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.

The less loved Star Wars wing fighters

I was impressed by this comprehensive list of ‘alphabet’ fighters from Star Wars https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2019/09/star-wars-wings-ranked/

I hadn’t realised there were so many but I can’t help thinking that there is a lot more of the alphabet Star Wars could have covered. So I have decided to fill in some of the gaps.

The technically impressive W-Wing fighter proved to be unusable for most purposes when it was discovered the second engine had been put in the wrong way around. Its capacity to spin around in circles was second to none.

The successor to the W-Wing used a similar design and was the aptly named M-Wing. The extra big engine on the back was particularly impressive given its tendency to explode unexpectedly.

The ill-fated N-Wing fighter was a product of years of astronautic research. It was not until the disastrous battle of Spodkin that it was discovered that the N-Wing’s engines fall off under high acceleration.

The collapse in demand for N-Wing fighters led to many unscrupulous second-hand star-fighter sales-beings marketing unsellable stock as “Z-Wing fighters” by parking N-Wings on their side.

The L-Wing fighter was built for durability, technical stability and vertical take-off. It had an unparalleled ability to fly upwards. Unfortunately it lacked the ability to go in any other direction. Up, up, up they went with no capacity to shut down the engine. Flocks of L-Wings still rise above the galactic plane, their pilots long since rotted down to skeletons, while these indomitable fighters continue on their ever upward flight

“What does the circle bit do?” asked the designer’s boyfriend looking over the schematics for the Q-wing. “What do any of the these bits do?” replied the designer. Nobody knew.

It is misleading to call the G-Wing a ‘design’. It was produced due to a droid error at an automated fighter factory. Three thousand were produced before the assembly line could be shut down. The G-Wing is not space worthy but they are sought after as a collectors item.

“I’m sorry but this new design is unacceptable.”
“How dare you! That is my greatest work yet! The P-Wing fighter!”
“Look, space fighters are either blocky or curvy. Blocky represents good and curvy represents evil. It’s established semiotic canon.”
“Well what about the Millennium Falcon?”
“Han Solo is a rogue and a smuggler. The Flacon is a bit curvy because Solo is a bit of a bad-boy.”
“Well the P-Wing represent the inherent duality of the universe. It will bring balance to the force.”
( In fact the P-Wing failed to bring balance to anything including itself.)

The lower-case-i wing resulted not only in the designer being sacked but the whole planet he was from was ostracised from polite society.

After a series of design failures and public relations disasters, fighter design went back to basics. “Forget letters,” they said “the next big thing is punctuation!” Thus was the Asterisk-fighter born. Fast, reliable and agile, the Asterisk-fighter was a technical and critical success. Unfortunately pilots refused to fly them because “they make us look like assholes.”

The minutes from the board meeting after the disastrous marketing launch of the R-Wing is just the sound of the CEO bashing their own head against a table.

Needless to say, this post is not endorsed by Lucas Arts or Disney

Unfeasible Tales of Social Justice Fantasy Science! – Donnie and the Aos Sí

[I was going to write something about Australia Day but this came out of my head instead which has nothing to do with Australia (it’s on the same planet). It started silly then got weird and dark. The ending isn’t intended to be aspirational just where the story ended up. It goes on a bit and there is some bad language. As always – first draft and uncorrected]

It was green everywhere but the sky. Donnie had always been dismissive of that colour, it made him think of sickness, he preferred his signature triad of colours: red for his virility, blue for his strength and, of course, gold for his wealth.

Continue reading “Unfeasible Tales of Social Justice Fantasy Science! – Donnie and the Aos Sí”

Unfeasible Tales of Social Justice Fantasy Science: Style over Substance

coverpicslantedA piece at Mad Genius Club made me think ‘style over substance’ was a good writing prompt. http://madgeniusclub.com/2015/10/01/finding-the-there/

Simon knew that nobody had a hat in his size but he still sat still while the butler looked around the millinery building. The butler was three-metres tall and covered head to foot in chrome and bustled about like a sanctimonious funhouse mirror, reflecting grossly distorted images of everything around him. Eventually Simon would get bored of watching the butler busy itself on a bootless errand but in the meantime it pleased him to set the machine on this incompletable task.

What is important to understand here is that Simon was an arse. Not literally of course, although he did have his own fully functional arse, but figuratively if all the different parts of the human anatomy could be ranked in terms of metaphorical similarity to Simon’s personality then ‘arse’ would come first.

Continue reading “Unfeasible Tales of Social Justice Fantasy Science: Style over Substance”

Unfeasible Tales of Social Justice Fantasy Science! Showdown at Polk’s Tavern! Finale!

Dawn at Bridge Town.
Unconscious at my feet was one of Mayor Hardy’s men. I was back on top of the same roof overlooking the centre of town. I had my spear, my shield and now a rifle. Durston and the dwarfs had worked on the rifle during the night and it was now substantially more accurate. The unconscious guard had kindly provided me with more ammunition.

Stuck to the back of the wooden facade was a tiny machine that Durston had found in a compartment in his chest. The meeting with the god Orfon had done much for his memory. The machine was showing me a picture of the town much as a bird would see it.

I looked up into the brightening sky and could just make out the black speck in the sky and I could just hear the sound it made. It was another machine that Durston had found inside himself. He called it a drone – I presume because it made the sound of a giant bee when in flight.

I had stolen some of the clothes of the guard I had stunned. His waistcoat, gun-belt and wide-brimmed hat. It was not a great disguise but until the sun had fully risen it would give me a brief advantage if somebody came to check on this guard.

I touched the machine in the way Durston had shown me and the image shifted colour. His drone could see heat as well as light and despite the poor light I could now see each of the guards scatter around the roof tops and hidden in the alleys of the two. Each one was shown as a bright yellow-orange glow like they were burning embers.

It had taken me little more than half of an hour to master the rifle. It was a weapon for an idiot. As Durston had predicted my sharp vision meant that I had could shoot with great skill. I had few qualms about shooting Hardy’s men – I had grown up surrounded by seasoned warriors and I was ready for war if it was needed. Duration had been more concerned but had said that he could see no outcome that did not involve bloodshed.

I steadied my nerves and waited for the signal.

“:HARDY!” – It was Durston. I could see the glowing figures move suddenly in reaction to his appearance. The guards would have been watching the approaches to the town but in truth Durston had snuck in much earlier and had been hiding under a cart. He stood now bow-legged in the centre of town. He also wore a wide-brimmed hat and also a blanket into which he had cut a hole for his head. Under that he wore two gun-belts. He held his mechanical hands just above the two small guns on either side of the belts. He looked ridiculous but he claimed this was an essential ritualistic aspect of his plan.

“:HARDY!” Durston called again. “I KNOW YOU ARE HIDING YOU LILLY-LIVERED COWARD. ~ COME OUT AND FACE ME!”

I could see on the machine that Hardy’s men were readying their rifles just waiting for a signal.

Hardy appeared on a balcony above the entrance to Polk’s Tavern.
“Kill him” he said.

Hardy’s men revealed themselves on the rooftops and from behind buildings. Some had rifles and some had hand guns. They each took aim at Durston and began to fire. As each bullet him, Durston staggered and black liquid would spurt out from under his poncho.
This was my moment. I stood so that I could aim my rifle and began shooting specific targets I had identified. Ten shots and ten of Hardy’s men dead or injured. Despite this Hardy’s men did not notice their comrades being shot around them. They were too intent on shooting Durston and the sound of gunfire masked all other sounds.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Hardy called to his men. Durston was still standing but his head was bowed and his hat was gone. His blanket dripped with a dark liquid that pooled around his feet.

“:I’ll give you all one warning.” Durston spoke in a quiet tone and yet his seemed to project around the whole town. “~Look around. Several of you were shot already. I’m going to count to three and if you haven’t put down your weapons I will shoot several more of you. One.” None of Hardy’s men lowered their weapons but they looked around and could now see the bodies of the comrades. “Two.” I sensed the men getting ready to open fire again. “Three.”

Durston’s hand swiftly pulled the handguns from the belts, even as Hardy’s men opened fire again. Durston’s hands moved in a blur as he fired the hand guns repeatedly. I stood again and began to pick off my next set of targets.

The shooting at Durston was less accurate this time and many shots went wild. Hardy’s men were now ducking behind what cover they could find, unaware still that I was shooting from the rooftop.

Durston now strode purposefully to an ally way. The men Hardy had stationed there fled as he walked towards them. Ducking into the shadows, Durston was now hidden from view.

Many of Hardy’s men had now been shot and either killed or wounded. There was a kind of horror in using this rifle. At each death I did not feel a soul depart but instead the act of firing the gun felt both distant and immediate. It was too easy for me to point this rifle and simply choose for one of these men to die.

A man on a horse game galloping into the centre of town apparently oblivious to the gun fight. He called out as he came close to the tavern that the dwarf mine was in revolt and that reinforcements were needed. This was my signal for the next stage in our assault on Hardy’s troops. I dropped the rifle and picked up my spear and shield. I then took Durston’s device from the wall and found the button he had shown me to use.

Before setting off for town, Durston had strapped wine skins too his chest, back and sides. Each one was filled with a flammable oil that the dwarfs provided. The wine skins were then hidden under the blanket that Durston was wearing. Their first purpose was to fool Hary’s men into thinking that their shots were having some effect. Each shot had caused the oil to spray out from under the blanket that Durston wore. In truth the bullets were neither fast enough nor heavy enough to even dent Durston’s body and he feared that if Hardy’s men had simply seen the bullets bounce off him, that they would have not stayed to fight him. Although they would be more demoralised now having failed to kill Durston there was still a danger that they would abandon the town and fight the more easily killed dwarfs.

I made my way silently off the roof and down into an alley. I could track the movements of Hardy’s mean around the town as they hunted for Durston and I couldn’t stay still for very long. Luckily we had a diversion planned. In the center of the roads where Durston had first called out to Hardy, was a black pool of oil and on the oil was a tiny explosive that Durston had fashioned – and explosive that could be trigged by the button the device.

I pressed the button just after the man on the horse passed the pool of oil. It burst into flame with a ‘whumpf’ and a thick black smoke began pouring out from the flames. I counted for a minute until the smoke was thick enough and then ran as fast as I could to the other side of the street and then down an alley by the side of the tavern.

I climbed a drain pipe and found a part open upstairs window that looked out onto the alley. It took a little time for me to swing myself onto the windowsill and then into the room beyond.

I landed with a bit more noise than I wanted. I was in a small bedroom which luckily for me was empty. I walked to the door and listened carefully for any sounds. Hearing nothing close by, I opened it slowly an looked out into a corridor. Hardy did not have men patrolling the corridors so I made my way towards the front of the building. A pair of double doors led to what I suspected would be the room with balcony from which Hardy had spoken earlier. I could hear loud voices talking in side presumably debating the events outside.

I counted for a few seconds and then pressed the button on the device again. This was a signal to Durston who was still at large somewhere in the town. A sudden appealing wailing noise erupted. It was loud and persistent and un-ignorable. Durston had explained that he was equipped with such ‘sirens’ to help warn people of encroaching fires. I hoped that Hardy and his guards had rushed to the balcony to see what the noise was and then I opened the door and stepped into the room.

As we had expected Hardy was outside on the balcony. He had three guards with him and the room itself was empty. I quickly found a hiding place and waited.

Durston’s siren cut off as quickly as it had started and outside I could hear the mad rush of Hardy’s men combing through the town looking for their quarry. I could hear the sound of the balcony doors being shut to keep out the acrid smoke and then hardy barking orders to his guards. I listened carefully to their footfalls as all three of the men left the room – two to stand guard at the door and one to fetch the messenger from the mine. I counted to twelve and then stepped from my hiding place.

Hardy had his back to me. I could have killed him with my spear there and then but we would still have had the rest of his men to deal with. I walked up to him in silence and then with a sharp blow with my shield knocked him unconscious. I had to catch his heavy body as he fell so the sound would not alert his guards outside.

I secured the door and then pulled furniture to the door to make a more solid barricade. Naturally the guards heard this but found that they could not open the door. I had enough time to move what I needed to before they began trying to kick down the door in earnest.

I went back to Hardy. I tied his hands and removed his gun belt. He was beginning to stir, so I stood back and waited for him to come to. His guards outside the door were really throwing their shoulders into their attempt to open the door but with a heavy desk behind it there wasn’t much movement.

Hardy’s eyes flickered open. I levelled my spear at his face.

——— :: ———

Our hope was that Birchall would be free to move around town after speaking to Hardy the night before. She knew enough of the townsfolk to be able to judge who might listen to reason or even turn against Hardy if the conditions were right. Durston had explained to he about his siren and so now, wherever she was she should have been waiting for me to appear with Hardy.

With Hardy awake and under threat of being skewered, it was easy to get him to order his guards to stand down and stop hammering on the door. I didn’t doubt that they realised that he was speaking under duress but I just need a little time for the plan to work.

I dragged hardy out onto the balcony and kept the point of my spear pushing against his ribs as a reminder of who held the weapon.
“Call all your men.” I growled at him.

The smoke from the small oil fire was now dying down but the air still stank. The rising sun was now illuminating the town more fully and as Hardy called out to his mean, figures emerged from the shadowy lanes where they had been hunting for Durston.

Hardy’s men held tightly to their guns but with another poke in his ribs Hardy called for them all to drop their weapons. As the rifles and handguns dropped to the ground, Durston reappeared. He casually walked among the med picking up guns one by one and bending their barrels. The horror on the men’s faces as Durston demonstrated his strength only grew as we walked among apparently completely unharmed despite all their efforts.

Birchall too had been busy and from the buildings and houses other citizens of the town were emerging into the smoke-tinged air.

I spoke quietly into Hardy’s ear “Tell them the truth.”. Hardy just snarled so I increased the pressure on the spear, “Do it – I’d rather you were alive than dead but dead still works for me.”
“What do you want me to say?” He growled back.
“The truth – the truth about the children who went missing.”
“It wasn’t me. It was some of the men. They got out of hand.”
I jabbed his ribs again. “Not excuses.. Tell them the truth. In your own words and trust me I will know when you are lying.”
Hardy sighed and then looked out at the gathering crowd.
“I had the children murdered.” he said but too quietly for the crowd to hear. I just snarled in responses.
“I HAD THE CHILDREN MURDERED.” Hardy spoke now with the voice he used that could carry his words out to a mob.
There were cries of horror and astonishment and not just from the ordinary townsfolk. Clearly many of Hardy’s men were also unaware of how he had manipulated them all with fear.

Birchall and three men pushed their way through the crowd and made their way into the tavern. I ushered Hardy back into the room and made him, at spearpoint, pull the barricade from the door. As he did so his two guards burst through the door with their guns ready. They hesitated when they saw that I held my spear at Hardy’s neck. Whatever move the guards were planning was cut short by the arrival of Birchall with three of the townsfolk with her. The guards surrendered and were disarmed. I led Hardy down the stairs and out of the tavern.

The crowd on the street looked murderous but the hate was all directed at Hardy. Without his small army he was now a pathetic figure. Robbed of his power over the town, he seemed physically diminished. Several of the townsfolk were armed and had their weapons pointed at Hardy. I stepped away from him and lowered my spear. I turned to look for Durston when a gun shot rang out behind me and something struck my shoulder with a burning punch. More shots rang out almost in the same instant as I turned to see what had occurred.

Hardy had a small gun concealed in his jacket and he had taken one last shot at me. Barely had I begun to turn than Hardy himself had been shot down by the townsfolk. Birchall rushed over to me and within moments Durston was there two but a rushing sound in my ears like an approaching tide obscured their words and I lost control over my consciousness and fainted.

——— :: ———

By what means Durston left us, I never knew. When I awoke some hours later he was gone. Perhaps Orfon had returned him to his proper time or perhaps he had simply walked away. Birchall negotiated with what remained of Hardy’s men at the mine and prevented a bloody last stand that would have left many dwarfs and men dead. The human town and the dwarf mine were not at peace exactly but the violence of Hardy’s cruel occupation of the mine had ended and both parties needed each for trade.

I never returned to my glade. Time was flowing differently on the plains and despite several attempts, I found that I could not successfully navigate back along the old elf road. Our world was begin to drift in many directions and each direction was becoming a world unto itself. I hope that the elves of Ledrg Glade still exist in some world sundered from this one.

I stayed for awhile in Bridge Town. The people were not evil or malicious but I think they resented the guilt they felt at Hardy’s actions. Some of Hardy’s men settled down and others drifted away and several died in fights or in gaol.

The dwarfs rewarded me with some light armour and enough silver to buy a decent horse and saddle. I decided to head west, to see if I could find a navigable route through the desert beyond the canyon. With decent supplies and my elvish scout skills I was confident that I would have more luck than the dwarfs who had tried to escape that way during Hardy’s regime. I had my sigil shield and my spear to protect me. I had as well the rifle that Durston had altered. Gromley had blessed it but I was still wary of it – yet it was also the only physical reminder I had of my good friend the robot man.

As I rode off past the mine both Birchall and Gromley said their goodbyes. I had waited until near the end of the day, confident that with elvish sight I could make better speed in the cool of the night. I waved back to them both as I crested a small hill and then I rode off – into the sunset.