by Alex Valente

Consider this example: Marvel Comics publishes Spider-Man, Sony makes a Spider-Man film or videogame, and your local queer fan-artist sells an art zine or print inspired by that film. There is a cost associated with each of these items: the floppy or trade collected comic; a cinema ticket or streaming subscription; the art print itself. But, there is no ethical consumption. ‘Illegally’ downloading or streaming the film, torrenting or finding a hosting site for the comic, or pirating the zine are all the same act: you are overcoming the monetary gatekeeping of art. With one exception: if you ‘steal’ from Marvel, Sony or any other megacorp you might even be doing some good (with reservations); if you do it to an artist who is trying to pay their bills, you’re an asshole.

Similar discussions can be had for visual media, music, videogames, even software. There’s a memesphere resurgence every time Netflix announces another price raise, or another media company is assimilated by the totally not homophobic, transphobic, nazi-adjacent Mouse Empire (or the infamous Metallica vs Napster case from 2000). Even just focusing on the publishing industry, issues abound: editorial and marketing gatekeeping, Digital Rights Management (DRM; a handy umbrella term for all sorts of measures and tools to control access to digital media, among other things), misunderstanding of creative labour, intellectual property and copyright laws – the very existence of copyright and intellectual property, for that matter, at least in their current form.

Every time someone on the internet misunderstands libraries (usually non-librarians) or archives (usually non-archivists), the publishing world rises up in arms against those felons who dare steal the product of their own sweat and blood. It’s their precious baby book and this might happen to you next, so won’t you listen to acclaimed author speak on things he doesn’t understand and join us? There are, of course, exceptions – though they are never the bigger, more successful authors. A famous, recurring case is that of the Internet Archive (IA), a freely accessible digital repository of texts from libraries, archives and publishers around the world, and how it supposedly hurts not established authors, but marginalised, up and coming literary stars. 

Creative markets, including publishing, are some of the most open to labour exploitation

The premise is, of course, not true, and those espousing this line of thinking are often doing so to protect their own profit, social or monetary. Creative markets, including publishing, are some of the most open to labour exploitation (and that means writers, illustrators, translators, even editors, typesetters and anyone involved in the creation of a book). Copyright and Intellectual Property (IP) laws are inadequate even when best applied, and remain skewed towards the side of corporate interests rather than authors. When writers, including their unions and collective organisations, decide to defend the power of copyright laws they are choosing to defend a system which benefits corporations rather than their own colleagues and friends. 

Various form of copyright laws, including those introduced by the EU Copyright Directive that so many UK writers are hellbent on praising, actively harm libraries and readers by enforcing DRM in a way that has nothing to do with the author’s copyright of a book, and everything to do with the publisher and the distributor. 

As a resource, public libraries provide an escape valve for those who cannot access books financially, while still supporting books and their authors. As a public body, DRM on ebooks prevents them from renewing digital loan programmes because every 10 or so loans, a new ‘copy’ has to be bought, usually from a megacorp. If funds are cut, and they are, regularly, they can afford even less variety of books, digital or in print. And when people resort to systems bypassing the gatekeepers, the ‘writers hate poor people’ / ‘not everyone is entitled to all art’ wheel starts spinning again – and everyone loses sight of who is causing the issue in the first place.

Cory Doctorow – a novelist, comics writer, and digital rights activist – has an extensive essay on how such a reality has come about, and where it can lead from this point onward. In his words: ‘This isn’t copyright protection – it’s felony contempt of business-model’.

The businesses are the ones getting away with it, abetted by swindled creators who sometimes genuinely believe they’re fighting for their own creative rights.

The greatest trick the megacorps ever pulled was convincing authors they had their interests at heart.

That is why Waterstones can claim that assimilating Blackwell’s is good, actually. Why Simon & Schuster being bought out by Random Houses of Penguins will benefit everyone, eventually. While everyone involved at the wordsmithing level argues with other writers and creators over whether we even really deserve royalties, and whether white authors are being cancelled because someone pointed out that maybe they shouldn’t be racist if you want not to be called a racist. All of this, of course, on the coat-tails of a global pandemic, geopolitical unrest, a collapse of capitalist supply chains, and specifically of paper production and distribution. 

The greatest trick the megacorps ever pulled was convincing authors they had their interests at heart.

What often tends to happen as a result of stringent rules, bottlenecks of distribution, and gatekeeping limitations of access to a book is that people will seek better ways of circumventing those rules, from interpersonal lending to piracy on a commercial scale. Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) will flood secondary markets, software will be developed to hack Kindles and ebooks, manuscripts will be stolen, weirdly entitled returns schemes will take hold, and cryptobros will step in completely oblivious for some comic relief. When any of these secondary systems fails, the corporation will enforce its banhammer, and your various Freedom of Reading and Writers of the World Untype groups will happily go along for the parade. Point in case: the IA is currently being sued for breach of copyright by Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House, with the backing of the US Authors’ Guild and major names in the book industry.

The copyright conversation, then, becomes one of misplaced focus: the issue of ‘who owns art’ has brought the goalposts to constantly shift, and intentionally so, diverting from the inadequacy of the safeguarding systems currently in place. There is a reason we call it ‘book industry’, if Amazon is the major rights player at the London Book Fair, if your local comic book festival is funded by Comixology: copyright is a business-first model. Our current methods of eschewing it are insufficient, creative commons can only do so much, and Intellectual Property is either bullshit, or theft, or both. So what can we do? Stop complaining, on the regular, about book piracy harming new writers, for one. Support independent presses and bookshops, always. And then perhaps we will be able to shift the conversation, and the blame, back to where they rightfully belong.

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