Monday, November 02, 2009

Moral Versus Legal

Time to time, copyright and such comes up in discussions where I hang out. Being a writer, I'm sorta of the mind that some yabbo scanning books and then sticking them up as bit torrents is theft, pure and simple. Same with music or movies.

However, the edges sometimes get a little fuzzy. Let's say, for instance, that I have a bunch of CDs that I bought and paid for. Several of them have favorite cuts, and with the wonder of not-so-modern electronics, I can stick five CDs them into my player and select the songs I want to listen to in whichever order I want. Perfectly legal.

(I'm not getting into iPod-ery here, save tangentially, and I'll get back to that.)

So, I want to listen to some music and my preferences run to several different artists on this particular day whilst I drive into town. Let's say, I want to start with Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, then a couple of Beatles tunes -- Let it Be, and Hey, Jude. Then maybe some Clapton, Layla. Some George Harrison, What is Life? Cat -- before he was Yusuf Islam -- Stevens: Hard Headed Woman, Father and Son. End the set with Don McClean's American Pie. Forty-odd minutes of groove, enough for a drive into town.

I can pack up half a dozen CDs and take them to my car, then, because the player there slots but one at a time, risk my life and limb switching disks as I motor down the highway.

Or, I can do a mix CD. Copy the songs onto my computer, stack them like I want, and burn them to a disk.

Technically, I believe this is illegal. But morally, I'm good with it. Why? Because I paid for the CDs and I can listen to the pieces as many times as I wish. Burning them onto a mix disk doesn't take any money out of anybody's pocket, since I'm not going to buy them again in the same medium.

If I download these songs from iTunes, I can carry them around on my iPod or listen to them on my computer in any order I want legally, no?

If somebody put out a compilation disk of those artists doing those songs, I'd be willing to pay for that, but nobody will. Me putting my choices onto a personal disk that I'm not going to sell doesn't, as far as I can see, hurt anybody financially whatsoever, nor am I'm stealing anything, since I bought the disks legally.

Who gets hurt?

How slippery is this slope?

I doubt that Sir Paul and Slow Hand's lawyers are gonna knock on the door and threaten me with legal action. If somebody bought one of my novels and then sat down and read it into a recorder so he could listen to it while driving to work, I'd be good with that. If they photocopied it so they could read it in the bathtub and not risk ruining it, as long as they kept both copies? Not a problem for me there, either.

Interesting where one draws the line ...


Scott said...

I suspect free riders help musicians.

Novelists are a trickier question; most people don't read most novels repeatedly, so free downloads could hurt novel sales. I don't think they would, but I acknowledge the possibility.

Steve Perry said...

If you run a shop and somebody comes in and swipes your stock, you figure that helps you somehow?

What free riders do is ride free. That might help some musicians for live appearances, but it decreases CD or MP3 sales. Doesn't matter to the huge name acts, but marginal guys who used to make most of their money in the studio doing albums either go on the road or go broke.

Used to be, you did shows to support the new album. Now, it's the other way, and not everybody loves the road.

Free downloads definitely hurt book and movie sales. If all you have to do is push a button and it shows up on your computer, you figure a lot of people will read it or watch it and then go out and plunk down their money for a copy of something they already have?

I don't have that much faith in human nature.

Free chapter on Sure. The whole book free? How does that help me make a living? The thief is going to get religion and start paying for other books?

Don't bet the farm on that one. I know way too many folks with pirated music, movies, and book on their computer who never spend a dime past that.

Zip is a good price. And we have a generation of born-to-the-computer users who think everything they want should be theirs for nothing. Information might want to be free, but entertainment wants to be paid for. If you don't, the guys that do it have to find other jobs and a lot of them won't have the time to write books or scripts.

Most of us don't have patrons who pay the bills while we do artwork on the ceilings. Those day are gone.

Jason said...

Tangential, but just for reference the mix cd you describe is legal. You are making it for your personal use. Completely OK.

The various industry groups are doing their best to spread a fair amount of incorrect information that gives the impression that it is not, but it definitely is.

When you start using it for performances or selling it? Not so much.

When you give it to someone else for free, gray area. Not fully court decided yet.

Just for reference. IANAL and all that.

EvMick said...

Meanwhile over at Baen Books Free library ( there are maybe a hundred FREE e-books. them and read.

All authors who participate have reported an INCREASE in book sales if they place a book in the free library.

Imagine that.

Brett said...

Along a similar line...I'm curious what your thoughts are on lending other people a book you bought and read. What do you feel is the overall effect on you as the writer. I can see several pros and cons here so I'm interested to know how a writer feels about it.

J.D. Ray said...

Several studies have indicated that people who do a lot of music downloading also spend a lot of money on music. Of course, Sandra Boynton has said, "Research tells us that fourteen out of any ten individuals like chocolate," so it's obvious that data gets misrepresented on occasion.

I think one of the major problems we have around this issue is that the people who have made the most money from the distribution of music and movies are seeing their long-held traditions of raking in money for someone else's work going by the way side. They're throwing a lot of their savings at the effort to litigate and legislate the world into keeping the status quo in place rather than looking for new paradigms for distribution and profit making.

Steve, you've posted before something about the writer's margin in book sales. How would you feel if a web site purchased the rights to publish one of your novels, then gave it away to anyone wanted it, but they had to watch commercials before they downloaded it? The book seems "free" to the downloader (considering only the monetary sense), the publisher gets revenue from the advertising, and you got your cut up front.

I agree that theft is wrong, but I'm not sure that the distribution models for media that were created in the 20th century will survive well in the 21st century. We need something new, and I think all this "noise" happening around content theft is the sound of the revolution happening. It'll be interesting to see what comes out the other side.

Steve Perry said...

Brett --

If you buy a book, it's yours. You can do anything you want with that copy -- keep it, lend, give it away, sell it. It's your property.

What you can't do is dupe it and then sell or give those away. That, in a nutshell, is what copyright is -- the right to copy a work.

If you send iTunes 99 cents and buy a song, it's yours, for your use. If you dupe it and pass it around to your friend, or bit torrent it, it's theft. Doesn't matter if you don't make any money on it -- you ain't Robin Hood, and what he was doing was illegal as hell, despite the fact that John was an evil man.

If you copy a book and give it away, that is a potential sale that won't happen. Maybe that guy you give it to wouldn't have bought the book anyhow, but if you give him a copy, he certainly has no reason to do so.

Maybe he'll like it and buy the next one. Maybe.

Mick --

Loss leaders and advertising giveaways sometimes pump up sales. And sometimes they don't.

If my publisher and I decide to risk this for that reason, that's a gamble we agree to take.

If you scan the book and then pass out digital copies without my permission, then claim that is to my benefit? I want to see proof that it is. So far, anecdotal stories about how ripping off music or books benefits the artists are unsubstantiated. Excuses used by thieves to justify their actions.

Oh, those big music companies and publishers get all the money, the artist doesn't get it, so it's okay to stick it to them? And who do you think loses the most percentage of his income -- the guy playing gigs in local clubs with a CD, or his music company?

Stephen King tried letting people download a book and then paying for it if they wanted and he quickly realized how bad an idea that was, and he was Stephen King.

Yeah, the technology is going to make changes whether we like it or not, and maybe some kind of model as J.D. suggests might work. Or like they do in Britain, when you borrow a book from the library, the writer gets a tiny royalty. But until somebody comes up with a way to pay artists for the work done, taking it without paying for it is exactly the same as walking into the local 7-Eleven and ripping off a six pack of beer, and claiming it's good for their business.

That's all self-serving rationalizations and puredee bullshit.

William Adams said...

J.D. Ray, if you want to see an example of the books provided for free, but supported by advertising look at the history of


Scott said...

Lotta conflation errors there: theft with copyright violation; music with books, movies, and storefront stock; distribution with duplication....

Copying is free marketing. If it hurts sales then it's objectionable, okay; but it doesn't hurt music sales and might not (see Baen) hurt book sales. It's not a zero sum game; another conflation error there, readers with buyers. A guy who reads your book for free might increase your sales even if he never buys a copy of your books, just by word of mouth. Used book sales and libraries don't help your bottom line either; that doesn't make them wrong.

Steve Perry said...

Nonsense, Scott. Because technology has developed better ways to steal things and because way more people do doesn't make it moral or legal.

I'm not crying in my beer for the poor buggy whip makers who got put out of business by the horseless carriage. I'm pointing out that lost billions selling products at a deep discount. Walmart and Target are doing loss leaders on books now, to try and pull in customers. If they were giving it all away free, how much do you figure they'd have lost?

TANSTAAFL -- There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling himself, but I'm not buying it.

The notion that a guy who swipes my book "might" increase my sales by word of mouth? Funny. There might be a fire-breathing dragon flying around outside my house right now, but no evidence there is.

"Free" music isn't free. Somebody somewhere had to pay for the instruments, the means to record it, and somebody had to come up with the tune and lyrics.

Somebody has to write a book, record it, distribute it.
If you want professional-class work, somebody has to pay for it.

CDs, books, artwork, in the end they are also crafts and products, and when you take a commercial product without paying for it, how is that anything but theft?

You can dance all over the floor, but that's what it comes down to -- you are taking something you haven't paid for, and that's the bottom line.

Your argument over libraries and used books is specious -- somebody bought the library book; a sale. Somebody bought the new book that was resold; a sale. After that, that book is a product that can be lent or given or sold.

If you download an iTune and then give that copy to somebody and don't keep it yourself, that's fine. If you keep a copy for yourself, you might as well have taken that buck out of the pockets of the artists, the recorder, the guy who sells them mikes and cables, and anybody else in that profit stream.

How you can't see that amazes me.

That you don't tells me a few things, let me know if I'm wrong: You are young, compared to my generation. You have a computer and/or MP3 player full of software and music for which you didn't pay anything. You really want both to be okay to justify that.

If it makes you feel better, go ahead. But it doesn't make what you are doing right.

EvMick said...


I don't know from music. I'm tone deaf so it's irrelevant.

I agree with everything you say about theft. Legally I'm sure you're correct. All I'm saying is that Baen (and Corry Doctorow and Charlie Stross come to think of it) seem to have different ideas about book sales. . Baen and their authors seems to think highly of the concept. (of providing free ebooks)

I'd like your thoughts on Libraries also. After all , as an author, your not making a physical object. The "book" you write could be scrapped in mud, chiseled in stone, printed on paper or coded in 'bits' on an SDRAM chip. Doesn't matter to you. What you develop is physically intangible.

And libraries give it away. Are they thieves? ....fences? ...the ultimate robin hoods or just hoods?

It's a complex problem. No readily evident answers.

What I like about SF is that it takes note of these problems(and other's like it) and tackles it in advance...before we get blindsided in real life.

Seems it didn't do so hot regarding Electronic Publishing.

Scott said...

You can't distinguish between fixed and marginal cost, you can't recognize a marginal cost of zero, you can't distinguish between users and buyers, and you can't distinguish between taking and copying. "How you can't see that amazes me."

"You are young, compared to my generation. You have a computer and/or MP3 player full of software and music for which you didn't pay anything."

41, no music or mp3 player. Computer full of unpaid software, sure; Ubuntu Linux: Free, not pirated.

I'm a lifetime teetotaler who disapproves of the Drug War, too; it's a principled position, honest, not guilt.

Steve Perry said...

Sorry, but it's my ox being gored. If it were yours, I expect you'd feel differently about it. It isn't, you don't. Rather like offering advice on parenting when you don't have any children.

Think what you please, that's allowed. Nothing you've said convinces me that swiping stuff is a good thing.

Master Plan said...

If you download an iTune and then give that copy to somebody and don't keep it yourself, that's fine.

If you buy a book, it's yours. You can do anything you want with that copy -- keep it, lend, give it away, sell it. It's your property.


And this goes both ways right? So long as somebody bought a physical copy of the work, or even just a digital transmission of the work, then it can be passed along infinitely so long as the prior owner isn't using their copy (if they even retain it)?

So I could read a book, loan it out, that person can loan it out, and then return it to me, and I can loan it out again and the same with a song.

We could even associate the data with the user ID and store it in the "cloud". So I can login to my iTunes account on your computer and listen to my music which I've paid for which would work for ebooks and such as well. If I pick up your Kindle and login as myself I can then read my books on your device and after you login again then my books become unavailable to you and vice versa. So long as I'm logged in to your device you can even read my books, but this prevents me from logging in (as me) on my own personal device and reading my books. Unless it was per-user per-book specific. That is if I've loaned Brother Death out but still want to read Musashi Flex then I can read one but not the other, just as when loaning physical media.

By the same token then if I buy a book it's mine and I can scan it, but not to distribute simply to read it on my Kindle or iPhone (or whatever digital device I like) in the same way you can buy a CD and rip the tracks to MP3 and still own the CD, it's just easier to listen to MP3s on the iPod than it is CDs. This is the "fair use" personal copy they talk about. Similar to making mixed tapes in a way, changing the order or format of a work you own a copy of.

So given all of that can I then make digital copies of books I own and loan those copies to others provided that I do not view those works while they are loaned and provided those I'm loaning them to do not copy them for other folks?

On the same tip if I've received a copy of a work from a friend can I make a copy of it for them which I retain in the event they lose theirs (again assuming I'm not actually doing anything with it)?

Steve Perry said...

MP --

Nope. Look at that efile as if it is a tangible object. Like a book or a CD. You can pass that copy around, but you can't dupe it for your friends. You don't get to seed clouds or cause more copies to get into circulation.

Master Plan said...

Sure, however you like it, can hand off the copy (or 'instance' to avoid using the word copy) an unlimited number of times but can't generate more of them. That's cool?

And the instance is licensed in a unique way. Every copy you sell of an ebook from your blog has it's own unique ID number registered to it.

You could even keep all the copies (or a single copy which you allow others to access simultaneously via that unique ID from above) on a server yourself and just validate access (look for duplicate usage, etc) to prevent copying.

Provided that all of that is true it's still cool for folks to trade copies (login\pwd combos) of various works?

You could in fact have a digital library could you not? Tracking used and unused logins to specific books. I could easily overnight a book to a friend in NYC, I could also as easily put a text copy on a server for them to access, I could also do the same as above and monitor\validate their access to my copy.

So the same case, I own something because I bought it (even if I'm only actually renting it or whatever the EULA says) and because of that I can loan it out and so on, the main thing being only one person gets to access it at a time (unless you read the book during the day and somebody else reads it at night or something goofy) because only one instance has been purchased.

Can I then maintain my own server of books I have purchased and allow others to access it provided that per-book access is restricted to a single person at a time?

This could be done in such a way as to prevent copying of the text by those viewing it for the sake of argument (and because they can kinda do this with DRM already).

Steve Perry said...

Sounds to me as if you are trying pretty hard to circumvent the one-copy premise. Snd internet transmission makes for speedier delivery, but If the premise that there is only one copy -- which means when you ship it to your buddy in New York City, it's the only copy and you don't have it any longer, then we are closer to the notion of the ebook being traded like a paper book.

Libraries do this, and if you are willing to wait on a popular book, I have no problem with that, in principle, since libraries serve a local public who might not be able to afford to buy books.

However, if everybody can become a library, which is much easier if you don't have hard copy stock to shelve, then the rationale of a library isn't the same as it was, is it? If you can ship a book to Sarasota or Saigon, then you aren't serving your community.

Still, if you want to offer freebie reads of a book you bought using the single-copy model -- you send it, they read it, send it back, and you can't offer it (or read it) again until that happens, then that is less onerous than putting it up on a pirate site for as many thousands of folks who want to rip it off and keep it as can.

Master Plan said...

Actually I'm rather trying to work inside the one-copy premise.

Provided the technology is there, and it pretty much is, what is to prevent micro-libraries or private libraries from operating electronically?

You say it might not be helping your community, but I say that's a new issue in to this discussion, and I don't think it's accurate anyway as "my community" would include folks I know and like regardless of their geographic location.

All this does is remove the shipping gap, the cost and time involved in getting the physical media to a different real-space location, but otherwise seems to meet your criteria. No new copies are created, each instance is accessed by only a single person at a time.

None of which seems particularly controversial to me. It's exactly what a library does but cybernetted rather than physical copies.

Where it gets weird is is somebody (a computer) keeps a list of all of the legal copies of a book and loans them out as they are available, but does so electronically.

As if you had a digital Powell's in every single city everywhere and you never bought used to just borrowed for free.

This is assuming the copy-protection on the legal\authorized copies works just fine (folks will howl but that's not my concern here). Because books are short and mostly text they're pretty easy to zip around the int4rw3bz, no significant costs in bandwidth, particularly if the distribution of them is..uh, distributed. Provided you're only getting one reader per legal copy it doesn't actually matter how many copies there are.

Somebody still has to buy this book originally, hard or soft copy, but once one person buys it it can become available (at their whim) to any number of other people for free on a time limited basis.

And this is ok, provided somebody (more than one I would think) is buying legit copies of a work at the start of the process?

Steve Perry said...

I am for ideas that will allow me and other writers to continue to make a living doing what we do. How that manifests, I dunno and I don't think anybody else does yet, either.

Maybe books that are limited to one reader, or that can be lent out once or twice.

Unlike the buggy whips, novels are apt to stick around in one form or another, and the question is, how to keep the good ones coming. Take away financial incentive, you are going to lose a lot of midlist writers who can't afford to do it for fun.

jks9199 said...

Such an important and ignored principle -- it bears repeating!

Because technology has developed better ways to steal things and because way more people do doesn't make it moral or legal.

Scott said...

"Sorry, but it's my ox being gored. If it were yours, I expect you'd feel differently about it."

If I were a selfish petty reactionary I'm sure I'd feel differently.

"It isn't, you don't. Rather like offering advice on parenting when you don't have any children."

Rather like the logical fallacy called argument from authority; especially tenuous when you don't know what I do for a living, but a logical fallacy even if I was just a random character generator on a winning streak.

"Think what you please, that's allowed. Nothing you've said convinces me that swiping stuff is a good thing."

It's not swiping and it's not stuff; bits, not atoms, remember?

Steve Perry said...

Doesn't matter what you do for a living -- wrong is still wrong. You are a pretty good dancer, but there's no there there.

(If you are calling me a selfish reactionary because I want to continue providing a product for which I am paid? That's a bit of a stretch.)

If you violate copyright, which is a law designed to protect intellectual property, most places that's civil; some places, criminal. Whether you agree with the concept or not, the laws are there to protect people. You can run stop signs and speed, too, because you don't agree with those notions, either, but the same reasoning applies -- those statues are there to protect people from each other.

And that's what you are saying, whether you come out and state it or not, isn't it?

Arguments from expertise and/or experience are the not the same as argument from authority. Direct firsthand knowledge maybe not always trump theoretical, but if are trying to get around to telling me that there ought not be intellectual property laws because it easy to break them and get away with it, you are barking up the wrong tree.

Nothing you have said has convinced me, and I don't expect you can develop a reasonable argument that will.

Don't waste my time or your own.

Scott said...

"If you are calling me a selfish reactionary because I want to continue providing a product for which I am paid? That's a bit of a stretch.)

I didn't call you anything, Steve.

"If you violate copyright, which is a law designed to protect intellectual property, most places that's civil; some places, criminal."

So it's definitely not theft, right? Theft is criminal, copyright violation is civil; different.

"...if are trying to get around to telling me that there ought not be intellectual property laws because it easy to break them and get away with it..."

I never said there shouldn't be intellectual property laws. I never made the argument that laws which are difficult to enforce ought not exist. Perhaps you could address things I actually said.

Worg said...

I'm late to the party as usual.

"Look at that efile as if it is a tangible object."

The fact is, it's not a tangible object. It's a collection of switches turned to a particular configuration.

You have a point and it's a reasonable point. There are arguments on the other side as well.

But the fact is, the world has changed. The new printing press is out and nothing is going to put the cat back in the bag.

Writers and the music industry lived in the old equilibrium state, the one where content creation and distribution could be controlled by a small, very rich group of thirdmen.

That's not the case anymore. It's all been democratized.

The new equilibrium state is one that favors small, fast, agile networks over rigid centralized hierarchies.

You've probably already read the classic essay on the subject by Bruce Sterling. If not, take a look at it. Also "Out of Control" by Kevin Kelly.

There's what should be, and then there's what is. People need to adapt to the new equilibrium state. Those who fail to do so are going to die the death of dinosaurs nibbled to death by mice, one egg at a time.

Just from my perspective as a writer: I revised my demographic. Now I'm shooting for one that not only is predisposed against theft but is also friendly to an event/seminar-driven business model.

The digital age has heralded the end of numerous institutions. I've seen this one coming for over a decade. I write fiction anyway even though I'm not going to make any money on it. But I'm not going to try to make a career as a novelist (unless I can figure out some sort of distribution method that I control 100%) because I see the writing on the wall. I can't aim for where the river is right now, I have to aim for where it would be in five or ten years.

The reality is that there's just not going to be any money in traditional publishing by then. Kindles and pirating networks that trade ebooks in hundred-gigabyte packs like third world citizens trundle around huge bales of flattened plastic bottles on their bikes-- they're going to put an end to all that.

Long live the new flesh.