Pirates of Perchance

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hereticsun/

At least once a week, if not once a day, I am offered the opportunity receive a stolen good.  No, Valparaiso, Indiana has not become a hotbed of criminal activity.  This all happens on the Internet.  Someone mentions that they just heard a great album and they offer to dropbox it.  Or a livejournal community does a movie watch-a-long and someone posts links where the movie or tv episode can be torrented.  No seedy characters. No obvious ill intent.  Just some people just wanting to brighten my day and share some entertainment.

Provocative Statement Warning: Librarians and other related information professionals should respect copyright, DRM, etc and not participate in or encourage the transmission of pirated materials.

I guess it’s a sign of the times that I feel the need to label a  statement which basically says, “Hey, dudes, I think we should follow the law and not steal stuff…” as provocative.  But I guess there’s an underlying message there, the one that I wasn’t brave enough to put initially.  The one that says “If you pirate media I think you kinda suck as a librarian. And as a human being.”

That’s true, by the way. I do think that.

Take the all the vendor swag you want.  Only publish your scholarly works in non-open access journals.  Shush people.  All fine by me.  Doesn’t really change my professional opinion significantly.    Torrent an HBO TV show instead of paying for a subscription to it?  Make available your entire music library to large groups of people?  Download ebooks from shady websites?  Ooooooh, yeah…um, I just lost a lot of respect for you.  Professionally. And personally.

I honestly don’t know why this issue bothers me so much.  I guess I also don’t understand why a statement of “I just torrented a book and it’s available for download here” is met with a near universal “yay” by people, yet if that same person said “I went to BestBuy, stole this CD and ripped it and now I’m sending you all copies” he or she would be met with a less enthusiastic response.  (At least I hope they would be. )  Theft is theft.  Why does  the format of the container that the item comes in all of the sudden turn this into an issue of  “shades of gray”?

Yes, copyright law has been extended in ways that the founders could not have imagined and mainly serves to make large corporations even richer.  Yes, DRM is unwieldly and confusing and inhibits the transmission of legally purchased materials.  And, yes, it does suck that you have to buy the same material over and over again to have it in different formats.

Don’t care.

The weird thing is – for me, anway – is that I am an enthusiastic supporter of Open Access, Open Source and Free Law.   Information wants to be free, right?   Patents inhibit innovation, right? I guess, for me, the difference is that there is a world of difference between laws (which are copyright free anyway), scholarly materials (the creation of which is not paid for by the people selling it) and Open Source software (which is community supported) AND creative materials that are primarily for entertainment value.  Does that make me a content snob?  I will admit to having some prejudices in this.  For example,  I’m deeply suspicious of people that try to get everything for free – it strikes me as lazy or excessively cheap to steal stuff when they can easily go to the store and afford it.   (And don’t try and use the excuse that corporations have enough money…artists pay the price for your illegal downloads.)  Is it wrong for people to want to make money off of their creative content and not have to rely upon tours or t-shirt sales to support themselves?

(As an aside, I’m currently reading Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson [also available as in smaller size from Wired magazine] and I’m trying to capture some of the ideas at how Free works with regards to information and the prejudices around it, especially legal information and libraries for a future blog post.  Anyway, that’s where I got the above idea about t-shirt sales and tours to support giving music away for free – an idea, I might add, that I don’t think will really work for everyone.)

At the beginning of the month, the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain released a list of works that would be in the public domain but for the 1976 law changes.  At one point they used the term “locked up” to describe some of the works.  Sports Illustrated Issue 1 specifically.  Now, I’m no stranger to the use of hyperbole, but locked up? Really?  Libraries have it. You could probably purchase a back issue. (And I just checked, it looks like SI has its archives available for free anyway, so having to purchase is not a consideration.)  It can’t be reproduced and distributed is the problem then?

That’s not locked up.

Locked up is making it almost impossible to navigate the nation’s laws and codes without the use of a proprietary indexing system.  Locked up is a dataset whose creation was paid for by tax payers but, because the work was done by a contractor, no one is able to see or use it.  Locked up is having information on a format that no one can read anymore or requires a special software to do so.  Locked up is NOT not being able to have the material you want in the format you want it in at the exact moment you want it.   As my dear mother always says, “…and people in Hell want ice water.”  Sorry to be the one to tell you that.

At this point someone is probably going to bring up the idea that the current system of laws is unfair and therefore they should not be obeyed.  Yes, there is a time and a place for that in our society.  However, personally, I am not comfortable comparing 1950s lunch counter sit-ins with someone’s need to torrent the last season of Battlestar Galactica.  A copy, I might add, that they could purchase at BestBuy or probably get for free from their local public library.  But if that’s what lets you sleep at night, well…

Listen. I know.  It’s a sucky time to be an information consumer.  Gadgets and technical knowledge have reached a point where we (as consumers) can see where we want things to be. Unfortunately, the laws and the content creators haven’t quite gotten there yet.  So why bring up the idea of ethics and librarianship when it comes to pirating materials, especially if it’s just done on private time for personal use?  (I mean, it went over SO WELL the last time I mentioned ethics…what is it about this time of year that gets me all het up about this sort of thing, anway?) WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SUCH A BUZZ KILL, GLASSMEYER???

As Bob Dylan said, “to live outside the law you must be honest.”   Librarians know information.  We know the needs of the information consumer, the workings of the information producer and are therefore primed to be excellent advocates and resources for change.   As such, we need to be above reproach to be respectable when it comes to the future debates. Doctors shouldn’t write themselves prescriptions.  Professional athletes shouldn’t bet on the outcomes of games.  Librarians shouldn’t torrent stuff.  Is that so out-there?

Maybe those aren’t the greatest parallels.  The one that I do always see when it comes to the copyright/DRM issue is the “legalize marijuana” debate.  Personally, I have never smoked pot.  I’m also pretty sure it’s only illegal because of ignorant legislatures and corporate lobbying.  Furthermore, I think there are a lot of sick people that would be greatly helped by having access to it.   But when I see some stoner kid playing hacky-sack on the street corner handing out “legalize pot” flyers, I’m immediately turned off.

Don’t be that stoner kid.  Act respectable and you’ll get respect from the people with the power to make the changes you want.

Okay, I don’t think you’re a horrible HORRIBLE  librarian if you torrent stuff, although I do lose some respect for you.  I mean, you’re breaking the law.  For no real good reason other than you can.  But really,  I guess I’m just trying to open a dialog here, because I don’t really know why I feel as strongly I do.  I would love to be convinced otherwise…give me a reason to sit in my house and torrent movies instead of paying $7.50 for it.  Tell me why it’s okay to fill my kindle app with illegal downloads.  Justify your activity.

Until then, I’m going to keep away from pirates.  And wonder why I feel so weird for saying “I think we should obey the law.”


  7 comments for “Pirates of Perchance

  1. C.Rader
    January 30, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Well, I don’t think you are weird, and mostly I agree with you, and a principled stand is a good starting point for debate and discussion. Personally, I think we, as a culture, are in a euphoria state, collectively ‘whheeeeeeee’ over the things that we can suddenly do. Authors can now distribute freely to audiences, musicians can find new listeners, video game designers, ditto. Every creative outlet is finding huge audiences. Dinosaur industries are fighting the trend, and they have some sympathy, but we have been watching prices crawl up as some abused a monopoly and others just went for whatever they could get from a captive audience. So customers have some complaint. And some artists do give away some of their work, and the old physical constraints of ownership do not translate well to the digital realm where the act of copying is infinitely easier. Yes, piracy is theft, but there are arguments to be made that the people being pirated are perhaps claimimg losses greater than are actually being inflicted. And I have long felt that licensing agreements that are based on service population are blatant ripoffs, once I compare actual usage, but if they hold the info, and they are the only game in town? The issue will continue to develop as needs and providers find points in common. In the meantime, don’t feel weird.

  2. January 31, 2011 at 11:00 am

    I’m not as sure how I feel about major studio movie piracy (the example you originally cited, about people gathering to watch the streamed movie, doesn’t bother me as much). But the book piracy comment reminded me of this, which was written by a young author about why it upsets her when people tell her they pirated her book.

  3. Helane
    January 31, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    I think your point (with which I mostly agree) is part of a larger conversation about the mores that make people comfortable with torrenting but uncomfortable with shoplifting that BB CD. Until we understand the motives and ethics that drive that difference, we won’t understand why it bothers us so much. Clearly it’s not just the financial aspect. Could it be that one action is much more private than the other? Or that technology enables one but not the other? It’s not a coincidence that we call it pirating (much more dashing a term, even romantic — in the classical sense) rather than theft.

  4. David
    February 3, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    “Okay, I don’t think you’re a horrible HORRIBLE librarian if you torrent stuff,”

    Ok, ok, this is my issue, and I don’t know why it bothers me so much, but I lose a little (just a little) respect for librarians who use torrent to mean piracy.
    Torrents are a really efficient way to share files, especially large and popular files. Libraries should be embracing this and looking for ways to capitalize on the BitTorrent protocol. Legally. Like we do with copy machines. Which also can easily be used to pirate text.

  5. Alex Grigg
    February 8, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Catching up on old blog posts so I’m a little late to this party. I did also hear the Libpunk episode where you brought up some of the same issues.

    I must admit to having done my fair share of torrenting and napstering over the years, although that’s tapered off quite a bit since I started having a reasonable income with which to purchase such materials as well as a better understanding of the copyright laws that are in play. I’m also not going to pretend that my previous poverty justified that pirating, although it certainly encouraged it.

    What I really want to address is the fact that what you’re describing is a cultural shift. Sure, the shift is still a question of laws and will be until the legal system catches up with the culture, but this genie is out of the bottle. People are no longer as willing to pay for content, particularly in entertainment media. This cultural shift is the result of a change in the format of the media that is very similar to the first change that caused copyright laws to be created. The printing press increased government regulation of printed works immediately and it took a little while, but about 250 years after Gutenberg’s first press we get the first real copyright law. It’s clearly not an accident that the press came first. Change happens a little faster now so we may not have to wait 250 years for the availability of electronic media to change our copyright laws, but the cultural shift is already here. I don’t think it’s going away.

    So stop telling us to stay off your lawn! 😛

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