Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Essay: Fandom and Piracy (Part 1)

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

A sensitive topic to fellow writers is the issue of piracy (and in a certain way, the Google Settlement is appalling because it can be interpreted as as form of piracy). I was pondering on the subject matter and book piracy is both an old and new thing, at least compared to other media.

It's old in the sense that before the Internet, it was possible to pirate (in the sense of copying the text, as opposed to say, selling books with their covers torn out) books: the photocopier. Granted, it wasn't efficient (how many hours did you have to spend photocopying a novel?) and wasn't dirt cheap, but it was possible. (Here in the Philippines, there's an entire economy of photocopying textbooks and other university required readings.) It's new in the sense that with the advent of the Internet, there's a huge surge of pirated books, at least compared to other media. For example, while the music industry is reeling from rampant mp3s, before then, piracy was already existent. Who's never created a mix tape? Or when it comes to video, who's never taped a show or movie on VHS or Betamax? (And again, here in the Philippines, small businesses thrived on Betamax and VHS copies.) Unlike photocopiers, creating a copy of a cassette or video was relatively cheap compared to the retail price of the original material. For me, the biggest difference between the pre-Internet days and post-Internet days is that piracy in the former went undetected--not in the sense that it didn't exist, but companies didn't have a verifiable method of tracking the actual number of copies distributed (not that the Internet is any better, but Torrent sites reveal to the public a minimum amount).

I don't live in the US, but I'd like to think there were institutions that discouraged book piracy to a certain extent. Take for example the public library (I make the US vs. Philippines distinction because we don't have a lot of public libraries here). What the Internet changed is the convenience of procuring a book. In the case of the best-sellers, a quick Google search is easier than commuting to your local library. There is also the issue of availability. For example, I was shocked to discover that US public libraries didn't have every book in the world. You theoretically could obtain an unavailable book through inter-library loan but that takes time. With the Internet, while certainly not every book in the world is being pirated, it's thorough enough for most people (and in a certain sense, you know you've "made it" as an author when your novels and short stories are being pirated in the mainstream channels).

When it comes to the music industry, I don't think radio is a fair comparison to libraries. The problem with radio is that you couldn't replay the music (unlike a book which you can reread) and specific songs came at random schedules. The pioneering act of the Internet is that it provided entertainment on demand, whether it was music, movies, literature, or games.

The other reason why piracy is rampant with the Internet is because it's so easy to replicate material. Take for example video game piracy. In the days when Nintendo and Sega where the dominant console manufacturers and used cartridges as the medium for games, piracy was almost nonexistent. Cartridges were expensive to pirate after all. The only time I saw pirated Nintendo games was with the advent of the Family Computer Disk System, which used diskettes instead of cartridges (there would be something similar with the Super Famicom and disks). Pirates would later replicate Gameboy cartridges and sell them at a cheaper price than the originals, but the difference in cost wasn't as significant. The revolution of video game piracy was with the popularity of the Sony Playstation and its use of optical drives. Suddenly, games were being sold at a tenth of their retail price, and vendors here (yes, the Philippines is piracy nirvana) were stocking titles by the spindle. Nintendo's subsequent consoles like the Nintendo 64 didn't get much traction in the Philippines because the local economy couldn't support it--cartridge-based games wasn't as cheap to manufacture (barring overwhelming successes which was the case with the GameBoy).


mentatjack said...

Before digital media you could trade and resell books, tapes, dvds, etc. People got used to that mechanic and factored it into the cost of what they bought. Digital media makes this a confusing mess. We all sort of find ourselves in the position of that person we knew growing up that copied every tape they rented from blockbuster.

Personally, I both want to have every song, movie and book at my fingertips instantly AND have a way for the creators to get their cut. The former exists but the latter is stuck behind a hodge podge of DRM, complicated licences, assumptions of criminal intent, etc.


I look forward to part II.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

In terms of the video games that used cartridges, I seem to recall that someone made a cartridge/pc interface (ribbon connector to half a cartridge that plugged into the RS232 port on the PC) that let you run pirated copies of games that were copied on diskette. Once you got the "adapter", the games themselves were pretty cheap compared to buying a cartridge at Toys R Us.