Publishers Weekly had a story today about Paulo Coelho reaching an agreement with his publisher, HarperCollins, to reduce the price of the e-book edition of his titles to 99 cents for an unspecified length of time. Coelho has been a very vocal advocate of book piracy for many years now. It’s a position I have trouble understanding, particularly when it is being espoused by a writer and an intellectual.
PW allows for comments on its articles. So I got involved in a rather long and colorful thread about the virtues and vices of intellectual property theft. When you think about it, the issues in this conversation are fundamental, touching on the ontological nature of work and its value to the worker and to society. In the case of intellectual property, it goes to the heart of the question of whether intellectual activity and creativity is “work” and whether it is worthy of being compensated.
According to a February, 2012 article in The Guardian, Coelho has long been a supporter of the illegal downloading of his own writing. Of course, if an author chooses to allow his books to be downloaded for free (assuming he controls the copyright to those books free and clear), this isn’t piracy. It’s a gift. But that isn’t really the situation with Coelho. His books are published in the United States by HarperCollins and they have been translated, published, and sold in almost every country in the world. (The Alchemist has sold over 35,000,000 copies worldwide, probably the best selling title in the world by a living author). Coelho has a contractual relationship with his publishers. Most book contracts give the publisher the exclusive right to sell the book for a given period of time, in exchange for which the author is compensated. Coelho is enabling the free and unauthorized downloading of his books when he has already licensed those rights to another party. This is very clearly piracy.
What is more troubling is that Coelho goes beyond advocating that people should steal his books. He has joined up with the notorious file sharing site, Pirate Bay, to facilitate downloading his own books and by implication supporting the illegal free downloading of millions of books, movies, music, and software that is being done daily on Pirate Bay.
He seems to raise piracy to a kind of moral imperative. Here is what he says:
“The good old days, when each idea had an owner, are gone forever. First, because all anyone ever does is recycle the same four themes: a love story between two people, a love triangle, the struggle for power, and the story of a journey. Second, because all writers want what they write to be read, whether in a newspaper, blog, pamphlet, or on a wall….The more often we hear a song on the radio, the keener we are to buy the CD. It’s the same with literature. The more people ‘pirate’ a book, the better. If they like the beginning, they’ll buy the whole book the next day, because there’s nothing more tiring than reading long screeds of text on a computer screen.”
Coelho’s assertions are wrong and pernicious. He begins by positing that there is a kind of paradigm shift going on, and that the old models are dead. I see this a lot, usually coming from technology gurus or Amazon.com fan boys. When I hear the term “old business model”, I can usually predict where the discussion is headed. Coelho is saying that under the new business model ideas belong to us all. What that means to me is that the writer ought not to be compensated for his writing, which is to say that the work that goes into artistic creation has no value. A curious insight from a writer who has made tens of millions of dollars from his own creative work.
He elaborates on this idea by saying that all creative writing is simply the recycling of 4 themes. I suppose what he means to say is that creative writing isn’t really all that creative. Let’s see now….how shall I respond?…….Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce, Melville, Flaubert, Cervantes, Dante. A veritable Salvation Army of recycled ideas.
Coelho then argues that piracy is good because it is good for business. Kind of like radio. It exposes people to creative work that they might not otherwise know about, and this will induce the reader to go out and buy more of the artist’s stuff. Well, this might be true. Or maybe not. But it certainly is an article of faith amongst the “new paradigm” types. This is quite beside the point. The copyright holder may decide, out of ignorance or folly, that he simply doesn’t want to give away his product. Apparently Coelho feels that he is in a better position than the artist to dictate the conditions under which the artist’s or anyone else’s book will be disseminated.
Moving along to the thread of conversation in the PW article, we see more of the “new business model” argument. It usually revolves around the idea that traditional commercial (often referred condescendingly as “legacy”) publishers are simply ripping off the consumer and making millions of dollars by charging unjustified and inflated prices. The idea is that if we get rid of these greedy middle men, we will arrive at a fair price for a book, which is usually about 99 cents. The Internet gurus call it “disintermediation”. It’s a fancy term for a business model that cuts out the middle men. A lot of people seem to believe that because there are no manufacturing and delivery costs to an e-book, 99 cents is a fair price. But in the eyes of Pirate Bay and its apologists even charging 99 cents for a book is highway robbery. The concept de jour coming from the “new business model” gurus is: “information wants to be free”.
I believe that intellectual work has value and deserves compensation. I believe that the work that goes into writing a book is at least as important and as valuable as the work that goes into flipping burgers at McDonalds.
It’s astounding to me that this conversation about piracy gets serious discussion at all. Piracy is theft. Theft is not a “new business model”. It’s the oldest one in the book.