It is not ethical to pirate an author’s work without their permission

I wanted to expand on a tweet I posted yesterday evening.

The context is an on-going argument about changes Internet Archive made to how they allow people to borrow in-copyright books online in response to the Covid-19 crisis (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/30/internet-archive-accused-of-using-covid-19-as-an-excuse-for-piracy and IA’s explanation here https://blog.archive.org/2020/03/30/internet-archive-responds-why-we-released-the-national-emergency-library/ ) In response to an article on NPR about the changed policy Chuck Wendig posted this tweet:

…and that set of a whole host of counter-reactions.

I’m not going to get into the details of Internet Archive’s move or whether what they are doing amounts to piracy or not. That’s been hashed out elsewhere and some of the arguments depend on the murky waters of Intellectual Property law about which almost any opinion has an uncanny ability of being wrong. Rather, what has been bugging me has been responses to Chuck Wendig’s post (and posts radiating out from there on the same topic) that take a generic pro-piracy stance with regard to written works. In particular what is bugging me is people claiming that their pro-piracy position is somehow progressive or of the left.

The argument goes along the lines of Intellectual Property isn’t real property or to take it a step further, property itself is a regressive concept and therefore by authors claiming ownership over texts they are setting themselves up as landlords/rent-seekers and by attempting to prevent piracy authors are setting themselves up as police. The argument being that authors objecting to piracy amounts to authors acting as the repressive aspect of capitalism.

I’m more than happy to concede that there is much merit in the idea that IP is a deeply flawed concept. I’m also happy to accept that the concept of ‘property’ itself (even in its less abstract physical variety) is problematic. The analysis of nineteenth century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon into the nature of property (‘What is Property?‘ from which the slogan ‘property is theft’ is coined https://www.gutenberg.org/files/360/360-h/360-h.htm ) is still pertinent today and remains a challenge to how our modern society is organised.

But it is a fallacy to leap from a left-wing tradition of scepticism about property to justifying pirating books. Property maybe a concept used to prop up the injustice of modern capitalism but that doesn’t make it OK to eat your co-worker’s sandwich. Likewise, even if we accept the broad notion of property but reject the notion of intellectual property the underlying logical fallacy remains.

The fallacy is this:

  • Say the standard argument for why it is wrong to do X is because of some principle Y.
  • Say we can show that principle Y is itself fallacious, immoral or otherwise wrong.
  • It does not therefore follow that is NOT wrong to do X.

Although the framing is in terms of ethics, the fallacy is just a basic fallacy of implication. IP or maybe even property in general may be wrong, or false or fictional but that doesn’t demonstrate that it right to pirate written works. You need to show a positive case with an alternative moral framework. Sure, authors describe their opposition in terms of copyright and IP because that is how compensation for labour is set up within our current capitalist system. That doesn’t make them landlords any more than any worker looking for their pay-check.

It’s fine (indeed right) for people on the left to reject the moral framing of capitalism as far as they can and likewise it isn’t hypocritical to recognise that this is the system we are currently stuck in and have to work with. However, you can’t justify an act by rejecting moral arguments framed in capitalist terms. If you reject those terms then you have to demonstrate that it is ethical within an alternative framework.

So put aside intellectual property for a moment. Consider the ethics of written work. There is more to it than IP.

Firstly it is work. It is undoubtedly work. We do not need any kind of legal fiction to define creating writing as work. It takes time and effort. It is of benefit to others. I know of no progressive, left-wing, socialist moral framework that denies that a person should be compensated for their work or that the worker should have a say in how and how much they should be compensated.

Yes but…I can hear a person say, there are other ways authors could be compensated and…Sure, sure but that’s not what we have now and that isn’t the system that is in place. Might we find better ways of compensating writers for their labour in some future, better society other than copyright? Absolutely, the copyright system stinks. However, currently that is how authors ARE compensated. It’s rather like saying that because the modern banking system is corrupt, exploitative and unethical that is therefore OK to steal my credit card. It isn’t and nor are you liberating me by doing so.

But, but…by undermining copyright the system is being subverted, a person might claim. Well no. There are many roads to a better future and I don’t know which is best but I can guarantee that book piracy isn’t an effective way of destroying capitalism, not even at a micro-level.

But, but…compensation is still about property! Sort of. We can frame arguments about labour in terms of property but that’s because it is a concept that is designed to do that. Capitalism isn’t wholly incoherent or nonsensical. That doesn’t mean either that property must be ‘real’ or that showing it isn’t real means the points above fail (I’ll come back to that because it is the punchline of this blog).

Secondly it is about self and identity. In my tweets above I mentioned plagiarism. Off Twitter somebody took that to mean that I was saying that piracy and plagiarism are the same thing. I should be clear, they are different things. My point about plagiarism is to show that there is a moral dimension to written works that exists independent of concepts of property.

If I were to pass off Proudhon’s essay above as my own work then that would be recognised as plagiarism even though it is not legally copyright theft. We could call it ‘stealing’ but it would be a very strange kind of theft as the work is public domain and Proudhon is long dead. I’m still doing something wrong though but it is an immorality of dishonesty rather than theft.

Creative works are an extension of a person’s thoughts beyond themselves and as such an extension of themselves as a thinking being. Too appropriate somebody’s creative efforts is a form of dishonesty. Even if you give credit to the author, you are still asserting control over an aspect of the author’s self. Yes, we can translate that idea into concepts of property (particularly libertarian notions of self-ownership) but we aren’t obliged to do so nor does the claim fail if the notion of property were to magically vanish.

What about J.K.Rowling? I’ll swing over to a different argument if I may. J.K.Rowling is fabulously wealthy (although not as wealthy as the very wealthiest people) and it is hard to see her as just an ordinary working person just looking out for weekly pay check. Likewise, there’s an easy argument to make that her books are derivative and surely that undermines my second point about extension of the self. Surely, there’s no moral case against pirating Harry Potter? Well, Rowling isn’t going to suffer if you do but that’s not the point. Ad-hoc piracy isn’t the issue, the issue is creating frameworks for mass piracy and distribution of pirated works and any framework that can do that for Harry Potter can do that for works by authors who are barely making ends meet.

The impact of systems for pirating works don’t hurt J.K.Rowling, they hurt the less wealthy (what a surprise). Famous, ‘best selling’ authors are not typically rich and many notable authors are barely making do. Mass piracy is exploitative both in the sense of exploiting other people’s labour for your own benefit and in the sense of appropriation. Authors objecting to that doesn’t make them cops or landlords, it makes them workers standing up for being paid for their labour.

I said there was a punchline. There is but it is a punchline for this blog as a whole because it is a common theme from posts on mathematics, atheism, Hugo awards or talking cats. Lots of things are fiction. The range of things I regard as fiction is broader than most people’s. However, the counterpoint to that is that fiction is also powerful and not just in the sense of being emotionally moving. Yes “intellectual property” is not ‘real’ but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful concept that is *currently* how the economic system of capitalism has hacked how to compensate creative work. It’s confusing and flawed and a legal mess and is exploited by powerful business but it is *currently* the means by which authors get paid and pirating books won’t change that.

A general update

I’m largely not covering the covid-19 pandemic here mainly because there’s so much coverage and I largely have nothing to add but here are some general updates.

  • Australia has increased social distancing measures a notch and has now banned public gatherings of more than two people.
  • The data here is suggesting that maybe (and it will take days of data to confirm) that the graph is turning and rates of infection have slowed. (possibly premature) yay!
  • That does mean we are in for the long-haul: a slow spread through the population while keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed.
  • So…social distancing measures are likely to be months.
  • New Zealand might be in for a longer (but safer) haul. They might be close to containment (i.e. the virus not spreading at all) but that means waiting for a vaccine.
  • The UK still worries me.
  • The US frightens me but I know individual states may be doing a better job than federal response. Please stay safe and if you can, stay home.
  • On the right denial, misinformation and racism are still the thing. Interestingly, while the misinformation and racism is consistent across different groups, the denial is strongest on the pseudo-libertarian right rather than the alt-right.
  • There’s a big thing on the right that official Chinese government stats on covid-19 cases is all fake. Well, I guess I wouldn’t put to much faith on the Chinese governments honesty either but a big part of the disbelief is forgetting how regional China is as a nation and the degree to which the Chinese government controls internal travel. So, I’d guess those official numbers are understated, maybe even 50% higher in reality but…
  • …the USA probably still has exceeded the number of cases in China already. We’ll never know exactly which day last week or this week it was but that milestone has been passed. Eventually, unless there is a vaccine soon, China will exceed the USA again simply because it has more people but that’s another story.
  • The (very faint) upside is now is a great time for people who love to stay at home and look at data visualisations all day. Lots of great trackers available. The one I keep looking at is https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus because it has some handy customisations on its graphs. There’s a lot to wade through there though and there are better snapshot sites
  • What graphs am I looking at? The site above has a “Total confirmed cases of COVID-19 per million people” section. The default display is a map but you can switch it to a time series graph. Adjusting for population throws up a lot of noise for very small countries, so it is only useful for comparing countries with some consistent data collection. Using a log scale for the vertical axis makes it easier to compare trends but (obviously) makes totals look a lot more similar than they actually are.
Up to March 28 – Log scale

In the meantime, please all stay as safe as you can and wash your hands and be kind to one another.

A Picard viewing list

With the final episode of Star Trek: Picard now released, I thought I’d go over a list of related episodes from past iterations of Star Trek. The majority of these are the episodes (or films) I have recently rewatched and reviewed. There are a few that I have included that I intend to rewatch soon but haven’t yet. I’ve put those ones in square brackets. The season 2 episode “Q-Who” and the season 4 episode “Family” I have rewatched but I didn’t write about them specifically.

Do you need to watch all these to understand the plot of Picard? Absolutely not. In fact, aside from having a general idea about Picard and Data and Trek background like the Romulans and the Borg being baddies, Picard the show explains most of its own background. Even so, if you want a refresher but don’t want to watch every hour of Trek-related TV that is available, then I’ve marked out those episodes that I’d recommend for a shorter primer.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

It is the dubious attempt to re-boot a beloved TV show that after a shaky start became a beloved TV show in its own right.

  • [TNG Season 1: Encounter at Farpoint] Connection: This is the pilot episode of the rebooted TV series and introduces the main characters of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Will Riker, Deanna Troi and Data, all of whom turn up in Picard. Watch or not? Low priority. At best it will make some of the references in other episodes on this list.
  • TNG Season 2: The Measure of a Man. Connection: This episode introduces Maddox as an antagonist who is a key character in Picard. It is also a key Data-centric episode and sets up some of the ethical debates about synthetic people. Watch or not? There are much stronger episodes of TNG but this is one of the better ones of the early years of the show. Worth a watch.
  • TNG Season 2: Q-Who. Connection: Say hello to the Borg. Faceless and indefatigable and full of menace. A strong early episode for TNG. Watch or not? Fun but you can easily skip this one. Although it is the Borg debut, the episode is more about Q, the mischievous demi-god who likes to troll Picard.
  • TNG Season 3: The Offspring. Connection: Data creates his first daughter but his attempt at fatherhood ends in tragedy. Data is often played as a comical character but here he is given a more tragic element. Watch or not? Watch. It adds more pathos to the attempt at creating new descendants of Data. It is also an episode in which the relationship between Picard and Data shifts.
  • TNG Season 3/4: The Best of Both Worlds (Parts 1 & 2). Connection: Picard is assimilated by the Borg to become Locotus-of-Borg. Arguably the most iconic episode of TNG. Watch or not? Watch. A strong double episode with some clever plot misdirection and a devastating enemy. Picard’s trauma from the encounter suffuses later episodes and is a core aspect of the Picard show.
  • TNG Season 4: Family. Connection: The episode introduces Picard’s family home (a vineyard in France) and his brother’s family. Watch or not? It is an OK episode but you can skip this unless you intend to watch the film Generations. [ETA A good point made by Mart in the comments is that this episode really shows the depth of Picard’s trauma.]
  • TNG Season 5: I, Borg. Connection: We meet Hugh the Borg for the first time and Picard has to deal with the conflict between his duty, his hatred of the Borg, his trauma and his sense of decency. Watch or not? Watch. There are better episodes of TNG but this is a thoughtful episode with a key character for the Picard show.
  • [TNG Season 5: Unification (Parts 1 & 2)] Connection: Leonard Nimoy reprises his role as Spock in an episode that explores the background of the Vulcans and Romulans. Watch or not? I don’t know! Looking at my list I noticed that I’m short of anything Romulan related.
  • TNG Season 6/7: Descent (Parts 1 & 2). Connection: Another Data-centric episode with not just Borg but Data’s brother and the return of Hugh-the-Borg. Watch or not? It’s OK to skip this one. It is entertaining but it meanders a fair bit.
  • TNG Season 7: All Good Things. Connection: An old Picard goes on one last mission to save the galaxy. Watch or not? The resolution of the story involves changing the timeline, so technically none of it happened. A fun way to close off TNG but you don’t need to see it for Picard.

Star Trek Movies

After a run of successful films featuring the original crew, the film series made the leap to the next generation of Starfleet officers.

  • Movie: Star Trek Generations. Connection: The first of the Star Trek movie series to feature the cast of The Next Generation. The final episode of Picard pick up some of the same themes off life and death. Watch or not? Data has his own character arc in the film and if you want to follow Data through as a character then this is relevant. Otherwise safe to skip.
  • [Movie: Star Trek First Contact]. Connection: The Borg are back and this time they have a queen. Watch or not? I’ll need to rewatch it but I suspect not.
  • Movie: Star Trek Nemesis. Connection: Romulans, Data, Picard and Nothing but Blue Skies. More than anything, Picard is a sequel to this final Star Trek movie prior to the reboot. Watch or not? Oh dear…that is very hard to say. In many ways it is a key text for Picard and in many other ways it really isn’t very good as a film and in places quite objectionable. Watch at your own risk.
  • [Movie: Star Trek (reboot)]. Connection: Establishes the destruction of Romulan home world (a cosmic accident that seems to keep happening to the Federation’s enemies…suspicious if you ask me). Watch or not? I’m mentioning it only for completeness. Skip it for these purposes but it is an entertaining re-imagining.

Star Trek Voyager

While Seven of Nine is important to Picard, Voyager the series really isn’t. That makes it tricky to find episodes of the show that give a sense of why people were excited by Jeri Ryan reprising her role but which aren’t mainly about unrelated characters dealing with a completely different quadrant of the galaxy.

  • VOY Season 3/4: The Scorpion (Parts 1 & 2). Connection: Seven of Nine’s origin story starts here in a very Borg episode of Star Trek Voyager. Watch or not? You can skip this unless you are a Voyager fan. Seven of Nine is a central figure in the story but she isn’t really a character yet.
  • VOY Season 4: The Gift. Connection: This episode continues the introduction of Seven of Nine as a new crew member. By the end of the episode she has taken on the costume for which she becomes famous. Watch or not? Skip it unless you really care about the complete Seven of Nine origin story.
  • VOY Season 6: The Collective. Connection: Another Voyager Borg story – of which there are many. Icheb-the-Borg is introduced. Watch or not? Skip it.
  • VOY Season 6: Child’s Play. Connection: A story about being an ex-Borg that sees Seven of Nine struggle with Icheb finding his original family. Watch or not? Maybe watch. The episode helps develop Seven of Nine as a character. It also underlines the idea of ex-Borgs as tragic characters who are displaced from their own worlds.
  • VOY Season 7: Imperfection. Connection: Another Icheb and Seven of Nine episode. Watch or not? Watch. Voyager isn’t that relevant to Picard but this one episode packs a lot of punch for Seven of Nine as a character.

Picard: Et in Arcadia Ego Part 2

Spoilers obviously for the end of the show.

I shan’t hide that I’m disappointed that instead of plot twists and surprises we got an action movie followed by some thoughts on death. The lack of further twists leaves a whole heap of interesting ideas folding themselves back into plot holes.

In exchange we did get a good half hour of space-set action with intrigue, fist-fights and a visually stunning space battle. The space orchids fighting the Romulan fleet with La Sirena ducking and weaving through was both original and exciting even if we knew that Picard wasn’t going to get blasted to smithereens by Romulan disruptors.

However, it was the least imaginative resolution possible with the material to hand. The synths adopted the kill-all-humans, the Romulans decided to kill everything on the planet (instead of just blowing up the beacon), Starfleet sent to proverbial cavalry with a semi-retired Will Riker, the bad-sister evil Romulan got a supervillain’s death and the hot-brother evil Romulan got a minor redepmtion.

There were many fun moments from the throwaway revelation that the Romulans have at least five different ways of sterilising a planet, to the camp fire stories of the Romulan-Vulcan end-of-days.

However, it felt a bit rushed for once on Picard until the space battle was won, the beacon closed and the robot-tentacle-old-ones banished back to robot hell. From there the tone shifts to death and simulations.

Jean-Luc’s brain abnormality gets him in the end of course. A plot point undermined by the existence of an up-coming season 2 and the obvious way-out that had been introduced in the previous episode. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t touching and Picard has taken its time to establish each of the surrounding characters and their relationship with Jean-Luc.

It was an interesting choice to show Rios & Seven grieving in their way and then Raffi & Elnor grieving in their way given that otherwise each of those pairs haven’t interacted much but it worked. Picard has done a better job of establishing a set of characters than Discovery managed even though it has had fewer episodes. That’s part of the reason for some of the slower pacing of the show.

The gravity of the show, indeed hinted at in the opening credits, rested not on the big secret of the Romulans but on Jean-Luc himself becoming a synthetic. I should imagine that will create some legal issues for the Federation as to whether the organic robot Jean-Luc is the same person as the organic animal Jean-Luc…but this is a culture where destructive teleport is common place, so they’ll figure it out. It does imply a potential quasi-biomechanical immortality as a possibility for Federation culture (even if Jean-Luc’s body has been set up so it will age and die eventually) but given all the other technology the Federation already has (including said transporters) that could achieve that already, we can hand wave away those implications.

Data, not unlike Captain Kirk, gets a second death after a spell in a simulated Good Place. Touching and self-indulgent, it is was still the right way to close the arc of the Picard-Data story that the show had opened with.

Overall, I feel the story reached its plot conclusion two episodes ago and the finale was just resolving the matter with some space battles and moderate Trek-style Deus Ex-Machina. Even so, a strong cast and thoughtful direction kept me excited by this show through out.

Stray observations

  • The Federation fleet just zipping away once the Romulans had gone was a bit weak. Also Jean-Luc had apparently just died and Will Riker didn’t stay in orbit? Even just to make sure the synths didn’t start their Robot-Satan summoning ritual again?
  • I think I missed a spot of dialogue but I assume the XBs are now also going to make their home with the synths.
  • The closing scene on La Sirena implies that Seven and Raffi are now a couple.

Add Commanding Authority to Your Online Meetings

Many of you maybe enjoying the delights of video-conferencing from the comfort of your own shed, bedroom, bathroom or impromptu tree-house. Wherever you are hiding from the rest of the people in your house, it is important to project to your colleagues at work a sense of being-in-control, resoluteness and decisive decision making. Who better to emulate in these times than the CEO of Cattimothy House Publishing, Timothy the Talking Cat (MBA, Phd, NRL, OMG, GCSE).

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Simply print out at a suitable size then cut out, add string and suitable eye-holes and you to can enjoy the quiet confidence of one of the world’s great thinkers.

Currently Reading: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

This is proving to be every bit as good as people said it would be. An ambassador from a space habitat that controls access to a key navigation route is sent to the heart of a hegemonic empire. Mahit Dzmare has spent her life studying the literature of the not-so-benevolent Teixcalaanli Empire and is both enamoured and wary of the culture she has to navigate. The death of her predecessor is not her only problem, as she finds herself amid the courtly machinations of the Teixcalaanli elite. Luckily she has the aid of the former (and now dead) ambassador but unfortunately he is an out-of-date back up copy and the implant he is stored in maybe broken…

It’s great stuff. A bit of Iain M Banks and a bit of Ann Leckie and a lot of originality within a familiar frame. I’m currently listening to the audio book version on my socially-distant solitary bush walks.

Now this may sound odd but…it also sort of reminds me of the recent Detective Pickachu movie. The parallels aren’t exact but there are these odd echoes between the two.

Sorry that you cannot go to Wellington, so here is my impression of it

CoNZealand has announced that the 2020 Worldcon will be virtual:

A very understandable decision. I think this could be an exciting and maybe even a positive step forward. The big challenge will be keeping the essence of the event while making it virtual. I don’t know if that is possible but that’s one of the challenges that 2020 is bringing.

CoNZealand haven’t announced any details of what this virtual version will be. There will be a host of challenges from choices of software to bandwidth to pushing beyond just talking heads and chat rooms. Getting participants to feel that they part of a single entertaining group event is the essence of the challenge.

What people will definitely be missing though, is a chance to visit Wellington. There’s no way of avoiding that with New Zealand essentially closed to travel until the pandemic has peaked. That is sad because Wellington is one of my favourite cities. I don’t say that lightly. I have visited many cities in my life and while not a connoisseur of metropolitan areas, I think I’ve visited a sufficient variety around the world (except for Africa and North America) to have an informed but not exhaustive opinion.

So here is my impression of Wellington as best as I can manage as a substitute for visiting there. I’ve never lived in the city and I’m sure actual Kiwis can give a more inside picture. In particular, the city has a rich Maori heritage that dates back beyond Britain’s invasion of the area that I can’t do justice to. However, I can talk about what it is like to be a stranger visiting and wandering through it.

Photos after the fold