Time to assess the true cost of digital piracy, says Winnipeg author

Most writers, musicians, and others who create intellectual property, aren't able to support themselves as the result of their work. There are several reasons for this, but every illegal download is part of the problem, argues Winnipeg author Joanne Seiff.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books about knitting. She argues digital piracy, which includes e-books, is far from a socalled victimless crime. (CBC)

In a sleep-deprivation fog, I went to a morning coffee for new moms. I watched as one of the mothers furtively passed a flash drive to another in a shiny new kitchen.

That thumb drive contained e-books, or maybe it was music, or audio books. I don't know. They weren't public about doing it. They must have known it was wrong, but I saw it anyway.

While driving out of the subdivision, I realized what I had seen. These moms were doing exactly what all the big court cases are about: intellectual property piracy. This is bootlegging, or "the unauthorized use of protected material, especially material protected by copyright."

Many feel that if this is a crime, it's one without victims.

The assumption is authors or musicians have a good income and someone amply compensates them for their work. Therefore no one is hurt by digital piracy. However, this assumption is wrong and it's based on a serious lack of information.

In fact, most writers, musicians, and others who create intellectual property, aren't able to support themselves as the result of their work. There are several reasons for this, but every illegal download is part of the problem.

Traditional publishers offer writers an advance on royalties when they sign a book contract. The publisher carefully calculates the advance, based on the book's predicted sales, production costs, and how the publisher can make money off the situation.

Publishers aren't around to spread knowledge for free. Once this contract is set up, the writer gets the advance, understanding that if he or she does not deliver the manuscript, the money has to be paid back.

The writer won't see any money after earning the advance unless the book sells very well—far beyond the publisher's expectations.

My first book, Fiber Gathering, required a great deal of travel and took me about a year to write. Even though I was careful and frugal, using airline points and cutting costs whenever I could, I spent the advance entirely on research travel. Although I am very proud of that book and it sold thousands of copies, it has earned me no income via royalties so far. None.

For my second book, Knit Green, I got wise. It would require research, but I did it in my home office and with no airplane flights, that book took me roughly nine months to complete. Based on the Manitoba minimum wage, my advance offered less than 6 months of income. Now both books have sold thousands of copies.

I continue to receive the publisher's royalty statements that show that I 'owe' several thousand dollars to pay off my advance before I will ever earn anything further. Both books were published seven years ago. Aha! You say, perhaps a naïve writer had a bad contract? Are you optimizing any remaining rights? About two years ago, I received permission from the publisher to sell some of the designs in those books as individual PDF downloads.

There were restrictions, but all told since then, I've earned about $500 (gross) from that effort. That's no fortune, but it means I sometimes buy a cup of coffee on the proceeds.

While most who sell intellectual property strive to obey copyright laws when selling their work, the web is like the wild west. Once something I've written goes live, it can end up legally or illegally mirrored or republished on dozens of sites, but I'm only paid once. It's likely you could download one of my books for free today.

I've tried to get the pirated copies removed from the web, but it's like a game of whack-a-mole. Folks just keep passing along my work illegally for free. Even so, people who create—writers, artists, musicians, and yes, even freelance software developers—continue their work in these fields.

When looking at economic trends, our prime minister points to a digitally-rich Canadian economy driven by 'resourcefulness' as compared to a resource-rich one. 

This economic change relies on people earning a living while selling ideas.

If ideas have no financial value, then the knowledge economy that Mr. Trudeau imagines is a pipe dream.

The Creative Commons concept runs the risk of becoming the Tragedy of the Commons. When the race towards 'free' hits bottom, our intellectual life will be significantly less rich than it used to be.

Creative work of poor quality floods the market. Well-tested and well-written work can't compete because it is costly to produce. Consumers rely on what's available. Many of those who create intellectual property cannot afford to do it for free. If one must work in another, less creative way just to eat, the time for creating intellectual property is lost. What remains? Those who earn their income in other ways, and create in their spare time, for fun.

We lose creative professionals—writers, artists, musicians, designers, etc.—who cannot sustain themselves through this system, where all 'ideas should be free.'

Those who expect some compensation for their work are devalued in a rush to distribute those 'free' ideas instead.

What can you do? Try to be honest, and follow the rules. If you can't afford to buy an e-book, download it from the library instead. If you want to use somebody's intellectual content, ask first, and maybe even pay them for it. If you want to offer your own intellectual property online, consider charging (even a small amount) for it, so that your offering doesn't drop the bottom out of the digital economy even further.

We wouldn't walk into a grocery store and steal food off the shelf without paying. Why is it ok to steal books and other digital intellectual property instead? When something seems too good to be true, maybe that's because it is.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.