I just finished reading a fascinating article on the Guardian by novelist Lloyd Shepherd, who decided to confront people brazenly trying to pirate copies of his book online. The result from this confrontation is an enlightening one; the pirate was polite and wrote back a reasonable-sounding reply, apologizing for the way the world was — but he (or she) basically threw up his hands, claiming that because this was the way the world worked now, what could he do about it? It seemed to completely elude this person that it was his own action that he was responsible for, not the climate of the entire world. I’ve seen this sort of response before, and it really does make me angry. It makes me wonder, too, about how much culture versus individual lack of responsibility is to blame.
I’ve been burned by plagiarism myself, which is a similar literary crime. In the past, I used to publish my short stories on this website; I stopped after a high school teacher from somewhere in the midwest emailed me, explaining that a student had handed my work into the teacher’s creative writing class. Now that I am a teacher myself, I have encountered plagiarism as well — just this past week, actually, I had another bout of it. When I realized that the paper had been entirely lifted from free essay websites, I didn’t feel triumphant, or clever for figuring it out; I felt sad, and defeated. When a student plagiarizes, it shows that all the effort I went to in order to create an engaging and informative lesson may as well have been thrown in the trash. The student didn’t listen, and didn’t care about learning.
People who plagiarize and people who pirate books are in the same boat; they’re both making the argument that people don’t deserve payment or recognition for their work. We writers know that a book can take us hundreds of hours and years of our lives. We pour everything we have into our books, and to see someone turn around and rip it for free off the internet, without the slightest regard to the labor and love that went into it, is beyond insulting. It’s disheartening. And more and more, we see people using “the culture” as some sort of defense. If we talk about culture as a monolith, some outward force that is changing us all, we’re in danger of neglecting the true personal responsibility that exists at the heart of it. People excuse themselves, or forgive themselves, for immoral actions because of the beast that is culture. “It’s what everyone’s doing nowadays,” they say. They don’t seem to realize that “everyone’s doing it” is the oldest excuse for immorality in the book.
What’s a writer to do?
So is there anything a writer can do to fight the advancing hordes of the disrespectful? We can continue discussing how piracy hurts the profession, but more than that, I think we have to stop talking about culture the way popular media does these days. They blather on about how Twitter is taking over our lives or how the internet age is changing us; but we need to remember that we’re doing the changing and the choosing. It’s people who decide that it’s okay to steal things. And for all the popular, vitriolic arguments circling on the web these days, no piracy supporter can explain what’s different about stealing an apple off a shelf in a physical store, and stealing an ebook from a server. It feels more comfortable — but morally, there simply is no difference.