The Ethics of Theft

A recent blog by John Scalzi  drew my attention to a fascinating plagiarism case on the web.  The author  Monica Gaudio discovered to her horror that an article she’d written on cookery had been ripped off by another site, and printed verbatim without credit. On protesting,  she was told by the site’s editor: ‘But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!’

A shitstorm has descended upon the offending website; and the ethics of it all  seem fairly straightforward. THOU SHALT NOT STEAL.

But is that always the case?  As we know,  ’illegally downloading’ movies from pirate sites is considered cool by many.  But, like most people who work in the movie business, I have real problems with people who do this; because if EVERYONE did this, then it would be even harder for movies to get made. And it’s already, trust me, hard enough.  

Here, the offending editor seems to have got hold of the idea that everything on the web is free.  Just because SOME  of it is.  Open source software and content sites, for instance, are a joy available to all without cash changing hands. (I use Mozilla Thunderbird for emails, which is totally free; I’d be lost with Wikipedia.)

This is a dangerous topic of course, because there are many thoughtful individuals out there, possessed of shitstorm-generating superpowers,  who do believe that EVERYTHING SHOULD BE FREE ON THE WEB.  And there are also those – usually global corporations – who believe that nothing should be free.  Not even healthcare. (Oops, party political point crept in there.)

I was very impressed at the recent NewCon convention by Paul Cornell’s bravura solo spot to the convention audience on the issue of internet piracy, in which he tackled the argument that you can’t stop people pirating stuff on the web, by pointing out that you can’t stop murder either. But you can at least discourage it.  And in my experience, with the exception of Cory Doctorow, who I don’t know,  all writers hate piracy.  It takes money from the mouths of our children, if we have children; or it severely depletes our coke and booze budget, if we don’t. 

However, I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing new under the sun.  The digital age didn’t invent plagiarism; nor did it invent piracy.  The web changes many things; but not basic questions about right or wrong; it merely AMPLIFIES the problems that always existed

Book piracy, for instance,  was pioneered by the public library service.  For many years, until the advent of PLR, it was considered moral and normal to give away books for zero money on a rental basis to members of the public.  This is a great way to impoverish authors.  Because a book that’s been borrowed a hundred times has only been bought once!

Second hand bookshops!  They are the buccaneers of the book trade. A second hand book may be sold a dozen different times but again,  the author only gets paid once.  We authors notice these things.

So illegally downloading books is no different, in principle, than going to Hay-on-Wye.  Fact! 

The difference is that I’ve never illegally downloaded a book (come on! switching on a computer is a challenge for me!). But I grew up on the library system; my passion for books was fed by thrice-weekly visits to my local library, where I devoured virtually every book in the children’s section, pillaged the teen section, and made a huge indendation in the adult section before discovering that I needed to OWN books.  It’s my addiction and my passion.  It also helps me to keep track; when I was borrowing books I kept forgetting which ones I’d read. Now, when I buy a book, I only have to look at my shelves to realise I ALREADY OWN IT.  (Yeah, a better memory would help.)

But I’m not being facetious about the moral issues here.  When I started getting published I stopped buying second hand science fiction novels from authors still alive or not-rich.  So I’ll buy second-hand Stephen King, though only occasionally,  but I’d never buy Al Reynolds’  latest in a second hand bookshop, because  he’s a real writer earning a living.  I do though buy all my Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels (my current passion)  second hand via Amazon, mainly because the old Del Rey editions are so stunning, and I’m pretty sure they’re out of print.

So that’s my moral code, based on the opinion that borrowing books from a pal and illegally downloading books are pretty much the same thing, ethically speaking. In other words, it’s okay to get stuff free sometimes, as long as you OFTEN pay. 

This shows that my morality is a pretty fuzzy entity; and I’d argue this is a good thing.  If we enforced a strict black and white moral code then we’d never steal stationery from our office, never take pens from hotel rooms, never drive away with someone else’s Ferrari from the valet parking spot (damn, I do regret that), never amp up our expenses when doing a tax return (harumph! Not that I ever would!), and never fail to buy a round.  (Message to Mike Carey; one day I’ll pay you back!)  It’s what I call the moral ecology.  A little bit of naughtiness sustains us in our lives; too much and we’re evil, too little and we’re boring as hell.

On the issue of plagiarism, things are murkier still. All writers steal!  That’s my golden rule – an aphorism which of course I invented and claim the credit for. (!)   And quite often, writers plagiarise themselves – familiar lines of dialogue repeat, themes recur, plot twists get recycled in another form. The most extreme case of this concerns a writer I can’t name on a show I can’t mention.  All I can say is: this writer wrote several episodes of an action adventure series for television, which used exactly the same storylines as he had used when writing for a DIFFERENT action adventure series aired on television ten years previously.  A member of the crew had worked on both shows, found himself puzzled by a strange sense of deja vu, then eventually sussed it and grassed the writer up.  The outcome was not a good one.  And yet – surely we can steal our OWN ideas? 

But I do see the producer’s point of view here. When you pay a writer,  you expect to get originality as part of the package. Unless that writer is [NAME REDACTED].

This reminds me: I should take this opportunity to plug my latest book with Orbit. It’s called THE SPACE PIRATE, and it tells the story of a space pirate called Flanagan who kidnaps a beautiful young woman called Lena and attempts to negotiate with the evil emperor whose daughter she is.  And then – well, I won’t say more, but suffice to say, it’s a cracking read and my agent John Jarrold has just negotiated a HUGE advance from the publishers for this story!  (Hey, John, do you think they’ll ever rumble us???)

Getting back on point:  I also used to  write articles on cinema for a trade periodical, during my time as an academic up in Leeds, only to learn that one of the other contributing authors had plagiarised every article of [his or hers]  from the work of different authors. Again, bad stuff ensued.  Because that’s cheating. Well of course it is!  You’re not allowed to steal other people’s articles, any more than you’re allowed to go for a joyride in that Ferrari (look, enough about the Ferrari, okay?!?)

But I have to say I get fed up of some of the moral misunderstandings about what you can and can’t do on the web.  When writing a blog for this site once, I wanted to feature paintings by the artist William Blake, and found images on a gallery site which blazoned the phrases, ‘These images are in copyright.’  Well how, and why? Blake died in poverty centuries ago; how can some gallery own the copyright on his images? How moral is THAT?

The basic rule is one of ‘fair use’; you can quote, you can’t steal. Images can be cited, in my view, and according to any sensible reading of the law; even film clips can be “quoted”.  Yet the producers of the film Downfall took issue with the brilliant YouTube “memes” in which a clip of Hitler from that film is subtitled with rants on a number of themes, including the breakup of Oasis.  The producers’  legal argument, which prevailed, was that they “owned” these images.  But the film’s director thought they were being daft, as did I.  Quoting a single scene from a film isn’t the same as selling a DVD of it in a pub.  If anything, it will help public awareness of the movie; it is surely the most globally famous obscure arthouse movie every made. (It’s a masterpiece, by the way – do watch it. Legally!)

Oh, and the parodies are back on You Tube. Here’s one.

Another delicate issue is one of stealing ideas.  It’s not possible to copyright ideas, unless they are written down in treatment form.  But I’ve heard many accounts  of writers pitching ideas verbally or in writing to TV companies, then finding those stories appearing on the screen credited to other writers.  I know of at least one occasion when something dodgy almost certainly occurred. (My lips are sealed however.)   And yet! It’s a fact that different writers often have the same idea at the same time.  It’s a zeitgeist thing.  So by and large, you just have to let it go.  Life’s too short. If someone steals an entire article – that’s different.  But Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace both thought of the concept of evolution independently; and J.K. Rowling surely wasn’t the first writer to think of setting a story in a boarding school for young magicians. …

An even more delicate issue concerns the copyrighting of lives.   When the movie The Sting was released,  academic David Maurer was outraged to find that he himself had been ‘stung’ – because the characters and the cons in the movie were (in his view) based on and inspired by a reading of his text book The Big Con, based on interviews with numerous real-life underworld figures.  Maurer sued and the studio were obliged to settle with him. (For a fuller account of this, read this fascinating blog.)

Well I’m sure Maurer had a point.  But how come he got to “own” these people and their ideas? One of the major cons Maurer described is “the Wire”, which is at the heart of the movie’s plot.  But did Maurer invent this, or merely describe it?  I have on my shelf a book by Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, a real life con artist who was one of those interviewed by Maurer.  In his own (no doubt ghosted, but written in the first person) book (‘Yellow Kid’ Weil – Con Man)  Yellow Kid describes how he cheated a sucker called Macallister:

‘What is your proposition, Mr Weil?’ Macallister asked.

‘My brother-in-law,’ I confided, ‘is in desperate need of twenty-five hundred dollars.  If you will lend it to him, I will show you how to make a fortune.’

‘What does he need twenty-five hundred dollars for?’ he inquired.

‘Well, he’s hopelessly addicted to betting on the horses….Now he’s in the clutches of the loan sharks….’

‘How can a man like that help me make a fortune?’

‘By giving you absolutely reliable information on the races.  He works for Western Union.  He will tip you off on a horse after it has won.  You can make a bet on the nose and you can’t lose.’

This is pretty much the plot of The Sting, minus the revenge story.  Robert Shaw’s character is suckered by the scam called The Wire, which Yellow Kid (according to this account) devised and pioneered. All Maurer did was interview him; Yellow Kid was the author of the scam.

So why didn’t the con artist get the credit he deserved? How unfair is that!

To me this is dangerous territory.  It’s tricky enough when real people claim the coyright on their own lives; but when the writers who write about the real people claim ownership – well, the courts made their judgement in the case of Maurer, but it’s certainly a can of worms.

I found myself in a similar delicate position over a drama I wrote for the BBC called The Many Lives of Albert Walker, based on a real  life murderer called, er,  Albert Walker. The legal constraints on us were enormous; and the Canadian production company optioned a book on the subject which I’d never actually read, just to secure a claim on the copyright to the story.  Walker was convicted of murdering and stealing the identity of his friend;  but fortunately it was never suggested he own the copyright to his own act of murder.  (Our problems arose when a careless interview suggested that Walker was guilty of incest – and we had to put up a title card to explain that Walker was never charged with or convicted of this offence, even though he and his daughter lived together as man and wife and they had a child which they were raising as theirs.  It could of course have been the child of some other man; I would not be able to comment.) 

So it’s easy to slip into stealing without realising it.  And there are no absolutes.  The only certainty, for me, is that every working person is entitled to be paid for the fruits of their labour.  If you CHOOSE to give away your work - that’s different.  If someone quotes from your work, or alludes to it, or is influenced by it, that’s cool too.  But the prevailing myth that the internet has changed the way morality works is a nonsense in my view.  The internet did not invent generosity; although it does enable GLOBAL generosity.  I can read free blogs from all around the world on a variety of topics written with intelligence and humour, offering better critical content than is to be found in many paid-for periodicals.  I can download open sources software with minimals adverts too, thanks to the generosity of that particular community of cyber nerds.  That to me is the spirit of the internet age – don’t sweat it. Be generous.   Let stuff be given away and hope for payback in the form of good karma. 

And in terms of the moral ecology,  that works, because if I lend an SF novel by X to a pal, that pal might BUY the next book.  If I borrow books from the library obsessively as a teenager, I will surely end up purchasing more than I borrow over the course of my entire life.  The same with downloads.  File-sharing became, quite some time ago, a systematic attempt to defraud – it’s not file-sharing, it’s a goddamned industry!  And all the sites I’ve visited are very dishonest about the legality of what they’re doing. To me that’s well dodgy. But I’ve been on sites where TV fans are offering to ‘share’  ancient VHS cassettes of old cult TV shows – of course that’s cool!  This stuff is hard to get otherwise.  That’s generosity. 

Generosity good, theft bad, that’s my moral code. And hey, you big corporations with the itchy lawyers – don’t be so defensive.  Get a sense of humour guys. 

And about that Ferrari…

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