A deeper look at piracy

The Singapore government has implicitly taken the position that piracy undermines the creative industries. According to a news report from Channel News Asia, Law Minister K Shanmugam is working towards creating a legal framework that would clamp down on online piracy and protect intellectual property rights. This position seems morally right and just. But it’s overly simplistic.

Shanmugam indirectly argues that piracy stifles the creative industry, by linking a strong legal framework to helping creative industries. This is not true. On the contrary, piracy helps the creative industries by publicising innovation and pressuring the big companies to respond to the marketplace. As described in The Pirate’s Dilemma, a large number of music genres – acid house, dubstep, hard-core – took off after being broadcast by pirate radio stations in the United Kingdom. These music brands began life as too unconventional for mainstream taste, but the pirate radio stations gave artistes a platform to reach out to large audiences, given the artistes the critical mass necessary to achieve mainstream popularity.

The same can be said for Japanese manga, through the scanlation community. Whenever a new manga volume is released in Japan, people scan the entire issue and post the raw images online. These raws are downloaded by translators, who translate the works into different languages, and publish the translated issues online. Both the scanners and the translators are, for the most part, ordinary people who happen to possess the right equipment and know-how to hold up their end of the scanlation process. This allows Japanese manga to reach audiences far outside Japan – especially for manga that are released only in Japan. With some creativity, these audiences can be turned into paying customers.

It is true that online piracy leads to the loss of revenue. The music and motion picture industries (among others) routinely report losses in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. In Singaporean movie theatres, advertisements extolling audiences to respect IP rights and cease pirating are regular screened before the feature film. These advertisements claim that failure to respect IP rights will lead to filmmakers choosing to cease making films, and movie theatres to close down. But this advertisement does not ring true in a world where the global movie industries continue to rake billion-dollar revenue in ticket sales alone. While it is true that there will be some people who will consume pirated content without giving IP owners any compensation, piracy can help boost sales, as in the case of Japanese anime, music, and books. The big picture is, quite clearly, more complicated than what the big corporations are saying.

Governments and corporations need to stop blaming pirates and start understanding why people pirate IP. Speaking as an IP owner, I can think of three reasons why people do it.

1. Cost

Let’s face it: when forced to choose between paying $50-plus for the latest blockbuster video game, or waiting patiently for a few hours/days/weeks to download that same game off a torrent website, there will be people who will gladly choose the latter option. Especially if, for a few more hours of waiting, they can have any additional downloadable content or extra features that have already been released. Even more so if these people live in places with low income, and high prices for IP. The same holds true for other kinds of IP: books, music, movies, television dramas.

2. Availability

There is a large amount of IP that is simply not readily available in some parts of the world. Anime and manga, music, and more. Pirates create and meet demand for this IP by publishing and distributing this IP on places where users can readily access this IP. Sometimes this is done using legal means like YouTube. Sometimes this is done using more questionable means, like pirate radio stations. The platform pirates use are engineered to reach a large number of people at low cost, giving them a distribution network that could potentially rival the ones used by existing companies.

3. Convenience

Digital Rights Management tools are complicated. Many games, such as Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Assassin’s Creed 2 and beyond, have DRM measures that prevent people from (easily) pirating software. The same goes for music, ebooks, and other digital IP. But these measures punish legitimate consumers. Coding a program to prevent multiple installations of the same game from the same DVD (such as SecuROM) may sound like a good idea, but this prevents legitimate consumers from re-installing their games. This can happen when the computer is reformatted, when the user gets a new computer, or when the user simply wants to play the game again after having deleted it. These are perfectly legitimate uses, but DRM software like the one I’ve described punish users for doing any of these by preventing consumption of software. Other tools, like the one used by Arkham City, are fairly complex to navigate and spoil consumer enjoyment. Pirates make consumption of IP convenient by scrapping DRM tools  from the original content and posting the now-DRM-free content.

Legislation is not the answer to these questions. These are legitimate consumer needs not being met by the companies that insist on DRM regulation and strict anti-piracy policies. Strict legislation may make piracy more inconvenient, but it will not address these concerns. If anything, they will exacerbate them, because consumers will have fewer places to address these needs, and they will take out their frustrations on the corporations by refusing to buy their IP and spreading the word to boycott their products. This creates additional market pressure on the pirates, who will at some point team up with hackers and crackers to circumvent any new anti-piracy means to publish pirated content.

What is needed is a new business model. Pirates shouldn’t be seen as evil money-sucking parasites. Pirates should instead be considered as friendly competitors. IP owners should strive instead to compete with pirates on their terms – on the terms of cost, availability and convenience, and any other reason why consumers will choose pirates over legitimate purchases. In this sense, piracy can be thought of as simply an additional cost of business.

If possible, IP owners should also factor piracy into their business models and understand how to use their distribution models to the IP owners’ advantage. Underground music artistes in the UK went mainstream after the mainstream record companies started collaborating with the pirate stations. The pirates gained prestige, the artistes made more money, and so did the record companies. It could be possible to do something similar for other IP. Author JA Konrath reported an explosion of sales after he started giving away one of his ebooks. Shortly after the creation of the Baen Free Library, in which Baen’s published books are posted online in their entirety for free reading, Baen reported increased sales of those published books. In those two cases, online pirates could easily reproduce the text of those books and distribute them for all to see. The result was increased publicity, increased consumer awareness, and therefore increased sales.

Piracy is a problem that has been around since the articulation of intellectual property rights. Legislation has done little to curb it. What is needed is a different approach. Instead of trying to stamp out piracy, companies should instead seek to meet the consumers real needs and wants, and compete with pirates on their turf. Companies should also seek to co-operate with the pirates to create win-win situations, or at least situations that are advantageous to the IP owner. IP is produced for consumption – it’s time to understand understand what the consumer wants and meet it, instead of blindly focusing on profit.

2012: The Shape of Things to Come

I don’t do New Year resolutions. Telling the world what you intend to do might feel good, but it’s not the same as getting things done. It’s not the same as working towards what you want to do. It might actually be counterproductive.

That said, I have planned a few writing goals for 2012. I’m already working towards them, have been for the past year, and now that I’m a certified author I reckon it’s time for me to share them. With deadlines, too.

Q1 2012

1. Start up my website

Conventional wisdom says an author can afford to wait a little before he gets a website. Normally I’d agree – start-up costs run into the thousands of dollars for a professionally designed and hosted website, and that money has to come from somewhere. But conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to an author who publishes on the Internet, and interacts with his readers primarily over the Internet. A traditionally published author has many ways to interact with his readers: book tours, book signings, writing in to magazines, getting book reviews, etc. But ebooks are not (generally) sold in physical stores, so there are no physical locations for me to pop up and talk to people. That means I need to focus on web-based marketing and promotion tools for the time being, and the main conduit for reader interaction is still the Internet. Therefore, I’ve been searching for cheap website solutions – have been for the past week. I’m coming close to resolving this; I just need to pick the best option and execute.

2. Finish and publish the next two stories in the Michael Chang series.

I’ve finished writing the sequel to Eventual Revolutions, and I’m working on the third Michael Chang story. The former is a short story titled Watchman, the latter is a novella, working title Games of Magi. In Watchman, Michael is watches over a pair of women in a nightclub. A group of hardcases try to muscle in on them, and Michael has to protect the women – and along the way re-align his sense of right and wrong. As for Games of Magi, Michael meets a fellow magician, and he has to decide whether to treat him as friend, foe, or otherwise. Watchman is in the editing stage. Games of Magi is in the writing phase.

Q2 2012

1. Write and publish the fourth and fifth stories in the Michael Chang series.

Self-explanatory. Once again, they are a short story, and a novella. I don’t want to spoil anything just yet – especially when they are still being planned and might change at a moment’s notice. But I will say this: the short story is tentatively titled Night Hunters, and the novella Necessary Wounds. And Necessary Wounds is the climax of the first Michael Chang cycle.

2 . Expand into audiobooks – if feasible

I’m looking into creating audiobook versions of my stories. I’m still studying the various options available to me, but it does seem like a legitimate option for my writing. If this line of approach works out, I might just be able to produce audiobook versions of my stories in the foreseeable future, starting with Eventual Revolutions.

Q3 2012

1. Put together a Michael Chang story anthology – in print!

I’m not going to write ebooks forever. At some point I’d really like to sell my works in print. For all the hype about ereaders and digital publishing, there are and probably always be plenty of people out there who like a real book in their hands. When I finish the first set of Michael Chang stories, I’ll have enough stories to put together an anthology of sorts – and that anthology would be economical to print and sell on paper. I’ll probably call it Dawn of the Magician or some such. I already have the solution – I just need the material to make this feasible.

2. Work on a non-Michael Chang story

I don’t think of myself as a mystic thriller/urban fantasy/insert-genre-here writer. I’m just a writer. I think about what I want to write first, and everything else – character, plot, setting, genre, etc. – follows. At any given time I have at least a half-dozen story ideas floating in my head (you’ve already seen four of them). When I finish the Michael Chang anthology, I want to take a break from it and work on something else. Right now, it’s a flip-up between a military science fiction story like Ghost in the Shell (the manga, the anime and the movies) meeting The Unit (American TV series), or an occult noir story loosely inspired by ‘traditional’ urban fantasy, H. P. Lovecraft, and espionage thrillers. Or I might do something else altogether. More details to follow when I have something viable.

Q4 2012

I can’t say for sure what the future holds here. I’ll be coming to the end of my course at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I have a couple of massive projects that would eat up a lot of my time. That said, it would be nice if I can start placing the Michael Chang print anthology in bookshops. Maybe indie bookshops in Singapore. And I might be able to do an actual book signing/book tour too.

Year-long Goals

1. Blog more often

When I was in Junior College, I wrote blog posts maybe once a month. It wasn’t ideal, but it was all the time and energy I had for after schoolwork, studying, and writing. Now that I have more time and energy on my hands, I’m thinking of blogging more (we’ve already seen that in December) regularly. At least once a fortnight. In addition to everything else I’m doing. That way, I think, I’ll be able to better promote my brand while simultaneously getting my thoughts out there for public consumption.

2. Spend time promoting the stories

The world is inundated with books, and more and more books are published every day. No matter how talented she may be, a writer won’t be noticed if she doesn’t promote her stories. So I’ll look for ways to promote myself, online and offline. Off the top of the head, I’m thinking book reviews, interviews, price experiments, online book groups…and of course, more posts.

3. Graduate!

I’ve always disliked formal education. For all the talk about ‘Teach Less, Learn More’, the school system is still inadequate. The entire academic system is still based on tests and examinations, and schools concentrate their efforts on getting students to pass these tests and exams. Preparation for the rest of your life is secondary, if it is ever considered. For all that, though, to someone who knows what he wants, the formal education system does pass on relevant skills and information. My current course teaches skills and techniques that, with some adaptation, can be applied to the writing biz. If I pass a module, I get to move on to the next module, which teaches me more information. To get the full benefit from this course, I need to graduate. Preferably as quickly as possible, so I don’t spend more time and energy and money than I have to.

So here you have it. My 8 writing goals for 2012. Time to get cracking.