Words for Writers: Why Pirating Hurts Art

Okay, I’m going to get a bit preachy here. I have been working in copyright for a few months now at my job, and I just wanted to post some thoughts on why pirating is bad for art.

Yes, it’s bad for the artist. But it’s also bad for art.

Therefore, if you like quality programming, intriguing movies, original bands, thoughtful novels, and ground-breaking comics, then pirating is also bad for you.

One of the largest problems with pirating is that the artist at the end of the line – the screenplay writer, for example – gets screwed out of their residuals/royalties. Sure, Brad Pitt can afford to eat the loss of profit if you pirate his movie; but the guy who wrote the movie, the guy who has to support his family, and probably spent three years on that movie and couldn’t work on anything else during that time… he’s can’t afford to eat the profit loss.

Pirating hurts the little guy in the arts, and when the little guy can’t afford to make art any more, we’ll be left with the shallow, stale, and pre-packaged crap made by corporations, marketing departments, and conglomarates.

Everyone in the world profits from their labour – burger-flippers to CEOs, construction workers to sex trade workers, factory personnel to telemarketers.

Artists (painters/dancers/singers/musicions/writers/actors/etc.) are the only workers who are EXPECTED to work for nothing, and to be pleased to make no profit (if they even pay off what they had to invest to make the art in the first place).

Singing and dance lessons, paint materials, instruments, studio time and producer fees, computers and software, travel and location rental – that all costs money and much of it is dead required to create art. And the artists doing so ALSO do not have the time to work a “real” job to make money.

So, for anyone who isn’t at the superstar level, if they make enough money back on their book/album/film to pay for their costs to MAKE their book/album/film, then they can consider it a win.

But if someone enjoys their book/album/film without paying, then they are asking the artist to work for free, and the middle-class artist just can’t afford to do that.

So they have to go get jobs to sustain their lives and have to put aside art.

Can you imagine – what would have happened to the world of SF/F if Isaac Asimov’s books had been pirated and placed in torrents all over the internet? And Mrs. Asimov made him go down to McDonalds and start flipping burgers to pay the rent?

I’m not advocating for everyone to go out and spend every single paycheque they have on albums/gallery paintings/hardcover novels. But I am suggesting that people consider before they hit that “download” button.

If you don’t want to buy the whole CD, why not just buy the track you want on iTunes? Wait until the book is in paperback. Or go in with a friend and buy the book together and share it. Download the ebook legally from Amazon for less than a grande latte at Starbucks, and read it on your computer (just as you would if you DLed it illegally) if you have no eReader/iPad/Kobo/Kindle. There are lots of cost effective ways to get at what you want that are also legal.

And if you love it enough to DL it, then love the artist enough to support them.  And if you support them, then they can work on making more amazing things.

And this is all to support my main point: Legitimatly buying art means that the art will be GOOD.

Think about it.  How much more expensive is it to make an amazing show like Life on Mars or Doctor Who than Survivor. Even with the cash prize, Surviver is tens of thousands of dollars less expensive to make.  But what would you rather watch?

Another fifty seasons of Survivor? Or another ten of Doctor Who?

If you don’t support Doctor Who, legally, by watching it on the air when it airs on the BBC (either with PVR, time-delay device, TiVo, or in-the-moment, or by buying box sets), or waiting all of a few days or weeks to watch it in it’s second run countries like BBC America or on SPACE here in Canada, then you are helping the show regain the debt it incurred to make it. In the black, the show can afford to go on to make another season. Now, I do understand that there is massive profit from merchandising and the like, so perhaps Doctor Who wasn’t the best example, but bear with me; even the profits from selling plastic sonic screwdrivers isn’t really enough to affect the BBC’s choice to renew the series if the ratings say no one is watching it.

And when the ratings say no one is watching it, it gets cancelled. And they make a cheaper show to replace it, because they have less to lose if it tanks, and less money to put into it because they’re still in debt from the good program.

See what I mean? Let’s try this on a smaller scale:

I write a book. It takes me four years to do so. Let’s calculate what I put into that.

Laptop: $1 200
Software: $600
Mailing Manuscripts to agents: $200
Getting promo materials made up: $200
Travel to conventions, convention costs: $500 per.
Hours: Say 10/week on average for four years= 2080 hours. At minimum wage ($10 in Ontario) = $20 800

Total=$23 500

That’s about what your standard minimum wage crappy job makes in a whole year’s worth of take-home.

Let’s say I make back $2 for every book sold. To make $23 500, I need to sell 11 750 books.  Okay, easy for J.K. Rowling to do, less so for me. And yeah, I would have bought the laptop and software anyway, so we can drop that value down to say, $20 000, which means I need to sell 10 000 books to see any return on my investment.

I can’t do that if people are copying my book for free, or putting up advanced digital copies online for download, or anything else.  And if I can’t make that money back, then I will be understandably reluctant to spend any time at all doing a second book. Or I won’t be able to because I have to get a higher-paying and higher-time-investment job so I can affor rent and sudent debt. Or possibly, if I write anything, it will be something I am garunteed a profit on – say, some romance harlequin dreck.

“But I don’t want you to write dreck! I want you to write a good book like your last one!” you might say. Well, then prove to me that it’s worth it. Prove to me that my time won’t be wasted. Don’t DL my book illegally.

You pay for quality when you buy a DVD player, a lawnmower, a meal at a starred restaurant. Why not pay to ensure quality in your entertainment, as well?


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Why Pirating Hurts Art


Join the conversation
  • AtomicGeekDowns - January 28, 2011

    I’m sorry to say it but I completely disagree with your entire article here.

    Piracy doesn’t hurt art it hurts business.

    Think about back when guys like van Gogh were doing their art, they weren’t thinking about getting paid. They painted because they had the demons inside them and needed them out. They were possessed so to speak and their outlet was art. Money from their artwork for most artists was none existent. Most were worthless until after they were dead and gone. So art was around long before the concern of being paid for it ever arose.

    And to use an example of the writer writing the hollywood script? That writer gets his pay day when the movie gets made. Studios pay all the hard costs and then charge whatever they/theatres want to recoup those costs and make a profit.

    Let’s look at say Canadian bands who offer free music downloads, don’t follow traditional rules of “getting signed by a major label” and get a half decent following.

    By offering their music for free, it gets shared, they sell out bigger venues and make more money off merchandising.

    The reality is that piracy is a response to corporations bleeding consumers dry for years for things like CD’s that costed customers $15.00 while only costing $0.99 to make. That was business, nobody had a problem then.

    Piracy is the ultimate in capitolist society, technology has created a way for people to get around the system used by these corporations to protect their profits.

    Again sorry but this is just a recitifying of the social order.

    Business have for years taken advantage of “dumb consumers” who would pay whatever these corporations deemed was fair value.

    Piracy is the first step in creating more equal exchange for goods and services.

    Should people expect everything for free? God no, and I dont believe its about that. It’s about large record companies, movie studios, ISP’s and government bodies waking up to a more educated and pissed off consumer.

  • JM Frey - January 28, 2011

    Absolutely, AtomicGeekDowns. I know all of that I completely agree with you. I am a fan of MC Lar’s “Download This Song”, and agree with Jenkins when he says that “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk”.

    I was just trying to offer another perspective, and another reason why pirating – while in some ways useful and in others damaging, but ultimately, as you say, equalizing – affects artists, either for good or bad.

    And that it DOES affect us is no question.

    Also, please consider that if pirating hurts business, and I’m self-employed and my personal brand IS my business, what does that mean for me, someone without a large corporation who can’t afford litigation, lawyers, and to eat potential profit losses?

  • AtomicGeekDowns - January 28, 2011

    I hear what you are saying being a small business owner.

    I guess my question would be are people really pirating your work? Not trying to offend, I just mean your scale would likely be way different to say the BBC.

    I personally would never pirate something from someone like yourself who is doing their work and struggling to make it. Nor do I think most “pirates” would.

    Once you get big though and make the millions, thats when we’ll steal your book.


  • Victoria - January 28, 2011

    I think it really goes both ways, but I’m fairly confident the industry will find a way to adapt. I don’t think swiping material from very small business, or one-person operations, should be condoned. But I don’t think it’s going to stop, not without compromising the freedom and flexibility of the internet.

    I don’t mind the corporate entities getting hit. Angelina Jolie doesn’t need to get paid a bazillion dollars for every film she makes. The cost of big-business movie making needs to come down, and shouldn’t outweigh the profits. Keep the movie theater prices consistent, and maybe charge less for the DVDs.

    Another idea is that is already being utilized in theatres is the use of commercials before the film. Provide a DVD option to turn off the web-style advertisements at the bottom of the screen, but find a way to embed them so you can’t rip a movie without them. Then it becomes an incentive to buy the film on DVD.

  • JM Frey - January 28, 2011

    Whether people really are pirating my book or not, the question is SHOULD they. And if they choose to, then I only hope they do so while being aware of what it means, from all perspectives and with all implications.

    And to know that in choosing to hit that “accept” button, they are potentially putting their favourite show/author out of business. I know for a fact that the BBC is waffling about who it licences to carry some of it’s titles outside of the UK. They just aren’t seeing the numbers in Canada to make it worth their while. So fans in Canada scream if their show is taken off the air in Canada. Yet they continue to DL after it’s first-run in the UK it instead of just waiting and watching it first-run here.

    And I appreciate your integrety about not screwing the little guys. Thank you. But if everyone screws the big guys, isn’t it still like a handful of people screwing the little guys?

    If enough people screw the big guys, they’ll go out of business too, or have to start figuring out where to cut costs, time, and manpower.

    I agree that some entertainment media – $100 books, DVDs, albums, cable subscriptions, cinema tickets – are greviously overpriced, especially considering how little mid-list writers and artists see in returns when they put in so much work on the content, and are the source of the content. Broadcasters, producers, and distributers charge way too much. I would gladly pay $35 for that blu ray, if I knew that $30 of that went to the cast, crew, artists, and writer. But if $30 goes to the distributer? Not as keen.

    Piracy is the great equalizer, as you say, and hopefully soon the bigwigs will learn that if they don’t start pricing more fairly, either one of two things will happen. Piracy will become commonplace and everyone will steal, or people will just stop buying entertainment.

    Either way, they’re out of business. And so are, by default, the artists.

    But all the same, if everyone steals, no one will have enough money to create. It’s a pretty precarious tightrope we all walk as artists, producers and consumers these days.

  • Ira Nayman - January 28, 2011

    This is a complex issue. While most people would agree that artists should be properly compensated for their work, the truth is that they rarely are, and rarely were even before digital communications networks (have you ever seen a contract for a musician with a record label?).

    Arts industries do not help themselves by making hysterical claims about how much they are losing to pirates. While this isn’t the place for a proper analysis of this issue, I would like to point out some salient facts about the music industry. 1. It claims that ANY LOSS OF REVENUE is due to piracy, a patently absurd claim on its face. 2. The music industry was the beneficiary of a revenue bump thanks to the introduction of CDs (because people bought copies of music they already owned in other media on the new medium), a trend that ended some time in the 1990s (because people had replaced all the vinyl or cassettes with CDs that they were going to); the end of the bump is responsible for some of the downturn in revenue. 3. The music industry spent tens of millions of dollars on major acts (ie: Madonna, U2) that realistically couldn’t generate enough revenue to pay for themselves (much like major publishing houses went after big name writers); this squeezed the mid-list artists off the roster of the major labels/publishers, who could no longer afford them. 4. The music industry has developed a lot of crappy music that people don’t necessarily want to listen to, let alone buy. 5. There are studies that show that people who download music also pay for it. The idea here is that you sample songs, and, from there, decide which ones you want to pay for, a plus to everybody in the business, not a minus.

    I will take the position of major entertainment corporations more seriously when they are honest about all of the factors that go into their revenues, or lack thereof.

    A couple of other things are worth mentioning in this context. When initially instituted with England’s Statute of Anne, the term of copyright was only 20 years long. It is now 70 years in the US (thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act), with some people arguing that it should go to 90. This has the perverse effect of limiting what artists can create. As I have pointed out elsewhere, for instance, it may be possible that I will not be allowed to create a work featuring Mickey Mouse in my entire lifetime. So what? Consider this: almost all of Shakespeare’s plays were based on stories that had previously been told; a strict copyright regime with an indefinite or ever lengthening term could have deprived the English language of some of its greatest works of art.

    We should be clear that copyright is a PUBLIC GOOD, not a private good. It exists for the benefit of society. The way copyright laws are phrased, they usually start by pointing out that society benefits by the greatest circulation of ideas/art works. How best to ensure this? By granting creators a temporary monopoly on the use of the expression of their ideas. Copyright law, then, is always a balancing act between social good and personal profit, but social good is teh primary motivation. I fear that the balance is currently tipped away from both towards corporate profit, which actually is not good for society or individuals.

    Shit. That’s a lot to consider. Sorry about that. A section of my PhD dissertation looks at copyright issues; while writing it, I developed very strong opinions on the subject.

  • JM Frey - January 28, 2011

    Absolutely EXCELLENT points, Ira!

    Let me back this up by adding an addendum to my own entry. Yes, I want the money that comes with selling my books. Yes, I want monopoly of my work so that I may exploit it, but I want that so I can afford to make and share more.

    And I absolutely have no intention of going after people who use my work in mashup/recontextualizing/satirical/etc. ways. That is, I am very much behind fanfiction, fancrafting, cosplaying, music vids, etc. Even if I’d never be able to read the fanfic based on my work for legal reasons, I would never tell people they can’t do it.

    (Besides, as a Master Level cosplayer and someone who earned her writer’s street cred in Fanfiction, I’d be quite the hypocrite!)

    Culture belongs to the people, for the people, by the people.

    I don’t want to inhibit access to my work, I only want fair compensation for what I created in my lifetime. And I want to do the best that I can to ensure that people who ARE making money on my work when they haven’t earned the right to don’t. That is, again, no intent to go after second hand book stores (someone bought the book once, they probably get commission on it), but I would go after plaugerists or people selling bootlegs of my book. Why? Because they didn’t earn the right to that money. I did. My editor and publisher and coverartists did. Not them.

    If I do get big enough to afford it, I also intend to start a scholarship or funding program for female science fiction writers, because we don’t get a lot of encouragement or financial help.

    The thing is, I feel that sharing culture is the best way to develop the talents of new artists, of making statements about identity, of sharing ideas and growing as humans. Shakespeare, Robin Hood, 1001 Nights, these are all great works of art that benefitted from communal telling and cyclical narrative structure. And I won’t even get into the epic poems memorized and recited by the bards of yore.

    You want to use the narrative of my book to practice making comics? Sure! Go for it! Distribute it for free on the internet! Hand it in to your teacher! Awesome! I will probably help you advertise it, I might even offer to write it!

    But if you want to sell it? Now you owe me money. If you make money on it, I deserve to make money on it too. Licence the copyright from me, or we can work out a deal for residuals and royalties.

    And if you steal it, then I lose doubly.

    I like that 100 years after I die, my work will enter the public domain and people like Seth Graham Smith will do wild and wonderful and wacky things with it. I like the idea that someone might want to write a fanfiction about my peripheral characters.

    But I also like the idea of being able to pay my rent. It’s a toss up. I want to give away my work for free. I really do. And I want to let people do whatever they want with it. I know that music I’ve heard in AMVs has inspired me to go buy albums, and I know getting a free eBook made me go out and buy the whole hardcopy series. So sharing art for free helps disseminate it, reach the largest audience and affect the most people.

    But in the end, I need to buy food, a transit pass, and pay my rent. And to do that I need to make money on my art. And to do that, I need to be able to maintain a monopoly over the copyright, for at least as long as I’m alive. And for that to work, people have to be buying my work legally.

    Otherwise, I have to stop writing and start flipping burgers. So, going back to my original post – if the consumer wants artists to continue to create making awesome art, they need to pony up.

    But at the same time, no one will pony up if it’s too expensive. So the corporations need to start considering price reductions. But will they take some of that from the artist percentage? Scary thought!

    (I wonder what percentage of the $20 my book costs goes where? I know what I make, but I also know that the publisher most assuredly does NOT sleep on a Scrooge McDuck pile of money. It would be interesting to see.)

  • Ira Nayman - January 28, 2011

    I think we agree that individual artists should be properly compensated for their work. We all have to eat and stuff. I’m not sure that strict copyright enforcement is the way to go, though. The Internet, for instance, has been touted as a way for artists to reach their audience, bypassing current distribution mechanisms.

    Consider this: 60% of the price of a book goes to the bookseller. Of your $20 book, about $1 goes to the author. Another $2 to $3 goes to the printer. Now, suppose you charged $3 for a Kindle version that you developed yourself. You could actually make more money making the book available online yourself than getting it produced by a publisher. (And, it would be better for the environment, considering that 90% of copies of books are returned to the publisher by bookstores and, ultimately, go into landfill.)

    Again, this is much more complicated than the theory suggests. There are a lot of reasons (promotion being a major one) for going with a publisher. And, there are a lot of reasons (it’s easier to pirate a book that started out digital, for one) why publishing online may not be a good option. My point, though, is that there are many ways of thinking about the issue of compensating individual artists, and copyright may not be the best lens through which to look at this issue.

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