As many of you know, Harlan Ellison has been for a few years now embroiled in a long, exhausting, and expensive battle against Internet piracy. I've heard more than a few people wax mocking of Ellison's "Quixotic" battle, and in almost every case, when asked why they think he's wasting his time, energy, and money, they invitably shrug their shoulders and say something profoundly intelligent like "He can't win," or "He's making it into a much bigger problem than it really is," or -- my particular favorite of all the bonehead responses -- "So what if somebody put some of his stories up on their web site or is offering them for download? It's not like he's losing any money because of it."
Of all the types of idiocy that cause me to despair (if not bleed) internally, it's that last, oh-so-smug variety that makes me want to grab a rifle and climb a tower.
It's not like he's losing any money because of it.
In order to help you understand just how insipid a statement that is, I'm not going to speak in generalities; nor should anyone think that I'd dare speak for Mr. Ellison (I like my spine attached to the rest of my body, thank you), no; instead, I'm going to whittle this down to specifics: case in point, the adverse effect that pirating of the written word has on those who make their living through writing: even more specific case in point, myself.
About a month ago, a very fine and conscientious fellow named Eric Collier (who haunts the Shocklines Message Board at http://pub117.ezboard.com/bshocklinesforum) announced that the work of a half dozen or so writers who also frequent the board was being pirated -- some stories were being posted without permission on web sites, while still more stories -- and books -- were being offered via file-sharing services.
Before going any further, understand that I am restricting this argument solely to the illegal pirating of written material -- and for the sake of clarity, we will define "written material" as short stories, novellas, novels, and short story collections. I'm not talking about pop music, movies, or video games, which have radically different profit/income structures than literature. A video game that sells 100,000 copies total is considered a market failure; a book that sells that many copies is considered wildly successful. Furthermore, movies and video games earn profits as rentals, and pop music earns royalties from radio play. Other than rare subsidiary rights sales, literature can only generate profits through sales of books and magazines.
And make no mistake about this next one: if you put a story written by someone else up on a web site without their direct permission or that of their professional representative, and do so without compensating them for the use of that work, or if you offer stories or books written by someone else for free download via a file-sharing service without their direct permission or that of their professional representative, and do so without compensating them for the use of that work, that constitutes an infringement of their copyright, and is piracy, and is illegal. Period.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, I was one of those writers whose work was being illegally pirated, and the moral question of it aside -- I've come to believe that people who engage in illegal pirating of others' copyrighted work subscribe to a code of morality that is, at best, highly selective -- I quickly (and much to my shock) realized just how financially damaging this could be to me.
Understand something: most of the writers whose work you read, whose books you purchase from the paperback shelves, and whose stories all but gurantee you'll buy a copy of the anthology or magazine in which they appear, are not rich.
The vast majority of us do not get Stephen King-, Anne Rice-, or Dean Koontz-level advances for our books (I'm not scorning any of the aformentioned writers, all of whom worked damned long and hard to earn the kind of money they're getting now), no; most of us are lucky to make three months' living expenses from an advance. We also scrabble to find to find time to work on short stories, most of which bring in, on the average, two- to three-hundred bucks a pop, if the markets are strong and pay well.
On the surface, that might look good to a lot of people. A three-thousand dollar advance for a book, three hundred bucks a pop for short stories? Sell a couple of books, a short story a month, that's almost ten thousand dollars a year from your writing; what the hell are you complaining about?
Well, for starters (if I understand the IRS's categorizations correctly), the poverty line starts at nine thousand dollars or less a year. So if you're lucky enough to have the time and energy to write, edit, re-write, and sell two books as well as one dozen short stories over a twelve-month period, you'll be a thousand bucks above the poverty line.
Lucky you. Who wouldn't be envious of a life like that?
Yes, I hear you: You're doing something you love, something you're good at, and something that others are willing to pay you to do; most people would kill to be in your position. Why aren't you grateful?
I am grateful; I'm grateful to have an at-least journeyman ability to tell a decent story, I'm grateful that there are editors and publishers out there who feel my work is worth their advance bucks, and I'm incredibly grateful for those readers who feel that my work is worth their time and money.
However, most people who think it's that easy ("...a couple of books, a short story sale a month...") have never really tried to write a novel or produce quality short stories on a consistent basis. Add to this equation that most of the writers whom you read also hold down at least one other job, and the time devoted to further polishing one's craft is -- at the very least -- cut down by one-third.
Time to get very specific.
I made just over six thousand dollars last year from my writing. Part of that stemmed from the heart attack I had last Septemeber that knocked me on my ass for the better part of four months (and whose subsequent medical bills I'm still trying to get caught up on); I fell behind on writing projects and, as a result, did not have that money coming in.
The best year I've ever had as a writer thus far saw me bring in almost twelve thousand dollars -- and that was only because I was writing full-time like a maniac because my wonderful (now ex-) wife Leslie had a damned good corporate job and could afford to support her (not-so wonderful) hubby while he went at it full-tilt.
Are you getting the idea here? Most of the writers whom you read are not getting rich from their writing. Most of them are holding down at least one other job.
I, personally, am holding down two other jobs; one as an on-line writing instructor, the other as a custodian at a local Jewish temple. I have to do this because of the income I lost as a result of my heart attack; I also have to do it because of the medical bills that resulted from that heart attack; and I also have to do it because, like most of the other writers I know, I ain't getting rich from it. I made just over six grand last year from writing and I owe the government over three hundred dollars in taxes; as I sit here writing this installment, I have about eleven dollars in cash on my person, and not-quite two hundred dollars in my checking account. If I did not split a large apartment with two other people, I would be royally screwed (and, no, this ain't a Pity Party for me; these are just the facts, ma'am.)
Which brings us back to the insipid, It's not like he's losing any money because of it.
Thanks to Eric Collier, I discovered that two of my short stories and one of my books were being illegally pirated via a file-sharer. Now, to be honest, the two short stories that were (and probably still are) being pirated have both been reprinted several times, and I doubt that their being pirated is going to cost me any more reprint sales, but I'm still taking action because it's the book that really infuriates me, and for my own financial safety I cannot afford to be selective.
My new novel, In Silent Graves, is being illegally pirated via file sharers under its original title, The Indifference of Heaven. Some people who have downloaded it -- and are offering it for download -- have made it a point to let others know that this is the same novel. When I expressed anger over this to someone I know, their initial response was along the lines of: Why get upset about it? So a couple dozen people download it, maybe a few more. It's not going to harm your sales or your royalties all that much.
(There I go, up the tower steps, adjusting the scope....)
For the sake of not hurting relations with one of my publishers -- Leisure -- I'm not going to tell you what my advance was on In Silent Graves; just know that, of the the little over six grand I made last year, the advance was part -- but by no means all -- of it; I had several story sales, as well.
And just so you understand how this seemingly "harmless" file-sharing can hurt a writer's livelihood, all of the figures that I state from here on will be rounded up to the nearest tenth cent; yeah, it's oversimplifying things a tad, but I think it will help make the point.
One copy of Graves will set someone back seven dollars. Of that seven dollars, my royalty will be (again, rounding upward) sixty cents.
So, if someone illegally downloads one copy of the book, I'm out sixty cents. Big deal, right?
If ten people illegally download copies of the book, I'm out six dollars. (Six dollars, by the way, would pay for one generic version of a prescription I have to take as a result of my heart attack; six dollars would also pay for the food with which to make my lunch that I take to the temple where I work the second and -- from a financial standpoint -- most primary of my three jobs; writing has now been moved down to the Number Two position, which makes me soul-sick and sad if I think about it too much.) Ten illegally-downloaded or -shared copies of the book is most definitely a deal...maybe not a big deal, but a deal nonetheless.
If one hundred people ilegally download copies of the book, that's sixty dollars that has been taken from my pocket. Try and tell me that you'd be all right with someone stealing sixty dollars from you. And if those one hundred people make the book available to one hundred more, and they in turn make it available to one hundred more...then soon it's conceivable that one thousand people might illegally download the book, at which point I am out six hundred dollars that I bloody well earned; I am out one-tenth of my total income from last year.
How would you feel if a group of people (who aren't associated with the IRS) just offhandedly decided that it was all right for them to steal one-tenth of your yearly income because they felt that what you did for a living wasn't really work, and you made all kinds of money from the advance anyway, and it's information and all information should be free, or whatever bullsh*t justification they use to anchor their highly selective form of morality? (And have you ever noticed that most of these Neolithic dipsh*ts who claim that "...all information should be free..." are usually in the process of shelling out or paying back tens of thousands of dollars for a college education so they can have a goddamn piece of paper to hang on their wall to show that they know what they're talking about because they've Got. A. Degree!? Talk about your "Never the twain shall meet...")
Now do you understand why Harlan Ellison's "Quixotic" battle is. So. Damned. Serious?
It's because if the A**holes aren't stopped, and if the ISPs and file-sharing services that rent them the space in which they practice their piracy are not in some way held accoutable when they fail to take action after being made aware of the problem, then it's only going to get worse, and pretty soon the problem will come to your doorstep, Dear Reader, and you'll be paying double the usual cost of a book just so the publishers can avoid bankruptcy and the writers they publish can struggle tooth and nail to simply remain above the poverty line of income.
Here's a quick test:
If you have ever, at any time and for any reason, offered the work of a writer for free download via a file-sharing service without that writer's direct permission, you are an A**hole.
You are an A**hole because you infringed on that writer's copyright, and by doing so -- whether you've got the guts to cop to it or not -- you stole money from that writer's pocket that they need in order to afford the day-to-day expenses of living.
How the hell would you feel if someone stole from you, and then was too much of a coward to admit to it and so hid themselves behind a lot of double-speak intended to muddy what are otherwise very clear waters?
Goddamned angry is how you'd feel. Angry like Ellison is angry. Angry like I and the other pirated writers are angry. Angry like the readers are going to be angry when they're paying fifteen dollars for a paperback that used to cost only seven bucks.
If you took the earlier test and discovered that you're an A**hole, it is my sincere hope that this writeup has given you both a new perspective and some food for thought, and that you will consider changing your ways.
It also my sincere hope that I will go to the mailbox today and discover a certified check for fifty thousand dollars made out to me from the estate of a rich, reclusive, eccentric uncle I did not know I had.
Update: On June 8, 2004, Harlan Ellison settled his lawsuit with AOL, apparently to the satisfaction of both parties. Apparently AOL is paying the court costs as well, because Ellison has pledged to return monies people have donated to the Internet Piracy Fund. In 2002, after two years of court wrangling, the person who pirated his work as well as the news service on which the materials were posted both settled with Ellison.