29 April 2010 0 Comments

Stealing the novel, really

Every couple of days a little alert pops up in my email account letting me know that I can read my books for nothing in Norwegian. My Norwegian’s not so great and I can read my books for nothing any time. But that’s not the point.

Scandinavia is a major center of so-called Cyberpunks who have willfully misinterpreted an old hacker adage that “information wants to be free” to mean “go ahead and steal things from which someone else expects to earn his livelihood.” Such Cyber types have, among other things, loaded electronic versions of my novels in Norwegian onto the internet so that anyone can take them without paying.

It’s a little odd. Anyone who’s been to Scandinavia will see that the locals are perfectly willing to pay through the nose for things which ought to be cheap. Even if they actually bought my novel, it’d still be cheaper than the train ride from Oslo Airport to downtown Oslo or a sandwich and soda by the fjord. And everyone’s so nice. Maybe that’s the problem–they’re trying to be nice to information. As long as they believe that the information wants to be free, then they’re only helping the information out by taking it for nothing…

It’s all the thin end of a disturbing wedge for creative artists such as yours truly who support their families entirely from their endeavors as authors, artists, musicians – and who for the most part would be somewhat better remunerated were they to choose to drive a bus for a living.

Information wants to be free but, as the original coiner of that phrase noted, information also wants to be expensive. If information is the catalogue of the Library of Congress, make it free. Sure, let’s have free access to recipes from Renaissance Florence and the geology of the Grand Canyon.

But not art. Art doesn’t want to be free. Art wants to be labored over by a person whose mind isn’t distracted by other things. Art wants to be made as good as it can be. Art wants creative dedication, it doesn’t want to be zapped out by people in a hurry who have to do a day-job, too.

Art, needless to say, is not just information.

Of course we can all justify a little theft. When I was a teen, I used to steal books. But only from big chain bookstores and only from authors who were long dead. The one time I broke those self-imposed rules, I nearly got tossed out of university for lifting a copy of a book written by my tutor’s wife from the college library before the librarian had even got around to cataloguing it. Anyhow, I gave that one back, because my education was free, so I was content for that particular bit of information not to be.

Others use Ebay to salve their conscience. For example, some penny-pinching Scot is offering for sale on Ebay Advance Uncorrected Proofs of my novels. These are sent out free to reviewers and booksellers before the books appear on the shelves. They’re clearly marked “Not for Resale” in big letters on the cover.

It could be that this person in Scotland would’ve behaved differently had the words “Nae fer resale” appeared in dialect on the cover. But I suspect that this person thinks that selling something dishonestly on the internet isn’t really dishonest. If that person were to walk into a second-hand bookstore and face a bookseller with his clearly marked “Not for Resale,” he’d feel a little ashamed at asking money for it. In selling just as in the writing of offensive anonymous comments, the internet is a shield for our worst behavior.

Well, as they say in Scotland, dinna fash yersel. I’ll manage, even if there are a few such novel proofs flying about. But think of poor Stephenie Meyer. Her blog mentioned not so long ago that someone had posted an early draft of her next novel on the internet and that hundreds of thousands of people had downloaded it.

(An aside: why on earth would anyone read an early draft of a novel unless they had to do so? Novels aren’t flash fiction. They take a long time and lots of work to make them right and until they’re right the reading of them can be pretty dire.)

Hey, you say, she’s not short of cash. Well, what’re you, a communist? Robin Hood?

Okay, Meyer’s no doubt quite rich as a result of her strange subgenre. But she’s not Goldman Sachs. She isn’t selling things to people that are designed to lose them millions of dollars and enrich her in return. She’s being paid for the enriching experience of reading for those who buy her books.

When I mentioned to some friends that this sort of thing went on with books, they were surprised. Each of them noted that they had taken music and movies from the internet in just the same way. Each also said that they figured Roman Polanski was rich enough to let them have a free look at “The Ghost Writer.” That Bono would still be able to afford fancy sunglasses if they ripped off his latest album.

But remember, Cyberpunks are anarchists. Do you really want them to define the way you live? When was the last time you read a good book by an anarchist?

As the recently deceased Malcolm McLaren always noted, even The Sex Pistols with their claim to be anarchists were only in it for the money.

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