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A Pirate Book That Insists on Copyright?

Interesting story (thanks @KevinThow for the link) about Julia Schramm – a leading member of the German Pirate Party, who signed a very lucrative book deal for her book ‘Click Me‘ – more than $130k – and then proceeded to go after the very pirates who she lauds in her work.

One of the key tenets of the Pirate Party movement is the free exchange of information, and Schramm, as a board member of the German wing of the party, should then be in support of free downloads, without regard for copyright.

Yet lawyers for her publishers sought to close down file-sharing sites that were offering free downloads of PDFs of Schramm’s book. So what’s going on?

My hunch is that Schramm is a) a little embarrassed by what’s happened, as it is likely that she didn’t direct the lawyers to go after these sites herself, and b) has been dazzled by the offer of a great deal of money. And I think it’s this that is the key issue.

I don’t actually agree with the Pirate Party’s stance on free exchange of information. In Mutiny! - which you can still get at 15% off using the code PIRATA for the next couple of days – I argue that the original idea of copyright is a good one. The founding principle had two sides to it: private compensation, followed by public benefit. Your idea or product was protected from copying for a period of time, during which you recouped the money you may have invested in creating it. Innovation costs, and it is right that innovators and creators are rewarded fairly for their work. But, I also agree with the parallel principle of public benefit: after a period of time, the idea is released into the public domain. Why? So that other innovators can learn from it and improve on it, so that everyone can benefit. Edison invents a new light bulb; he recoups his money with protected selling of that new bulb for a time, but then everyone gets to see how he did it, so that everyone together can build on his ideas and create an even better light bulb. Private compensation, then public benefit.

So what’s gone wrong? The copyright system has failed, essentially because people have expected too much private compensation. $130,000 for a book is a lot of money. Far more than Schramm can reasonably have expected her labour in writing it to have cost. And it is this imbalance in the private compensation – whether it be rock stars making millions from half-baked albums, or writers securing huge advances, or technology companies making enormous sums from software, that has led to a feeling that common people are getting ripped off so that a few at the top can reap huge rewards. And it is this that is the driver behind the pirate spirit.

As I argue in Mutiny!, pirates emerge whenever something that should be held in common is enclosed into private ownership. This enclosure secures the wealth of a place for a small group of merchants or princes, denying access rights and benefits to the rest. This is what happened in the land enclosures of the 16th – 18th centuries, and in the domination of the New World in the 1700′s. It is also what has driven music piracy: The Rolling Stones ripped songs from the commons of ‘the blues’ and stuck long copyrights on them, making themselves huge amounts of money in the process.

So what is the solution? My own view is that two things need to happen. Firstly, those who produce need to temper their expectations of riches. Making music should not be an automatic entitlement to trash hotel rooms, fly around in private jets and be a do-nothing celebrity. Yes, musicians should be given fair reward for fair labour – but that has far too often been out of kilter, and the millions that have been made while they laze around by swimming pools has only fed the pirate spirit that these guys just don’t deserve any more than they’ve already taken.

But, secondly, people need to pay more for their music and books. There has been enormous damage to certain levels of creative industries because people have not just downloaded old Rolling Stones songs (something I have no problem with) but ripped off new, up-coming artists and material too. And that’s just wrong. People deserve fair reward, and most musicians and writers out there are working bloody hard without much compensation.

It was for these reasons that I decided to self-publish Mutiny!. That was the only way I could see of retaining a stinted copyright. It has freed me to sell the book for a short while to recoup the time and resources that have gone into writing it, but then, when that money has been made back (or some of it – go on, buy it and help!), I can release the book into the public domain for free, for others to remix and do stuff with under a reasonable Creative Commons agreement.

On reflection, perhaps Schramm should have done the same. But her problems began with that $130,000 dangled in front of her…

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3 comments to A Pirate Book That Insists on Copyright?

  • I totally agree, what do you think you would have done if you had a $130K dangled in front of you? I’m not sure if I could resist, I’d spend a lot of time convincing myself of all the ‘good’ I could do with the money and all the charities that would benefit, but I think that I would find it very hard to turn down.

  • acetate monkey

    Hi Kester, I’ve just finished mutiny and really enjoyed it. I get your point about copyright, but how do artists decide when they have received enough recompense?

    As self-employees without company/public pension, sick pay, or guaranteed work, each piece (which varies in popularity, remuneration and gestation) is more than just X hours’ effort, it needs to cover the gaps between work, contingencies and the future. There’s a quote on Salman Rushdie’s Wikipedia entry which differs from you:

    “I write for a living…and I have no other source of income, and I naïvely believe that stuff that I create belongs to me, and that if you want it you might have to give me some cash. [...] My view is I do this for a living. The thing wouldn’t exist if I didn’t make it and so it belongs to me and don’t steal it. You know. It’s my stuff.”

    Whilst your views differ, how do creative types make a living? Should they all trust it will be ok on the night and the next piece will come along before the money runs out or give commons access once a new work is ready for selling?

  • @acetate, I wonder if the assumption is that the creative types will continue creating and innovating, therefore not need constant renumeration from old works?