Columns > Published on July 3rd, 2019

3 Times I Pirated Books And How I Feel About It

Let's you and me have a real discussion about book piracy. Let me just turn my chair around backwards, turn my hat backwards, and depending how many Kriss Kross albums I’ve been listening to, turn my pants backwards.

Book piracy is real, and it’s a problem. Hardcore piracy enthusiasts are already loading their chambers with arguments about the benefits of piracy, but hold up a second. Because I’m not here to talk about how awful you are. I'm here to talk about how awful I am, which we can all get behind.

I’m going to admit to some instances of piracy from my personal life. Because I’m not a hypocrite. Well, okay, I am a hypocrite, but at least I’m not a SECRET hypocrite.

Yes, I’ve done it. Unless you’re some kind of attorney reading this, in which case this is all a fictional device I’m using to convince readers of something important. Thanks for safeguarding everyone, you legal eagles!

Pirating books doesn't make me uniquely qualified to talk about it. That's just it: So many people do it that nobody is uniquely qualified. 

I want to talk about it because I have mixed feelings. Because, like most people, I'm in the middle. Us middle-of-the-road people are the majority, but we're not always heard above the anger on the ends of the spectrum. 

So, let's chat.

Avast, Ye Lish-y Landlubber!

I wanted to possess something, and once I did, I didn’t care about it anymore.

Gordon Lish, most famous for editing Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and others, wrote a book of grammar exercises some years back. It’s not a popular item. I only found out about it because I was reading a book of interviews with Lish. Let’s call this reading the first layer of nerd.

The next layer of nerd was scouring the internet to find a copy. A legitimate, purchase-able copy. It’s not on Amazon. Not on Abe Books. No eBay. It’s not even listed as a thing that ever existed in most places.

This book is not rare in the sense of “hard to get ahold of.” It's rare in the sense of “Nope.”

I finally found a last holdout: university libraries.

So, I got one. And I scanned the pages.

I thought I was doing it because there was no way in hell I’d get through hundreds of pages of grammar exercises in the three weeks I got from the library (short rant: how come libraries think that 3 weeks is a reasonable time frame for the average person to get through a book? Do people who set these policies know we’re not all total nerds?). I thought I was doing it because I can foresee even university libraries getting rid of this book. It’s far from being a notable entry into any sort of canon, and all it takes is one unknowing librarian to see yet another ho-hum textbook and toss it out.

But. Since copying it and putting it together, how many grammar exercises have I done? Absolutely none.

I’d feel better about it if I actually did the workbook. If the excuses I made were legit. But they’re not. I wanted to possess something, and once I did, I didn’t care about it anymore. 

The Arguments For Piracy pt. 1

I wanted to put in some common arguments I’ve overheard that might justify the above piracy, just to get this stuff out in the open.

I’m not benefiting financially, so it’s legal.

Common misconception. This whole thing where it’s all about financial gain is like that apocryphal law where a cop HAS to tell you if they’re a cop. Just no. Anybody who tells you this doesn't know what they're talking about.

The publisher isn’t making it available, so it’s fine.

This one’s more philosophical, but even if I’m going to say the publisher doesn’t have the right (philosophically) to withhold the material, that’s still a different argument from the one that says I have the right to TAKE the material. There's no argument more classic (and grammatically suspect) than "two wrongs don't make a right."

Sometimes small, more indie things benefit from piracy.

Hey, if you think this is true, email a bunch of indie authors and ask. If they see the benefits of piracy, they will give you the go-ahead, right? If your argument is based on doing a good thing, just go ahead and double-check that you're the saint you think you are.

People should make things out of love, and payment is gross to want or ask for.

That’s a pretty high-horse stance about art that’s naive and kinda stupid. I don’t even want to spend time arguing that people who make things should get paid for those things. So I won’t!

Comics Ahoy!

I’ve walked the dark path to the (un)holy land of digital comics piracy.

The reason it’s so popular: It’s easy. Shockingly easy. You don’t even have to use some weird browser or download software to get involved in “file sharing.” A couple questions to Google, and you’ve got multiple options. It's not only cheaper than buying, it's easier. 

And the amount of stuff? It’s completely intoxicating. You can find long runs of books. Books you thought everyone forgot about. Books that the creators WISH everyone forgot about. You can find the entire comics rack for the current month!

I did it. I got a run of comics that I couldn’t find in trade, couldn’t find anywhere I looked. Other than, you know, a comics shop that was charging an unreasonable price. “Unreasonable” being a very float-y term that means “something more than free” in this case.

I read a handful of issues. And then dropped off.

Again, it was almost like once I had them, once I knew I had access, the urgency was gone. The burning desire to read them vanished.

I had to admit to myself, it was more about acquisition than consumption. Which is the exact opposite of my normal M.O. when it comes to comics. I’m not a collector. I roll comics, put them in my pocket. I would never buy a comic that I didn’t intend to read.

It took me back to the Napster days. The iMesh days. The Kazaa days. Everyone I knew would download songs they would never buy in a billion lifetimes. Complete discographies for bands that I would actively switch off if they came on the radio. Why? Because a large music collection was cool. We didn’t know it yet, but a large music collection would mean nothing in just a couple years. HAVING music is meaningless. Listening is where it's at.

Likewise, unread comics? Worthless.

The Arguments For Piracy Pt. 2

It’s not like the creators/publishers get this money anyway.

All I can say about this is: Support your local comics shop. Do it. Maybe a creator doesn’t see a dime of a back issue sale, but maybe a back issue sale helps support a comics shop, which allows that shop to buy more new stuff, which definitely supports a creator.

I want to read them digitally anyway. It’s nice to be able to tote around a large collection on a tablet.

Don’t be silly. Comics are pretty easy to buy nowadays. And if you're reading them on a tablet anyway, you've got everything you need. I know, the piracy is MORE convenient, but buying comics has never been easier. 

Some people can’t afford comics

This is almost certainly true, but I think it’s also an argument used by people who can afford comics. At the very least, get to a library. If you can’t afford books and can’t access them any other way, then I can’t be mad. You’re like the person who badly wants to see a painting and sneaks into the art museum. But if you’re just making excuses, recognize that what supports the art museum, keeps the doors open and gives someone a place to sneak into, is the money that comes from people like you. Without any payment coming in, those pieces of art would be hanging in some rich person’s living room.

Plundering The Future

This is a “jump out of the plane, make the parachute on the way down” kind of idea.

I have a book. I bought it off the shelf at a used bookstore, maybe $7 or $8 bucks. It’s a really nice collection of minimalist short stories. Which, it turns out, is pretty hard to find at a reasonable price. It’s no mystery. The author is dead. Short story collections, while once a cash cow, aren’t worth a whole lot of money unless the author is already well-known. It’s possible that someone will uncover this book someday, but I doubt it. It’s a good book, but it’s not an incredible book. It’s not necessarily a masterpiece. I know, I’m really selling it here, and I don’t mean to soil anyone’s name. Just being honest.

I went as far to get a wild hair, mail the publisher and see about reprinting rights. I couldn’t make money from the endeavor. I just thought it would be cool to reprint something that I thought more people should read and that I didn’t think they should pay a bunch on the secondary market to get. I really have no idea how I would do it. This is a “jump out of the plane, make the parachute on the way down” kind of idea.

I haven’t heard anything yet.

This is a piracy that hasn’t been committed. A future piracy. I’m sorely tempted. I haven’t given up the idea. It seems so harmless. It seems like a Pirates of the Caribbean sort of piracy, fun and bright, as opposed to actual piracy, which probably sucked and got a bunch of people killed.

So why don’t I feel good about it? Why does the idea seem sort of repulsive to me?

The Arguments for Piracy pt. 3

It’s not hurting anyone but a big company

I think it’s time to re-frame this: Does a company being big mean it’s evil? Is a publisher evil? What is a big publisher taking from us unfairly? What opportunities are they denying us? I don’t know if I’m convinced of the evil of big publishers. Do I wish they were different? Sure. But there’s a wide berth between Evilsville and CouldUseImprovementBerg.

You should be able to buy art, then pay for it afterward, which piracy allows.

If I actually thought anyone would do this, I’d be on board.

I don’t believe in this capitalistic system, man.

Sure. Okay. Unfortunately, the folks creating the books you pirate live in a system where money matters. The more they get from making stuff, the more time they can spend making more stuff you like. If you don’t pay for it, they have to spend more time engaging in your hated capitalistic system, which almost certainly means 9-5’ing it. Short version: A capitalist system doesn’t require your belief to still subject everyone to its rules.

What about that Radiohead album?

Yes, the one people paid what they wanted. That’s not piracy, first of all. If I tell someone they can pay nothing or more than nothing, then whatever they pay is good with me. I set the rules, and they played by the rules. The thing is, me and you, we’re not Radiohead. Radiohead plays by different rules than the rest of us. 

What Does It Mean?

I have pirated things. And I think piracy is bad.

It means that I’ve done a bad thing.

Some people might think it’s hypocritical of me, and they’d be right. It’s hypocritical to do something and then say it’s not right.

It’s also possible that I’ve changed my mind.

Now that I’m on the other side and see how hard it is to make a buck, I’m not so concerned with advocating for the rights of consumers to pirate materials. Now that I’ve seen how much work goes into something as simple as a book, I don’t really see an issue with asking people to pay for one.

To the people who’ve done it (so, everybody): It’s okay to do it, not be proud of it, and then stop. It’s like boozing. Boozing in the past and giving it up isn’t a shameful thing. It’s not hypocritical of you to say booze is bad even though you used to chug it all the time. You're allowed to change your mind. 

To the people who never have, never will (probably nobody): That’s cool, but I’d like it if you could also take it easy. Just a little. Things get complicated when moral issues and financial issues are intertwined. See if you can find ways to politely talk about it without moralizing. If we don’t all need to scream at each other online, let’s not. I don't see a technological solution to piracy coming any time soon, so I'm thinking we need to convince people not to pirate books. Which is easier when you're not shouting about them being assholes.

To the people who are currently doing it: I’m not here to reprimand you or stop you. I’d just like to ask that you stop justifying it. You’re taking a thing that doesn’t belong to you and adding it to your possessions. Please stop pretending like this helps the world in some way.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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