Treated Like Royalty

Coming home from an enjoyable trip is even nicer when you find you have more money than you had when you left. My homecoming from Dallas and A-Kon 21 was made happier by a royalty statement from one of my publishers.

Royalties are defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary ( a very handy resource for fast, free look-up) as “a sum of money that is paid to somebody who has written a book, piece of music, etc. each time that it is sold or performed.”

Traditionally, royalties have been the backbone of a writer’s income. On commissioning a book, the publishers pay the author an advance against royalties, usually in stages as the final text is delivered. Once the book goes on sale, a percentage of the income from each copy is due to the author and is offset against the advance until it’s been repaid. After that, the same percentage per copy is paid to the author in arrears, usually twice a year.

Essentially, publishers gamble that any book will sell well enough to recoup all its costs, including the advance payments made to the author. That doesn’t always happen. Many books never earn royalties. But as long as enough books do earn money, the publisher can keep going. And some books earn massively for both author and publisher, enabling publishers to take chances on less commercial work. The J.K. Rowlings, China Miévilles and Barack Obamas of this world not only make money for themselves and their publishers, but also enable a legion of less popular authors to get their work into print.

This traditional model is now breaking down under the double impact of economic upheaval and piracy. The problems in the economy can’t be avoided: many good and useful businesses will collapse, not necessarily because they’re inflexible or unprepared but merely because they’re unlucky.

Piracy is a different matter. The popular terminology romanticises theft, while the widespread public view that entertainment should be free to the end user creates a sense of entitlement. It began with ‘free’ TV channels, and if we’re not careful it will lead us to a world where the only publishing is the mass-market celebrity-promoted advertising-linked kind sponsored by media channels and major corporations.

Piracy isn’t a new problem. The work of Osamu Tezuka was extensively pirated in the 1940s and 1950s. However , the combination of fast broadband access and US Government support for Internet service providers over authors and publishers is making it even more widespread and harder to combat. In July 2007 a Chinese translation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appeared free online weeks before the official Chinese language version reached bookshops.

Defenders of Internet piracy argue that free dissemination of works helps an author to become better known and thus creates a demand for his or her work. That happens – indeed, it was happening long before the Internet. In 1701 a satirical poem by Daniel Defoe was pirated and became a best-seller, with 80,000 copies in print. That’s an impressive total sale that would rack up a goodly sum in royalties even today. Defoe didn’t see a penny for all those copies, but he did become famous, able to command the attention of the top publishers. In the preface to a later edition he recorded his gratitude to the ‘pirates’, coining the term by which intellectual property theft is still known.

More recently, in 2009, British teenager Abigail Gibbs posted her vampire novel online. To date it’s been read by over four and a half million people. The majority of print-published authors never achieve ten per cent of that readership. Yet Abigail has her “fingers crossed for getting published” and her online portal contains a clear and unambiguous copyright statement.

It’s one thing for the author to decide to give his or her work away for free. It’s another for someone to steal it. Authors quite often decide to give their work away, for the exposure, or as a thank-you to fans – like Stephen King, who doesn’t need the Internet to bolster his fame and fortune. King has also been pirated alongside many other authors; in 2007 the Bookyards blog provided links to a Hungarian site where King and Asimov could be read for free.

The Bookyards blogger is a classic example of the doublethink inherent in piracy. Reporting the Asimov/King link he said  “I am usually relunctant (sic) to spread this type of information, but I am doing so to make the point that enforcing copyright laws will continue to grow as the technology to make such works freely available spread. Like music, new business models will have to be looked at in order to insure (sic) that writers be properly compensated for their works.” This is right below the banner proclaiming that he “knows where all the books on the Internet are buried” and hopes to “make “Bookyards The Library” a commercial success.”

Would that be a commercial success which also renders a return to writers, I wonder? If so it would be very, very rare. Many Internet sites make an income from stealing the work of others – stealing books, comics and animation, offering them for free ‘to benefit the fans’ and reaping advertising income, kudos or influence. Some have created saleable corporations on the basis of this theft. Few ever make any attempt to pay royalties to the original creators.

Recently I wrote about mangaka Yukio Tamai, a Japanese creator whose worldwide success is unlikely because his most commercial works have been pirated. He hasn’t earned anything from those downloads, and nor has his publisher. There are many more like him. In some cases, Western anime distributors have not licensed fan-favourite titles because those titles have been so extensively pirated as to make it impossible to make a profit. With profits in free-fall and Japanese publishers and studios facing a choice between cutting staff to the bone or going to the wall, fans continue to pirate current titles that could potentially earn licensing money overseas, often protesting their devotion to anime and manga and claiming that only their work keeps it pure and valid as the creators intended. Well, the creators intended to earn a living from it, and theft isn’t helping them.

Writers and artists are the creative engine that generates the entertainment industry’s wealth. Yet we are expected to be grateful and see opportunity when others steal the product on which our income is based in order to create wealth for themselves. Instead of reaping our royalties as the proper reward for our work, we’re being treated like royalty – French royalty. Many of us will not survive the new Terror.

When criticised, Internet pirates and their supporters tend to knee-jerk reactions. There are torrents of responses to artists’ protests about piracy urging them to move into the new era, find new ways to monetise, accept reality. Yet even the most enthusiastic and successful of thieves must surely acknowledge that killing the geese that lay the golden eggs is a stupid move.

It’s not just down to the authors, the publishers, or the legislators. Readers – both legal and illegal – and pirates are part of this problem. It’s in their interest to be part of the solution. We all need to find new ways to ensure that a diverse creative community can survive. Otherwise, pirates will have to fill their Internet libraries and build their business plans with celebrity  bios, cookbooks and whatever they can find in another online library. A host of quirky, original, dynamic authors will have vanished along with their publishers.

Evolution, revolution, larceny – whatever we call it, we all have to live with the consequences.

16 thoughts on “Treated Like Royalty

  1. I don’t mind if there are laws to control piracy, but the punishment should fit the crime. A person who drinks and drives should get a harsher punishment than a person who downloads a book or movie. Make it easier to take the site down or force content removal. Make the download a traffic ticket type offence. Right now the first offence for drunk driving in Texas can only give a max 6 months in county jail and a max fine of $2000. In Japan I am told that people who upload anime are getting 2 years in prison. I think 2 years in prison is a bit of over kill. It seems like an atom bomb approach to controlling the problem. Make the punishment reasonable and easy to enforce like a red light ticket. Very few people fight a $75.00 ticket, but $75.00 in hard cash out of pocket will stop the behavior. Start handing tickets like that out in mass and the mass will stop downloading books.

    Bob

    • Bob, I agree the punishment should fit the crime, and in the UK, just as in Texas, the punishment for drink driving is nowhere near severe enough to make people think twice.

      I think there is a difference between uploading and downloading. If you’re uploading, you are enabling a huge number of people all over the world to access and spread the material. If you’re downloading, you are reading it yourself.

      So downloaders should get one simple, easy to enforce penalty, and the proceeds after collection costs should go to the artist whose work was stolen. (Or maybe there could be a fund, like for Public Lending right here in Europe, where artists get a share of the total amount collected, in proportion to the amount of downloads of their work?)

      I think uploaders should get a big fine for the first offence. Repeat offenders should get jail time. They’re not just stealing but encouraging and enabling others to do so. The fines should go to the State to help enforcement, and damages should go to the artists they’ve ripped off.

      Current law doesn’t limit penalties for copyright/intellectual property infringements – it leaves the decision to impose damages, restitution, prison or all three up to the judge, and that’s fine by me.

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    • Authors and publishers should use every means available to them to protect their work, but unless the other parties have goodwill and are honourable there is no way to achieve “good results and fast”.

      Yes, I can email someone and tell them to stop stealing my stuff, but if they don’t, my publisher has to contact the ISP, in a very precisely specified form, to ask them to take it down. While that is being done, my work is picked up from the original post by others and spread to ISPs around the world. My publisher then has to contact each of them individually and ask for it to be taken down. The original pirates can of course re-post my stuff, and we then have to ask for it to be taken down again…

      …and so the pirate ship sails on and on. The immediate losers are the creators and the publishers, but ultimately the reader/viewer loses because hurting the industry will deliver less choice, not more.

  5. Stealing, piracy, larceny…?

    Madam, I would suggest that you contact your namesake from Belfast and ask her to explain to you the difference between those legal terms you are throwing around so eagerly and “copyright infringement”.

    Not that something like that will help, as you obviously believe that every download equals one or more “lost sales”, at the same time completely disregarding THE FACT that most of those works you claim are being stolen would be completely unknown outside of their own very small circles of fans who also happen to speak/read the original language the works are published in – had there been no fan-translations to introduce them to the potential fans and customers.

    And that is about as much breath and keyboard I am willing to waste on this subject.

    • And another predictable response. If artists and publishers want to give their stuff away to you, they will. If they don’t, and you take it anyway, that’s stealing. Apples or manga or bicycles – same principle.

  6. *sigh*
    Another day, another “a downloaded copy is a lost sale” fallacy.

    A download will decrease the likelihood that a manga (or book, or movie, or music CD, or…) is bought, if and only if it is poor. If it’s good, it will increase that likelihood. It amazes me how many otherwise bright people fail to understand that even if a scanlation is based on the same intellectual property, it is not the same thing as the physical copy.

    I am a child of the current ages, and the very thought that I should pay for something without experiencing it first in its entirety is ludicrous to me. What would that serve, other than helping bad artists at the expense of the good ones? That’s what pay-before-you-play culture does, it rewards the hacks and the swindlers, who deserve to be weeded out instead of supported.

    If there isn’t a scanlation of a manga available, all it means is that I will never read that particular manga. If there is a scanlation, and if it’s any good, there is a possibility that I will purchase a hardcopy, if that in turn is any good. Usually it isn’t: the “professional” publishers hardly do professional quality work these days. Perhaps they wouldn’t be in such trouble if a couple untrained children couldn’t do an equivalent job for free and in less amount of time.

    • “A download will decrease the likelihood that a manga (or book, or movie, or music CD, or…) is bought, if and only if it is poor. If it’s good, it will increase that likelihood.”

      This is not true. Why would somebody pay for something they get for free? Makes no sense. The die-hards might–and I stress, might–pick up a copy. Maybe. More than likely, they’ll simply look for more by the same author/artist and continue what they’re doing. If something is readily available for free, why pay?

      “I am a child of the current ages, and the very thought that I should pay for something without experiencing it first in its entirety is ludicrous to me.”

      I am also a “child of the current ages.” Yes, as a consumer you have the right to preview and examine before you buy and return if you are unhappy, but that does not give you the right to consume the whole burger, decide “nope, it wasn’t good” and not pay for it. The burger is gone and somebody will have to pay for it. You consumed it, why not you pay for it?

      “If there is a scanlation, and if it’s any good, there is a possibility that I will purchase a hardcopy, if that in turn is any good.”

      Here you admit that even if it is good, you MIGHT buy it. Or you might not. So you enjoy it, but not enough to actually pay for it?

      “the “professional” publishers hardly do professional quality work these days.”

      Yes, the market is saturated with works of poor quality. There have been a number of titles I have bought that I haven’t liked. But I still paid for them. That’s part of the deal. I read it, I pay for it. If I’m unsure about a title and can’t get a chapter preview I’ll read reviews of people who have read it.

      A publisher has a right to publish what they believe will bring in money. Many manga publishers publish in magazines where quality is lowered in demand of deadlines and quantity. Then again, quality is all in the eye of the beholder. Ever seen Picasso’s work? I can’t stand it, but thousands of other people do.

      Overall your argument/defense sounds a bit egocentric. I admit that the market is over inflated, offers a limited supply of quality works, and is, itself, a bit egocentric. But that in no way gives someone the right or justification to steal.

      • The “knee-jerk” reaction you mentioned maybe just that… but that does not mean there is not some truth in it…instead of the industry JUST saying oh scanlations and fansubs hurt the industry, I would like to see it take a more proactive route by offering means to preview the product to the public.. free first chapter previews? releasing first couple of episodes on youtube channels?

        Also would like to say that this by no means is my stand…I sympathise with the people who say that fansubs are a way to preview a product..I used to be in their shoes.. but I have a decent income now and can buy things based on reviews like the way I buy most of my other products…

      • I agree that companies could be more proactive in combating piracy, but theft is still theft. There is absolutely no entitlement to preview a product for free unless the owner/creator decides to give it. Stealing it is just that – stealing it. It’s not less wrong or less destructive because you say you;re stealing it to benefit others.

        I just looked at several manga scanlation sites online. They are offering, not just previews, but whole runs of manga that are commercially available in English. Not only the original creator and publisher, but the companies who licensed and translated the work for English readers, are being ripped off.

        Nobody needs manga or anime to be free in order to sustain their lives, but the creators and distributors need it to be paid for in order to sustain theirs. Your free entertainment is someone else’s company closedown, loss of work or mortgage foreclosure.

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