Robin Hoods or feudal lords?

Hooded man in shadowsMost of my acquaintances are thieves.

They can afford to buy books, music, DVDs, games and apps, but they don’t. They pretend that there’s an ethical distinction between stealing a printed book from a shop and downloading a pirated e-book. They would be offended by the suggestion that they’re criminals who rob musicians, photographers, film makers, writers and software developers.

Why then, do they do it? Because they can. Because, they tell me, “everyone else is doing it”. They tell me I’m a mug for paying for things.

The thieves I’ve come across are mostly well paid white-collar workers. They’re not poor people reclaiming a fairer share of society’s wealth. It seems the only reason that middle class people steal digital files but stop short of stealing tangible goods is that physical shops have surveillance cameras, security tags and shop assistants. White-collar thieves think they’re anonymous and unobserved on the internet, and mostly they are, not through tech-savvy but because copyright owners can’t be everywhere at once to stop the robberies. These middle class people wouldn’t steal DVDs from shops, because they’d be risking their privileged social status. Online, they can stop pretending to be upstanding citizens.

At first, I wanted to believe that my acquaintances were forgetting that digital goods, just like ones you can hold in your hand, take labour to produce. To credit them with better ethics than they really had, I had to pretend that they were less intelligent or less educated than they were.

If you hint that pirating and file sharing is no better than stealing physical goods, they overlook all the struggling creators and the media company underlings who need a job and cite examples of ludicrously rich CEOs, executives and mega stars. “Why should I make those people richer?” I agree that the executives and celebrities are overpaid at the expense of other media workers, but driving media companies out of business won’t put money into creators’ pockets unless people are prepared to pay creators directly for every mp3 file, every e-book, every app. By refusing to pay for films, books, music and software, people aren’t just refusing to subsidise greedy executives — they’re refusing to pay creative workers for their labour.

Anarchy on a salary

It amazes me that otherwise conservative people start spouting Anarchist catchphrases to justify their acts of theft. They think it’s OK to rob a musician of her income, but it’s not OK to steal an office worker’s wallet.What’s the difference? The same people who hope to continue receiving their salary talk about overthrowing the system whenever you suggest they should pay for their own entertainment. These feudal lords of today think all their entertainment should be provided free by serfs, while they go on receiving a tithe themselves.

Robin Hood goes digital

What about the self-styled Robin Hoods? Author Lloyd Shepherd’s discussion with e-book pirates appalled me.  “All knowledge should be free”, some say. Well, if you truly believe it should be free for everyone, then lobby for public libraries to receive more funding so they can acquire more books and continue lending them free of charge. That way, anyone can borrow a book, even if they can’t afford a computer and an internet connection, and the writers receive at least a little through the Public Lending Right and Educational Lending Right schemes. (Writers in many countries receive a small amount of compensation when their books are borrowed rather than bought.)

The trouble is, when some people say “All knowledge should be free”, what they really mean is “It should be free for me to download. I expect creators to keep providing more content for me, even if they’re not getting paid. And I don’t care about people who can’t afford the means to download.”

In other words, “If you can steal it, why pay for it?” is the digital mantra.

If the self-styled Robin Hoods were concerned about socio-economic justice, I think they’d be focussed on redistributing food, infrastructure and medical care, or cancelling the third-world debt, not soliciting and sharing pirated works.

The theft economy

The Romantic legend suggested that artists suffered for Art and were often prepared to go without for it. Contemporary consumers now demand that they do. It’s the theft economy: you create; I download and give you nothing in return.

Under this system, only independently wealthy people would be able to devote most of their time to creating and releasing works at their own expense. J.K. Rowling could continue publishing new works without receiving another cent, but she’s in a tiny minority. When I worked in publishing before the e-book boom, I saw writers’ royalty statements, and I can confirm that most writers don’t make enough to live on. They need a day job. Now that more people are stealing books in electronic form instead of buying them, I expect that writers will produce less or give up altogether.

I’m not sure how creative people can make a living now that theft has become socially acceptable. If I published a book and received no income for it because it was pirated, would I continue to write? Probably. Would I continue to publish my work? No. If your employers (other consumers) refuse to pay for your labour (writing, or making music, films and software) then you can’t really do anything except withdraw your labour (stop releasing your creations). I don’t see why people expect writers to take on creation, production, marketing and distribution costs in exchange for nothing.

Musicians used to tour in order to generate album sales; now they release albums to generate merchandise and ticket sales. Since so much of their work is pirated and file shared, they can only hope to earn a living from merchandise and concerts.

Writers have no such fallback position. Once your written work is stolen, that’s it. There’s no merchandise to sell, no concert to give. Unless you’re a J.K. Rowling or an Ian McEwan, no-one’s going to buy some action figures or pay to hear you talk. There’s no incentive to go on sharing your creative work with the world. You may as well concentrate on your day job. The pirates have stolen creativity.

© JD Ellevsen

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