More parleying with pirates

Last week I wrote a thing for Guardian Books about my experiences talking to some people from the Mobilism website about book piracy – specifically, about why they thought it was OK to pirate my book, and therefore deprive me of income. I won’t recap the whole thing here, but suffice to say it went a bit nuts over the weekend, and the article is still being retweeted all over the place as I write this.

Because of the attention, quite a few people dropped me a note via this website, and said some quite interesting things in the process. They contacted me privately so I won’t reveal who they are or what they said, but I wanted to honour their intent. I firmly believe the greater the dialogue between the people who write books and the people who “pirate” them, the better.

But there’s one exception to that policy of keeping all the comments private. It was perhaps the most significant and controversial message I received. It was from someone who claimed to be the “owner of Mobilism”, the site where I’d first encountered all this piratical activity. The email address was “admin@mobilism.org” and he asked me to keep any “correspondence” private. So I won’t publish what he sent to me. That’s a way of acknowledging his ownership of his words – see what I’m doing here?

I am, though, going to reproduce what I said in reply:

Hi – many thanks for that, very interesting, and you’re right, I should have emphasised that an author can ask for a title to be taken down. But then that begs the rather obvious question: why should they?

Under law, I own my content. I have licensed it to certain individuals and companies to be used in certain ways which I give permission to. The fact that I am now having a conversation with an anonymous person who has essentially (though indirectly) taken it upon themselves to change the economic basis on which I sell my goods is wrong, unworkable and will in the end lead to people like me doing something else with my time. I do believe that.

This, for me, is the essence of the matter. If I own something, I should be the one making the decisions on how it is exploited. By providing Mobilism, you have taken a good deal of power out of my hands. The decision not to provide the book for free, or very cheaply, may indeed be the wrong one – but it is mine to make, not yours, and not the users of your site.

I am using strong words to make myself clear, because I want you to understand how your activities make people like me feel: we feel emasculated. We feel we have created something that we want to distribute, and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t want to be lectured on marketing by people we have never met, nor ever will. We don’t want to be told we “don’t get it” – you are not saying this, I know, but some people responding to my article have said that. I do indeed “get it.” I have a better understanding of the economics of content than 99.9% of the users of Mobilism. I know what I am doing. And if I screw up, it will be my mistake.

I thank you for responding to me, and if you wish to keep this conversation private I will honour that wish. But I would say this runs very much counter to the principles you and Mobilism seek to profess, and I would like to put the exchange on my blog and keep this out in the open. But I will allow you to make the call on that – a courtesy which, I would point out, your site did not extend to me in the first instance.

Thanks for dropping me a line.

As you’ll see, I said I would allow him to make the call on publishing the email, but he never replied. So here we are. My response was rantier than I would have liked, but it was also heartfelt; whatever the rights and wrongs of the strategy behind free content and free promotion and pirated material, at the end of the day it should be the people who create the content who make the call on its distribution. I respect and support Cory Doctorow’s right to distribute his books for free, and I know why he does it. I’d expect him (as I’m sure he does) to respect my right not to do so, and to allow me to be wrong if that turns out to be the case.

Anyway, enough pirates. Back to writing books.

Photo from Flickr user evilnick, licensed under Creative Commons. This acknowledgment is called “respecting someone else’s copyright.”