10.22.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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good pirate, bad pirate
media, book piracy and how things yarrrr
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
pop culture

Has there ever been a pirate better than Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Of course I have a strong personal affection for Kevin Kline as the Pirate King in the 1983 movie version of "Pirates of Penzance", and I'm sure plenty of folks would make an enthusiastic case for Errol Flynn, but nobody buckled his swash like Jack Sparrow buckled his swash.

And so we love pirates, don't we?

But we also don't. In cases like Depp's and Kline's and Flynn's, we find pirates charming and amusing and devilishly anti-establishment, but "pirate" is a plenty charged word in certain circles. You only have to add the word "Somali" in front of it to change things completely.

Swashbuckling eyepatched dudes with swords? Dashing. Violent, dangerous men who hijack oil tankers, taking hostages and threatening other ships with rocket-propelled grenade launchers? Way less cool.

And then there's the other kind of pirate. You've seen the anti-piracy ads at the movies, right? Movie pirates are downloading movies without paying for them or buying cheap knock-off versions, meaning there's less money to go around behind the scenes, and people like boom operators and cameramen and whatnot are losing their jobs. (Or at least that's the best way to frame the ad, since people have no sympathy for actors, who are widely perceived as overpaid prima-donnas... even while we eagerly gobble up their films and celebrity biographies and never-ending barrage of pictures in "US Weekly.")

So. Anyway. The other kind of pirate: the movie pirate, the music pirate, the book pirate.

You ask: Book pirate?

(And I'm not talking about Emer Morrisey.)

Even the choice of the word indicates our ambivalence -- we don't call people who illegally download movies "movie thieves" or "movie terrorists." We call them "movie pirates", if we bother to call them anything at all, besides nephew or neighbor or roommate. Music is the same way. And now books. Because the rise of e-books has made a lot of things more convenient... including uploading and downloading illegal copies of everything from Twilight to Freedom to Steal This Book.

Obviously, I've got a dog in this fight, or I'm about to. I've heard such horror stories from fellow authors about finding hundreds or even thousands of illegal downloadable copies of their books online, and the hollow thud in their stomachs when they think of every one of those downloads as another copy of their book that didn't get sold, a copy they didn't get paid for, a dollar of royalties they didn't make, lowering their chances of earning out their advance and getting paid for the next book they write. Naturally, the perspective of the author and the consumer are not the same, which is why you hear these three main pro-piracy arguments:

1. The content's too expensive. A hardcover book is about $23 to $25; seeing a movie in the theatre here in New York is in the neighborhood of $15. Even if you're looking at an Amazon discount for the books and Netflix subscription for the movies, there's no price that can compete with the price of the pirated version: FREE. But on the other hand, do you steal a dress because it's too expensive? A camera? A suitcase? Not really, no.

2. True fans are the ones downloading, and if they like the product enough, they'll end up buying it. Quite possibly true. On the other hand, aren't there other ways to sample the product? A lot of books have their first chapter online, and if not, there's always the library. And if you already have the free copy, what's the motivation to pay for another?

3. Downloading doesn't hurt any real people. All the money goes to the big faceless corporations who are stupid stupidheads anyway. Well, this is just my personal experience, but here's the thing: all the authors I've ever met have faces.

So clearly, I've got an opinion. I think this kind of pirate is the bad kind. But thousands of others think otherwise. And those are the people who are out there setting up mirror sites, and saying that downloads are the best way for new authors to build an audience whether or not these downloads have been "paid for" in the strictest sense of the phrase, and... it's just tiring to get angry about it, let alone try to do anything about it. Exhausting. There are a lot of things about being a published author I'm looking forward to, and believe me when I say this is one aspect I am definitely not.

But pirates are people too. And you can read an interview with a very reasonable-sounding one over here at The Millions. So maybe there are some pirates out there who I'd love just as much as I love Jack Sparrow. And no doubt I have friends who download things illegally, whether those things are movies or books or songs, and I love those people at least as much as I love Kevin Kline as the Pirate King.

Content is content, and it will always be pirated. There are just too many boats in the waters.

That said, even though it's tiring and not particularly fun, I'll still be sailing the seas of the internet after my book comes out. Because pirates are people too, and some of them are only pirating books because it's easy. So if I can make it a little harder to pirate my book, I will.

Pirates are people, yes -- and so are authors like me.

(If you want to help me patrol the waters starting in April, you can report online piracy to Simon & Schuster via this link.)


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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