. HOWEVER, what I’m arguing is that piracy is not an entirely benign, happy thing, either, and it can and does sometimes genuinely hurt content creators, depending on context. I don’t see piracy as something to be encouraged either.

    Putting sales more under the control of the content creators (especially in the music industry!) I would support, and the creation of more independent legitimate providers and pay models — which might decrease piracy because it increased ease of legitimate access. Look at the success of iTunes and Spotify, for example. But there isn’t really an easy answer.

  3. AJS

    The ugly truth is that for years, original creative works have been stupidly overpriced by greedy publishers (and hence overvalued by those authors lucky enough to be published) just because there was traditionally such a barrier to entry into the market, due to so few people having their own printing presses. Nowadays, almost anyone has the ability to be a publisher. You do not need millions of pounds of equipment, just a computer and an Internet connection.

    This has the unfortunate consequence that those who have benefitted in the past from the unfairnesses in the system, now have to get used to living without a bonus that was never really rightfully theirs.

    Any market in which the vendor has influence over the price of goods is not a free market. Your work is worth whatever people are prepared to pay. And that, unfortunately, may be less than you thought. Those are the rules now; and if you don’t like them, you’d better get out of the game. I don’t dispute for a moment that authors have to eat, but neither am I under the misapprehension that writing is necessarily a good way of making money.

  4. 4

    Heh. When I was a wee lad, when comic books cost 20 US cents, one of the local drug stores would leave me alone while I read the comic books on the the racks. They knew I wasn’t going to buy any until I knew which ones I liked, and I would often end up buying two or three.

  5. 5

    I think that the arguments made by the commenters above are more valid if you assume that all book sales are made in bookstores. However, since I make at least 75% of my book purchases for an e-reader, they’re just not particularly valid for me.

    I really don’t care if an author gets stocked on a bookshelf at Barnes & Noble or an independent bookseller or not, so long as I can find it at Amazon or a publisher’s website!

    Many of my favorite authors are published by Baen Books and so I buy directly from them. Interesting fact: Baen agrees with Neil Gaiman and often puts older books in a series up for free, even if those books are still selling. And I’ve discovered new authors that way, and went on to buy their books. Not all of those authors were big names, either.

    I’m not going to claim that pirates are all noble-minded individuals who do it for the love of books, because that’s *obviously* not true. But I think there’s a big difference between someone distributing thousands of copies of a book or song or movie and someone who sends five of their friends a book or song or movie that they just *know* they’ll love.

    One last side note: I’m a big fan of transformative works such as fanfiction and fanvids, and I have written a metric ton of fanfic over the years. We’re often accused of being pirates, which infuriates me because we make no money off what we do and we do it for the love of the source. I don’t write comic book fic to steal money from DC Comics (who have gotten a lot of money from me), but because I truly love Batman and Robin and Nightwing.

  6. 6

    @Luna: Let me make this clear. Crystal clear. Without piracy, there is no iTunes and there is no Spotify, and no Pandora or no Netflix Streaming (and possibly no Netflix). Piracy is the leverage that consumers have in order to force more cultural products at a better price with more convenient packaging out of a monopolistic system.

    Make no mistake, Big Media does not want to go through the bother of doing these things. In fact, it costs them money to do it, in their eyes.

    As for the publishing industry, the problem of piracy quite frankly pales in comparison to the damage done by your friendly local public library. Not that I think that libraries are a bad thing, not at all. It’s just that you have to understand how shallow in our culture the concept is of “rewarding the creator”. We do it when we feel like it’s appropriate, but it’s something that almost nobody feels honor-bound to do ALL the time.

    The example I give is a magazine left on a table in a diner. Interesting story? Virtually everybody would pick it up and read it without a second thought.

  7. 7

    An entertaining take on piracy from TED, I’ve no idea if the copyright math is actually valid but does suggest the industry numbers on the dangers of piracy are over-stated.

  8. 8

    If I ever finish my novel, it will be available for free online. If you want to buy a copy to take with you, I’d appreciate that, of course, but the price will be quite reasonable (aka, the cheapest I’m allowed to make it). I don’t want to write to be famous or whatever. I want to write to have fun writing, and I don’t think the prices of books are currently reasonable.

    I’d like to think the merits of my work will be enough to convince people to spend a little money to buy it. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’ll find out that way. I’m not afraid of piracy. If I don’t sell anything…I’ll just continue my day job.

  9. 9

    @Idon’tknow It’s not that they’re overstated. It’s that they are gibberish. They’re based on economic concepts that entirely divorced from reality. The problem is that a lot of smart, well-meaning individuals buy into those concepts.

    The future of economics is actually viewing how economic decisions are made on an individual basis, and understanding how they effect the economy at large. (Think of it as micro-micro-economics) What does someone do when they pirate a cultural good, with the money they saved? Well…they don’t burn that money, that’s for certain. Generally it goes towards other goods and services (there might be a relatively small number that puts it towards savings…if that is a good thing or a bad thing is an exercise left up to the reader and one’s own personal beliefs) at about an equal velocity to actual purchase of the cultural good.

    On a macro-economic scale, piracy has next to zero effect on aggregate demand (although it may have effects on other things. Micro-micro-economics IS really complicated, although I suspect the net result of piracy is money going from low-labor jobs to high-labor jobs. I.E. economically positive)

    What this leaves us with is a world where people might download TV show X they want to watch but they’re working when it’s on, go to the local multiplex to see movie Y and maybe rent game Z on the way home. Someone else might make different decisions on what they buy and what they obtain via other means (not just piracy, but rentals, loaning, used sales, etc). Ideally, this will all balance out in the end. Which of course, it doesn’t.

    Which leads us to the main problem behind piracy, distortionary effects. It means that yes, it’s highly possible that the industries as a whole are losing profits, but they’re in a competition with all the other sort of entertainment out there. Even without piracy, they might find themselves in the same boat (actually, it’s my personal opinion that they would have less cultural relevance sans piracy, and find themselves much less competitive) The question is if the distortionary effects are large enough to actually require any sort of potentially culturally and economically harmful response. And the clear answer to that is no.

    We already have plenty of distortionary grey market activity in our economy that’s perfectly legal. It’s culturally ingrained in our society. As long as those things are true, then there’s really no point to taking a hard-line stance on piracy.

    In conventional economic terms, piracy reclaims some of the lost consumer value that happens in a monopolistic market. If you could eliminate piracy tomorrow, you’d just be losing that consumer value, for no real macro-economic gain, and for the industries in question, the distortionary effects would still be there…if not worse. (I contend that used media sales are more damaging than piracy)

  10. 10

    Luna, I think you may have missed the point. The point Neil, and most artists who are in favour of piracy, is that piracy generally does not contribute to a loss of sales. Most people who are pirating a given work wouldn’t have paid for it in the first place.No this doesn’t work all the time, and leads to bad results sometimes, but imperfection is no reason for condemnation.

    For myself, the books, movies and games I pirate are the ones I want but cannot afford. It is not a lost sale in any way. (I also feel free to pirate games I used to own, but lost for whatever reason.)

    For the record, if you want an example of pirating going wrong, look at the gaming industry. It’s hurt them the most.

  11. 12

    Hurting them the most? They’re basically eating the lunch of the music industry (and to a lesser extent the movie industry) right now. While the gaming industry does have some problems currently, none of which are piracy.

    The increasing graphical “arms race” resulting in increased production budgets, more expectations in terms of competitive pricing, be it fighting against GameStop’s used sales or the massive Steam-based PC sales and all of them fighting against Apple’s disruption of the market (which along with Steam) has a lot more fingers in a mildly-increasing pie.

  12. 13

    Of course piracy increases sales, because people don’t want to buy a pig in a poke.

    A study at UCSD, released last year, showed that people have no problems with “spoilers” in movies or literature. In work that has depth, knowing the end actually helps the viewer or reader appreciate the foreshadowing, details and subplots all the more. People will buy books and movies, even if they know the ending, because good entertainment is worth multiple viewings.

    Many people I’ve spoken to, and myself, will download and watch part of a movie (15-20 minutes) because it gives a better impression than do Hollywood’s “previews” whether a movie is worth seeing. If I think it’s good, I’ll pay for it. But if I can’t preview 20 minutes of it, if the only thing I know about it is from a “preview”, then I’m not going to pay to see that movie. Hollywood loses if I can’t download movies and delete them the next day.

    This is also true of music. When albums ruled the day, record companies and groups put one or two good/hit songs on a record and had filler for the rest. People who bought the albums felt cheated, while those who heard taped copies could decide whether or not to pay for it. If people wanted better quality sound, they paid for the vinyl. And even with higher quality and easily copied MP3s, that hasn’t changed.

    Claims of “loss” are lies, they are just further attempts to gouge the paying public out of money in much the same way that banks do with fees.

  13. 14

    Mara #3

    Many of my favorite authors are published by Baen Books and so I buy directly from them. Interesting fact: Baen agrees with Neil Gaiman and often puts older books in a series up for free, even if those books are still selling. And I’ve discovered new authors that way, and went on to buy their books. Not all of those authors were big names, either.

    Eric Flint, who is probably Baen’s best selling author, talked Jim Baen into putting books up for free. Flint agrees with Gaiman that exposing people to his books actually increases sales, particularly of older books.

  14. 15

    Also – if piracy were that effective, surely by now repressive regimes would have cottoned on to it as an efficient way to silence their dissidents?

  15. 16

    Another way they fuck us up is with region coding. Living outside the US, I find that a large amount of stuff I would like to buy is simply not even offerred to me to buy at all. I’ve tried to give them money, and they won’t have it. My choice is often as simple as pirate vs nothing. Alrighty then.

  16. 17

    David Weber, who also publishes with Baen Books, often puts CDs with ALL his books on them, in multiple formats, at the end of his hardback books. So, if you buy one, you get them all!


    It isn’t PIRACY. In spite if the common usage of that word, it is “copyright infringement”. Piracy is a word the middlemen use to describe it because it equates with theft and lawlessness.

    REFUSE to go along with this framing of the debate, because copyright infringement is NOT theft, nor is it equal to piracy!

  17. 18

    Mara #3 — Actually, I make extensive use of Baen myself, and appreciate their model immensely. It is an alternative I approve of.

    But here’s the thing:
    1. The author, or if the author is deceased then the author’s estate, or the publisher if they still hold the rights, must consent to the work being offered for free.
    2. Those works which are not offered for free are generally quite reasonably priced (personally, I object to paying almost the same price for a digital object as I do for a hardcover; the production costs are nowhere the same).
    3. The work is offered DRM-free, which means that legitimate owners can transfer it between devices and not be forced to buy it again if something goes wrong (I would be happy to rant about Adobe’s f@&#er of a DRM at length, believe me).

    So, as per #1 in that list, it is not piracy. It is done with the consent of the owner, and is not stealing. And the other two things mean that the model of legitimate sales is kept in the range where consumers are more likely to make use of it, and profits CAN make their way to the content creators and providors. So, all in all, that is great.

    Now, piracy: that’s when my friend G. finds out that her book has been scanned and is being offered for download without her consent, and there is no model whereby she could possibly get any money fed back to her. See the difference?

    I know a number of authors who take the path of offering some of their work free on their website. I think that’s a great idea; as with the lengthy excerpt of a movie, you can get enough of a taste to know whether it’s worth buying or not, and quite often on the basis of this I’ve gone for books I would otherwise have stayed away from because I didn’t know if I would be wasting my money. That’s not piracy. That’s an alternative to piracy. That’s not an issue.

    Now, on a separate note: Amazon is actually part of the problem. Traditionally, a retailer has taken 10-30% of the cover price of a book, and in the early days of ebook selling this is still about what they took. Amazon, however, takes a staggering 70%. Sadly, they also have way more market share that B&N and other online retailers, driven in no small part by the Kindle. (I have a Kindle myself which I use a lot; I’m part of the problem.) While Amazon had to back down on the agency model of pricing (where the publisher, not the retailer, sets the price), they have taken their revenge. What this means for consumers is that too many ebooks are still very expensive, and the authors don’t get much of it. I’m sure that high costs help drive piracy, yes.

    Piracy is still not the answer to this, though. Decentralizing production and distribution of electronic entertainment, while finding ways that the content creators and producers still retain control of it and get paid, that’s the challenge.

    Oh, and crayzz: the problem is normalising piracy and making it completely socially acceptable for people to take without ever supporting the author/creator. I understand that there are people, as mentioned in this thread, who write for fun and are happy to have a day job, but that’s their *choice*. I know people who make a living writing, who WANT to make a living writing, and who have made a committed career of writing, or game designing, or art. These people deserve to be paid for the content that people want, and we should have the kind of culture where it is actually possible to make a living at it.

  18. 19

    Now, piracy: that’s when my friend G. finds out that her book has been scanned and is being offered for download without her consent, and there is no model whereby she could possibly get any money fed back to her. See the difference?

    No, there is no such crime as piracy, except at sea.

    You are referring to “copyright infringement”, and it is NOT the same as stealing. It is illegal precisely for the reason you cite, which is that the profits from the sales are not funneled to the author or the distributor. But that is not the same as theft. Theft takes something from your possession, and prevents you from enjoying the fruits of ownership of that item. Copyright infringement does not do that, it COPIES your intellectual property and ALSO profits from it. You can still sell your book. Traditionally, since books were sold at bookstores, an illegal copy would not be bought from a distributor of your LEGAL copies, so such a sale isn’t a loss to you – the customer that bought it wasn’t AT your distributor. Thus, not theft, not necessarily the loss of a sale. (which is the point of the OP)

    At some level, today, since distribution is more complicated, one can argue some loss – but as the OP argues, one cannot equate the rate of the sale of illegal copies as a one to one ratio. You can, and do, still make sales from your authorized distributors – copyright infringement doesn’t lead to your being unable to sell books- which WOULD happen if someone stole all the books that had been printed and sold them elsewhere.

    See the difference?

  19. 20

    Oh, and let me make this clear: going back to my first post, the issue with publishers only issuing more stock of books that sell in stores, that translates to electronic formats too. Sites like Amazon and B&N *do* inform publishers of sales, royalties have to be calculated, etc. If an author is selling well via download, not only does it mean that the publisher will keep the title in the current stable, it also means that the author is much more likely to be offered a contract for his/her next book.

    When people are acquiring an author’s books solely or mainly off the grid from pirated copies (leaving aside the pricing policies which may drive them to do so), and there is no large body of the author’s work which is available elsewhere and to which these people may go, then the publisher has no motivation to keep a title in the stable and no motivation to offer another contract to an author who, as far as they can tell, is not selling.

    Gaiman has enough books current that offering some for free means that people can come looking for the others, and find them. Baen is pushing that for older titles, too, and I think it works for them. But for new authors, starting out, who may only have one or two works, having those works being primarily accessed through pirated sites — those that they haven’t consented to, and which give the publishers nothing, no money, no feedback — is disastrous for them. One of my acquaintances is an SF author who had sold two novels, but although pirated copies were readily available (and having read his books, not bad) the official sales were so lukewarm that the publisher dropped him. Scrambling to find a new publisher puts an author in a bad position. Self-publishing, the other option, offers no advances, it is much lower status in the food chain of the creative world, and this makes life far more difficult for him. THAT’s the kind of thing that Gaiman misses.

  20. 21

    RW Ahrens:

    No, it is not simply copyright infringement. When someone takes content without consent, it is theft, even if it does not make that content unavailable to the creator. I absolutely reject your definition.

  21. 24

    1. Content offered without your consent profits people who have no right to that profit (the creator signed no agreement with them) and channels profit away from the author (see my longer statements above).

    2. It can impact an author or content creator’s ability to get publisher support and profit from future efforts, as outlined above, in detrimental ways. In other words, it continues to contribute to material loss.

    Once an author has an established body of work, then “free samples” are a great way to bring in custom — but that also works with the extremely important moral concept of with the author’s consent. Even starting authors or artists are often happy to offer people controlled free samples, to bring in readers; my friend G., mentioned above, has offered a few of her short stories as free downloads.

    However — when the author or artist’s entire body of work is offered without their consent and with profit flowing to people who have no involvement in or support of that work, then many tend to — quite understandably — suffer from this.

    It’s fecking theft. Get over it.

  22. 25

    Jason, I have no idea how you manage to extrapolate from “this book has been scanned and is available for free download from an off-grid site” to lending a book being theft. I do not follow your logic.

  23. 26

    Luna, that’s not MY definition, it is the law.

    Theft is a State matter – copyright is Federal, and copyright is in regard to people COPYING and reselling a copyrighted work.

    Theft, again, is stealing something – i.e., removing something from someone else’s possesion. It denies that owner the use of the property.

    Someone COPYING something of yours does not deny you the use of your IP, it merely enables them to illegally sell it and thereby profit from it.

    Two distinctly different things.

  24. 27

    From Merriam-Webster:


    1 a : the act of stealing; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.

    From Wikipedia:

    copyright infringement

    Copyright infringement is the unauthorized or prohibited use of works under copyright, infringing the copyright holder’s “exclusive rights”, such as the right to reproduce or perform the copyrighted work, spread the information contained within copyrighted works, or to make derivative works. It often refers to copying “intellectual property” without written permission from the copyright holder, which is typically a publisher or other business representing or assigned by the work’s creator.

    (emphasis mine)

  25. 29

    Ok, I concede that in the strict terminology of the law, it isn’t regarded as theft.

    It contributes to material loss. It certainly feels like people have stolen your work, in somewhat the same way as if they had actually stolen physical books off of shelves (another situation in which authors do not get royalties, I might add), but rather more annoying because the thief often continues to profit from the act. In common understanding, it is theft. However, in the terminology of the law, you are correct. It does not deprive the author/creator of access to the content, and therefore it is “non-rivalrous” and not theft.

    The more ‘popular’ term does exist in the arena of “IP theft”, however, and I don’t think it is entirely valid to dismiss that, given issues of loss.

  26. 30

    What I would ask is that please, in the quibble over the bloody terminology, that you not simply dismiss out of hand issues that are very real to starting authors and artists.

  27. 31

    The reason I mention this and hammer on it is that to accept the RIAA’s characterization of it as theft or piracy is to set them up to win. It is their characterization, and is contrary to the law and what the law prohibits.

    In fact, one can argue that the copying and personal use of an ebook or a song is, legally, not against the law, as copyright infringement is aimed at those who copy and sell with the intent to distribute large quantities of material for large scale gain.

    Today’s law is NOT updated to account for modern digital sales of intellectual property. It was intended for printed material, which your ordinary citizen could not easily copy. Traditionally, I can buy a book, read it and resell it. For that matter, I can pick up a copy of it for nothing at some yard sales, read it and then pass it along in another yard sale of my own – and not ask a dime for it.

    Have I or anyone else violated copyright? No. But if I get a copy of an ebook from a friend who has obtained it from I don’t know where, I read it and pass it along to someone else, have I violated copyright? Using the same principle, no, I haven’t. A copyright holder does not hold the rights to subsequent sales or disposition of copies he/she has sold, and that should not change with digital material.

    This isn’t to justify illegal copying of copyrighted material. It doesn’t. It is to show that current law has not kept up with technology, and we should not allow the RIAA or the MPAA to dictate the terms of new law to suit themselves and remove our traditional rights under copyright.

  28. 32

    The problem, obviously, is that with digital copies you don’t just have a single copy for personal use that you pass along to a friend; the ‘piracy’ situations are the result of ease of copying where a single digital copy just as easily becomes 4,000 copies.

    My arguments from this point on are likely to become less and less coherent if I stay, though, as it is 4am here. Will revisit later.

  29. 33

    I would also note that the OP is making the point that the losses claimed by the RIAA and the MPAA and other such groups IS overstated. Not that some loss isn’t felt – but I would also note that the terms and conditions imposed on new authors and artists by these traditional middlemen are so onerous as to amount to a form of theft – I’ve seen authors – well known authors – rant about those conditions! And how about Amazon and their 70% fees? Hell, Apple only charges 30%.

    So the bottom line is that, today, artists and authors have a unique-in-history chance to do what past authors could not- self-publish – and do so and make money! And one of the ways to do that is by giving away a cut rate form of your work – and monetize the upgraded copies with additional content to incentivize fans to buy.

    I would urge you to do as another commenter said upthread – go to Techdirt,com. Mike has a large and interesting library of essays and other content about this subject that outlines the economics involved in a very professional manner – references and cites galore! Partly, he calls it “the economics of free”.

  30. 35

    The disconnect here, is if there’s a moral principle to ALWAYS reward the creator of a cultural work if the work is experienced. There’s a whole lot of legal and socially acceptable (and often even encouraged…public libraries being a big example) ways where this moral principle is broken. Luna, the way you’re talking about it, even though you probably don’t really think that way really states that you’re holding to that moral principle.

    Like I said earlier. Nobody follows that moral principle.

    The real problem you have, and I will admit that it’s a legitimate one, is one of efficiency and scale. That is, that it’s much more efficient to create many copies than to just create one, and as such, it’s problematic. And it’s possible that yes, efficiency kills jobs. It’s happened in many other industries.

    And it might be something that something needs to be done about. But the argument needs to be a real-world economic argument, and not one of moral condemnation. As I said earlier, the real problem is distortionary effects, that if some things are easier to get via non-first sale channels than others, it really can ensure that people don’t get paid what they deserve. I will fully admit that. I just think the solution to that problem is worse than the problem itself. (It goes way past copyright infringement, and it basically amounts to doing anything and everything to limit and eliminate non-first sale cultural good channels. I.E. Libraries, used media shops, finding ways to tie content to specific devices, etc.)

  31. 36

    What Luna seems to ignore is that many (if not the vast majority of) people who download something without purchasing it would not have purchased it in the first place, which renders her argument about first-time or poorly-established authors pretty much void. The scenario xe paints of an impoverished author getting a book remaindered because of unpaid digital distribution ignores the most likely alternative–that the book will get remaindered because no one has ever heard of the author and only one out of a thousand people who see the book are willing to pay the cover price for it.

    But because Luna and others can blame downloading for spreading exposure of the hypothetical author, exposure which the current distribution model doesn’t take into account when deciding whether or not to remainder works, the (flawed) distribution model gets preserved and the people doing the unaccounted exposing get hanged with the failure of the hypothetical book. Even though on the one hand, *most* new authors fail, and on the other, it’s incredibly unlikely that many (if any) of the people who downloaded the book would have even *heard* of the author if downloading hadn’t been an option.

    The world is changing, and unless we let the old white men re-appropriate the Internet (as they re-appropriated the air waves for radio and television), the modern business world will have to adapt to the changing dynamics of production and consumption. Tell your hypothetical new author to gain exposure for xermself through self-publishing online–if xe’s really getting thousands of copies of xerm’s book downloaded, that shouldn’t be impossible. Difficult, certainly, but possible. If xe still wants a traditional distribution, xe can have it *after* demonstrating the success of xerm’s brand. But just because someone has actually made the effort to complete a story (which is a journey in itself), that doesn’t entitle someone to make a living as an artist–no, that means one’s work has just begun. The nature of that work has changed, and you do *not* want to see it change back.

  32. 37

    Although Luna and I disagree on a number of points, I think the point that *all* of us can agree on is that in general, we’d like artists to be able to make a living when people are reading/viewing/whatever their work. Right?

    I have plenty of friends who are authors and I’ve made sure to buy their books, although I frequently have an advance reader copy from them. And then I buy copies for other folks, when I can afford it 🙂

    But as I said earlier, I do think there’s an ethical difference between someone distributing thousands of copies of a book and someone sending five friends a copy because “OMG guys, you’re going to LOVE this book.” I think the first person might be prosecuted and the second should not, although I really don’t know if the law can do that.

  33. 38

    @Mara: Yes, but that’s secondary to access to cultural goods. It’s an important concern, and speaking for myself if I thought there was something we could do to allow creators to make better livings for themselves I’d support them. And there ARE things that would allow creators to have more success selling their products, it’s just that most of them have absolutely nothing to do with copyright. They have to do with increasing/expanding the wage base in order to give people more real disposable income that they could potentially buy books (or whatever else) with.

    There’s actually an interesting idea (that i don’t really think is workable) to make all cultural goods public goods, have a tax on it all then have the government pay creators based on cultural relevance. That might be an idea to push for.

    And no, there really is no ethical difference between those two things. Both are “stealing” from the creator of the work, in the exact same way, I’m sorry to tell you. As I’ve said before the only difference is efficiency.

    Lets put it this way. A torrent gets 4000 people who download a scanned PDF of a book. (One thing you should know, is that of those 4000 who download the book, my guess is that it’s only a small fraction of that who actually READ it. Especially in book torrenting circles, collecting/hording is a very popular pastime…but I’ll ignore this). 800 people and libraries who bought copies of the books lend it to 5 of their friends/users of the library. The damage is exactly the same. Exactly.

    I don’t think that’s an unrealistic scenario.

    My ethical stance on copyright infringement? Buy what you can, especially things that you’ll use/reuse on a permanent basis. And that’s about it. Most people even still seem to follow that, and the market is more than functional and profitable. Easier to break into as well.

  34. 39

    Personally, I like it when people choose to release in free and paid formats to avoid piracy and still make money from those who decide to pay, sort of like shareware or nagware. But if you want to convince me that “piracy boosts sales”, I need a lot more information than one established person’s tale.

    If an author chooses to release for free, or a combination of free and paid, that’s their choice. My response to any creation as a consumer is to say “is what they offer worth to me what is charged”, not “can I get this for free despite what they ask me to pay”.

  35. 40

    Folks there are two problems here. One is a legal one – the laws are out of date, period. The other is a business issue – traditional business models for selling printed material has not kept up with the new digital world, where the economics are different.

    Look at the current business model – physical books, magazines, etc., are printed and distributed via middlemen who are equipped with the physical plant required for printing and distributing the actual, physical material. Sales take place either at a book store, mail order, or increasingly, on the internet – but the books are still physical goods. Physical goods are subject to economics where price is set according to the forces of supply and demand. The more supply of a good you have, the less you can charge for it. As demand increases in relation to a supply, the higher the price.

    Basic economics 101.

    Now apply this same principle to modern digital goods. Books, music, magazines, movies, etc.

    But first, what is a digital good? It isn’t exactly physical – it can be endlessly copied at very little cost. The cost of production is minimal beyond the initial effort of creation. For physical goods, the cost per unit in production gets cheaper as the number of units increases, but for digital goods, there IS no additional production cost, each copy costs virtually nothing, and since each copy consists of a few electrons at most, material costs are also nothing, so there is nothing to limit the number of copies.

    So, your supply is, essentially, infinite.

    Remember, as your supply increases, your price HAS to drop. Once your supply becomes infinite, your price is almost guaranteed to drop to zero!

    Which is why consumers are very reluctant to pay anything for digital goods. We know this almost instinctively.

    Now, back to the basic question: how do we ensure that content creators get paid for their work? Virtually everybody agrees, in principle, that this is right and what they deserve. In a capitalist system, this is required, or people won’t create anything.

    The answer is really quite simple – you’ve got to go back to scarce, physical goods. Take a musician. He sings, he plays a musical instrument. In this time and place, he records those songs. Now, how does he make money doing it?

    Well, we know that the digital recordings aren’t worth selling, because the supply of them is infinite. So what does he have that isn’t infinite? His time, a line of physical goods such as T-shirts and hats with his name/logo printed on them, perhaps CDs with recordings of his music and also perhaps videos of his recording sessions or interviews and also, if he is popular enough, stage costumes he has worn at notable shows and appearances. All of these things share one quality – they are physical goods which are in some limited supply. So, they can have a price attached that is determined by the relative demand for them.

    So as the original OP here above notes, he has a business model he can use – give away digital recordings of his music to attract fans, and give those fans an incentive to buy those physical goods he CAN put a price on, including his time in concerts and public appearances, where he can sell all of those other things his fans may want to wear and/or display.

    It works. There have been numerous recording artists who have done this, including Prince. As I noted above, David Weber, a very successful sci-fi author, includes a CD of all his works with many of his hardback books, and his web site also allows you to download many of his past books for free.

    I doubt he would do this if it was losing him income!

    Those who whine and fight for traditional business models are simply missing the boat. Modern times and new technology demand new ways of making money, and those who fail to keep up will simply lose.

    As for the law, yes, it needs updating. We do need to allow for what one can/should do with a copy of a book or song you buy. Can you resell it? Give it away? What do you do with your “copy” if you do? Do you have to delete it? How the hell would this be policed, anyway?

    Well, with the kind of business model I outline above, the artist wouldn’t CARE, as any additional copy you make and share, is only likely to expand his exposure to potential fans, and thus, buyers of his real, scarce, physical goods! Plus, this retains the rights of fans and buyers as we know them today – what you’ve got is yours to dispose of as you wish, with no accountability to the artist at all.

  36. 41

    “what you’ve got is yours to dispose of as you wish, with no accountability to the artist at all.” – and doesn’t consider the work the artist put into the work at all, just how much it costs to duplicate the work.

    A house costs tens of thousands of dollars, and is a physical item. A car costs tens of thousands of dollars and is a physical item. A CD costs tens of dollars and is a physical item.

    Though you can download that item.. well, if the author is fine with that, great. If the author is trying to make a living off of selling their album, you’re cutting their salary while consuming what they produce. Sure, maybe later you buy something from them, which is good.. but if the artist is relying on sales to survive, and people deny them sales at first, they may give up on sales. People need money to survive, and if they want to try creating a digital product, should they give up simply because others decide that their products can be duplicated?

    Is the worth simply in the media of the creation, or does the creation also count? If the creation counts, we must look at what the creator wishes, or tell that creator that their needs are not worth what they create. I say – ask the creator what they want out of their creation, don’t assume that you can copy it and justify it later.

  37. 42

    And as usual, you are assuming a situation where an author is using the CURRENT model. In the newer model I describe, again, the author does not CARE about digital copies, because they are economically worthless, being of infinite supply, and serve to widen the author’s exposure to new prospective buyers.

    What authors need to do, as I mentioned, is depend upon real, scarce goods, which can be priced according to the laws of supply and demand. Digital goods cannot be so priced, because of their infinite nature in supply.

    “what you’ve got is yours to dispose of as you wish, with no accountability to the artist at all.”

    This refers to PHYSICAL goods, like we buy now, which the artist has already been paid for. In the new model, again, if the artist/author has given the digital copies away as loss leaders/marketing gimmicks, he doesn’t give a rats ass for what we do with them, as long as we copy them and pass them along, to increase his exposure to new fans! Since he didn’t get paid for them in the first place, he doesn’t expect to get paid for them again (as indeed, in today’s physical economy, he doesn’t either, since he’s already been paid once – does an author get a royalty for a yard sale purchase? No).

  38. 43

    Hmm, the entire argument against copyright infringement rests on the idea that “intellectual property” or licensing/usage rights should exist in the first place (as opposed to some other model, like public funding of various pursuits of intellectual property production, including scientific research in various disciplines like that done by public universities or think-tanks and publicly-funded art/cultural productions). One has to accept the validity of the commodification of ideas and information, something I flatly reject, for ANY of the copyright arguments to make sense. The problem with ‘piracy’ isn’t a problem with piracy at all, it’s a point where one of the fundamental failings of capitalism is exposed. At its heart, intellectual property makes knowledge and art/culture a function of social class and privilege. It is an entirely anti-democratic principle that primarily serves to reinforce an intertwined system of political and economic hierarchy, where only the wealthy have access to the full scope of human knowledge and art.

    I *don’t* necessarily think anyone should be able to make a living creating art or knowledge; if we’re implicitly buying the argument that market capitalism is a good form of economic organization, then piracy isn’t a problem, it’s a market feature. If being an artist really does mean one can’t make a living, then people shouldn’t be artists, because we don’t value their work enough. The market speaks. Protecting intellectual property is just another regulatory imposition on the free market, something most of the asshats arguing against ‘piracy’ claim to embrace. The whole debate is a load of bullshit because it accepts a number of premises that are anywhere between problematic and flatly false, disingenuously disguised using contextually-strategic (but inconsistent) rhetoric. Organizations like the MPAA and RIAA don’t want a free market or even a fair market, they want privilege. Artists don’t want a fair market, necessarily, they want to get paid for making art (whether or to what extent this desire is valid is a matter of open debate, and highly dependent on economic context, cultural context, and how a particular artist’s work relates to the cultural context in question). People who make unlicensed copies of works of intellectual property have many, varied interests, but for what I think is a majority of people who consume unlicensed intellectual property, they want art or knowledge without having to pay money for it. If we’re really going to have a reasoned, rational, evidence-based debate about the issue, we can’t presume a capitalist economic model, and we can’t presume that any one of these interests has intrinsically more validity than any other. We also can’t intentionally misrepresent our interests for rhetorical impact – if, for example, you’re pro-‘piracy’ simply because you want to watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for free, without ads, at your convenience, say so; if you’re anti-‘piracy’ because you want to make more money without doing any more or different work (whether you’re an artist or a media company shareholder or executive), just say so.

  39. 44

    A house costs tens of thousands of dollars, and is a physical item. A car costs tens of thousands of dollars and is a physical item. A CD costs tens of dollars and is a physical item.

    Though you can download that item.. well, if the author is fine with that, great.

    Um, what? You can no more download a CD than you can a house. 3D printing technology is not yet good enough to be able to build a CD from raw materials, so you can’t even download specs for building a CD. You can, on the other hand, download digitized copies of the music, the CD label, and even the box art, and could build a reasonable facsimile yourself. Likewise, you could download building plans for a house.

    The difference is, in the digital age, the selling feature of the CD is the music on it, and many people are willing to do without all the other trappings to just listen to that music, so since this new age means that music can be distributed for near-free, the rest of the market breaks down. This means artists need to find other ways to monetize their art.

    And they have. Look, for instance, at George Hrab, who released his entire album Trebuchet as an episode of his podcast shortly before release, and made more sales for that album than any of his previous combined. It also had the side-effect of raising sales numbers for his previous albums.

    George Hrab is not Neil Gaiman. George Hrab had everything to lose.

    Free is the right price.

    (edited for two mangled points)

  40. JRB

    …or look at the people who make a living as webcomic artists. In the simplest terms, they provide the majority of their creative efforts as free content in order to build up a following of people willing to support them through purchasing merchandise and additional content or through voluntary contributions.

    One of my favourite examples is Machine of Death by Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics) and David Malki ! (Wondermark). After being told by a number of publishers that their idea of a print anthology of largely amateur short stories would never sell (who would buy a book full of unknown authors?) they self published it anyways. By coordinating the fans of their webcomics they managed to get the book to the #1 one seller spot across all categories on That effort secured MOD’s place in bookstores across North America, introduced the book to a much wider audience than even their webpages could provide, and pissed off Glen Beck (his book had launched the same day and only hit the #3 spot).

    Or more recently, look at Rich Burlew the creator of Order of the Stick, another webcomic that developed a huge following by being both enjoyable and free. In February Rich ran a Kickstarter project to raise $57,750 to cover the costs of reprinting some of his older OotS books. Thanks to the legions of loyal fans who love his work, he hit his goal almost immediately and ended up raising over $1.24 million dollars. Not bad considering that the majority of Order of the Stick material (845 comics) can still be read on his website for free.

  41. 48

    er, my comment went through before I was finished.

    *peers about*

    Anyway! I’ll finish the post as I meant it to go through. It doesn’t matter to me if the first one is deleted. If it doesn’t get deleted, sorry for the weird double posting thing.

    I recently stopped buying mainstream books and started buying niche books written by smaller companies or by self-published authors. I did this because my taste in books tends to be somewhat unusual, and I can’t generally find the books that I want in mainstream bookstores. I’m sure I’ll buy some more mainstream books eventually, but not right now.

    Do you know what really, really, really increases my likelihood of buying books in a series? Give me the first one for free. I own entire series that I would never have looked at twice if I had just been given a blurb and maybe allowed to read the first chapter. These are books that only grabbed me once I’d had the chance to really explore the dynamics of the book. For example, there is a series that I bought eight books in because I got three in the series for free (it wasn’t the first three books that were free, but something like the first, the fourth, and the eighth). I would never, ever, ever have bought it if I hadn’t gotten some of the books for free. I’m not kidding or exaggerating about this; the first book that was out (the first one I got for free). I know that I wouldn’t have bought the series because the first book (the first one I got for free) sat around for a good chunk of time before I read it. I read the first chapter or so right out of the gate, but it didn’t catch me and seemed cliché and uninteresting. But as I got into the book, it because less cliché and more interesting. Now I have bought eight of them.

    And only a week or so ago I bought two books that I had read in their entirety on the internet. You see, the author had written the books in chapters on then published them on livejournal. Only after the first two books were written and freely available in their full form did a publisher pick up her works and make them into actual books, books that I bought the first week that they were out.

    Offering portions of a book (as opposed to portions of a series) for free has this effect to some degree, but the free portion needs to be enough of the book that I can really get a feel for the characters and the story. This whole “let them have the first chapter for free” thing isn’t helpful at all because the first chapter of the book is basically never the most interesting part of the book; first chapters tend to have lots of setup and much less character interacting and plot than the rest of the book. I need to be able to get passed the setup to see if I like it.

    So, while I can’t speak for everyone or even the majority of people, I can say that free books increase the likelihood of me buying books to a truly spectacular degree. I’m something of a miser, you see, and buying books that I don’t know if I will like pains me. It still happens (not all of the books I read have free options), but it happens less when I can get at least some portion of the work for free, and that increases my willingness to fork out money.

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