Monday, 8 April 2013

Things I Worry About: The Ethics of Sharing Media

Or things I would love to have answers to.

Being a geek is essentially a confluence of weird enthusiasm for certain commodities and sharing that enthusiasm and those commodities with other people. In my geekiness I am quite fond of sharing my favourite media with anyone who is interested (who is also responsible with my belongings). A lot of this is an attempt to suck coworkers and friends into my swirling vortex of nerdery. It's also a calculated effort to recruit new readers to comics, because more readers mean a bigger market and a bigger market means more and better comics for us all to choose from. The trouble is, I think there are some ethical questions about the indiscriminate sharing of media.

As tempting as it is to view comics and nerd media as a marketplace, it fails to appreciate how important creators, those wizards who actually make our chosen fictions, are to the existence of nerd media. These people absolutely need to be compensated for their creativity and should ideally be able to earn a comfortable livelihood from their work. And for this to happen people have to not only read, say, a comic book, but have to actually pay for it. Every time I lend a friend a comic they get to read it without actually paying for it. It is for this reason that I worry about the ethics of lending.

Lending in it's most exaggerated sense is piracy which is patently not okay. Basically, piracy is a shadowy ersatz publishing machine designed to let people who specifically want something obtain it for free, but without supporting the production of that something in any way. People who share media via this mechanism, whether it be by uploading a new thing or by seeding existent things are stealing from the creators of that media and are actively hurting the industry that makes it. It's even a dubitable that piracy is a form of lending: peer to peer networks DUPLICATE media without affecting the lenders ability to enjoy the media.  Lenders in this system are able to take their single initial purchase and reproduce it endlessly in a way that lets them potentially give it to thousands or even millions of people. Basically, pirates get to eat their cake and give it to a million internet strangers. I would also argue that since piracy requires the active participation of pirates who have to hunt down what they are looking for, the vast majority of them are effectively CURRENT readers who therefore represent comics/novel/whatever market that has been lost. (Although, to be fair, it was a bootleg disk full of comics that got me into a comic store in the first place, which I think supports the notion of free trials being good for attracting new readers.) Regardless, I think piracy is a clearly unacceptable form of media lending. 

But what about the industrial lending of a public library? Is that okay? Libraries are easy: I think they are perfectly okay. They initially purchase books and pay a fee to publishers and creators for the right to temporarily lend media to the public. And I think libraries, beyond performing an essential public service, help the publishing industry by helping to turn young novice readers into life long readers. Moreover, at least half the novels I currently own are ones that I read first from a library and most of the rest are by authors whose work I first encountered there: the ability to try media in a legal and temporary framework that still compensates creators. Essentially, I think libraries are clearly okay.

What about legitimate secondary sales markets, like a used bookstore or the resale rack down the comic shop? The law on the matter states that at least for physical media, once the initial sale is made, the owner can effectively do with it what they will including resale. Which is to say, from a legal standpoint used bookstores are kosher. But just because something is legal doesn't make it ethical. A book bought used does not provide additional compensation to the creators or the publishing machinery that created the book. That said, a used book has ALREADY been bought once, and as such, compensation has occurred. Moreover, the original owner in selling their copy has forfeited their ability to enjoy that media which you are now acquiring. Although you are acquiring it for less than you might pay to get it new and in a way that compensates the creator directly. In a way a used book is both a legitimate sale and a lost sale to the creator. So it is without question a morally complicated marketplace.  But damned if it isn't one I kind of love. When I moved out of my parents house some years ago I used a great (and now dearly departed) used bookstore to convert a misspent youth of horrible fantasy and Science-fantasy pulp into the back catalogue of my favourite authors and some of my favourite books (once borrowed from a library). That ability to essentially convert books or to find out of print copies is pretty amazing. At the end of the day, I can't help but think that used bookstores are a kind of ethically neutral space. Maybe?

What about actually lending books to friends? By the same law that says reselling media is okay, it is legal to lend a book to a friend: once you own a book it's perfectly okay to share it around. That said, any person lent a book/comic/whatever gets to enjoy that media without having compensated the creator or production apparatus for that thing. Like piracy the lendee does not pay for their use of that media, and the lender only temporarily forfeits their own use of the media. But, like a used bookstore, there is only one, legally obtained copy of the media being circulated which only a single person can use at a time. The creators have already been compensated by the time of use. So where does that leave lending ethically?

I think the ethics of lending fall into two categories. If you lend something to someone who would otherwise purchase their own copy of media you are potentially denying a sale, and that is not so kosher. If you are lending media to someone who would not otherwise interact with that media than lending is perfectly fine. Better than fine in that the person being leant might enjoy the experience enough to actually go out and buy similar media and become a new consumer and fan. Also, I imagine that while creators want to be financially compensated for their work, that they might also enjoy an audience reading and enjoying their work regardless of compensation. Maybe? But yeah, I'm still kind of concerned by this.


  1. I think you make some interesting points. I think I have to disagree with your stance, though.

    First of all, it's not so easy to say that piracy harms the industry. We don't really know yet what the industry is going to look like when this whole shift to digital settles down, so it's hard to say what role piracy is going to play in the industry, aside from looking at what's happened in the film and music industries. For now, though, we can say that higher rates of ebook piracy sometimes correlate to higher sales figures for a given title. We'll have to wait and see whether that's because free samples sell goods or whether it's just both numbers going up as ebook consumption overall goes up.

    Furthermore, I have huge moral qualms about imposing free-market ethics on behaviour around consuming arts and literature. I really don't feel good about the idea that people's consumption of arts and literature should bend to meet the needs of existing business models. It feels backwards to me. Some of the most appealing aspects of ebooks are the accessibility, democratization and convenience they offer us, and their infinite replicability is a good thing, not a hurdle for the market to overcome. I don't believe we should hamstring the format because we don't know how to make money off it.

    And because I always circle back around to socialism when I have this conversation, I have to point out that cultural products cannot be arbitrated by the free market. The stuff we make that speaks to human experience in intimate, important, unaddressed ways is often poorly served by a marketplace that values mass appeal. That is to say, while blockbusters can certainly have cultural value, they are not the only products that have cultural value. So imposing ethics based on a system that already doesn't serve the medium and now also doesn't serve the consumers back onto the consumers of that medium, and insisting that serving the system serves the medium, seems illogical to me.

    Libraries, which you bring up in your post, are a really good example of this. It's not just libraries who pay for content. The Canadian government also pays creators directly for content in libraries, through the Public Lending Right Program. This is because the Canadian government recognizes that access to books is a public good, and creators should be supported at the same time that the public should have free access to books. Libraries work because they are a government-sanctioned exception to the market, not because they bow to the market. Policies that protect the rights of both creators and consumers are a better solution to piracy than policies that protect business models.

    1. I think maybe I was being a bit imprecise?

      The thing I'm interested at getting at are what are the responsibilities of an ethical consumer. And I think a major and pretty obvious part of this is making sure that creators get payed. (I mean, one of my goals in life is to do something I love and if possible making a middle class living while I am at it, and I'd like the people to who make the media that means so much to me to have access to this kind of lifestyle.) And for creators to get payed, media, in whatever form, has to be monetized in some way. I also kind of think this is the right thing to do.

      I agree that art has merit beyond its commercial value and that a free market is imperfect for creative enterprises (and just about everything else). In a perfect world private funding for the arts would be fast flowing and plentiful. Unfortunately, I don't think that is going to be the case for a while and I'm not sure what I can do as an individual to affect that kind of shift in policy. What I can control is my own commercial behaviour: I can buy, share, and kickstart as much as my budget will allow to support the geek media I love. If the free market CAN support certain media ventures (particularly the ones I care about) and provide a living wage to the people who make I think that's pretty great. I think a lot could be done if everyone thought in these terms.

      And, I mean, thinking about how your consumption affects those around us is pretty standard these days, isn't it? People worry about how local their food is sourced and the conditions their meat is raised in. People support local bookstores, comic shops, or cafes, because these places have merit and require custom to stay in business and are important to communities. I think trying to be aware how my consumption habits affect creators, publishers, and retailers is an extension of this kind of philosophy: I care about the media and want to reward those that make it and keep the businesses that provide said media in business so that I can continue to enjoy it. I don't think this is a misguided approach.

      This is what I was trying to get at.

      I think ebooks are great! Digital media gets around a lot of the shortcomings of print media and the accessibility and ease of reproduction is totally a strength. My issue is when piracy coincides with this. Stealing media no matter what the format is, I think, not ethical. Because creators gots to get paid to create... and eat. I think the format should be 100% expanded, but in a way that involves money getting to creators and the mechanisms that provide more ebooks.

      (Of course, I don't personally like ebooks because I much prefer print.... because I am a dinosaur.)

      I concede the fact that I don't KNOW that piracy hurts industry. That said, I think it is unequivocally unethical. I also think that if everyone who pirated media payed for it instead there would be more money available to various media enterprises. But then again people might just consume less? I don't know. As for the correlation between successful media projects and piracy... I'd suggest that correlation does not in anyway prove causation. (Last week I saw an undergraduate observe a correlation between psychosis and anti-psychotic drugs during a presentation about drug users in Vancouver's DTES and he suggested that anti-psychotic drugs CAUSE psychosis... rather than note the obvious fact that only people experience psychosis take anti-psychotic drugs.) As such, I think this correlation could just be that popular media is popular both legitimate and illicit marketplaces. Although, yeah, no data to back that up.