Should I let you steal my work? More and more, that’s a question most writers will face.
Take a writer who said “Yes” with astounding results ...
In 1999, the agent for Brazilian author Paulo Coelho returned from Russia with bad news. Coehlho's novel “The Alchemist” had sold fewer than 3,000 copies and the publisher had decided to discontinue publication.
A second Russian language publisher was found but the republication was held up by supply problems.
Then Coelho found a pirate edition of the Russian translation on the internet.
He posted the pirated translation on his web site, where anyone could download it without paying.
At the end of 2000, his publisher had sold 10,000 copies, a year later 100,000; by 2002, 1 million Russian language copies had been sold.
Coelho was excited by the discovery that the internet posting helped to lure readers into buying the physical book. So he decided to do the same with his other books. But what about translations to which he did not have the rights?
His solution: Gather all the links to illegal file-share sites and create the Pirate Coelho Web site.
It was a hit. By 2007, a million unique visitors a month were visiting the site.
If you go to the site
today, Coelho rather disarmingly advises that if you download a book and like it, “I would suggest you buy the book, so we can tell the industry that sharing content is not life threatening to the book business.” (I’ve cleaned up his English.)
Coelho’s worldwide print sales for all his books had reached 100 million copies in 2007. "Once we did the Pirate Coelho there was a significant boost," he says
“We do not write because we want to; we write because we must,” Somerset Maugham once said. Surely that must explain the proliferation of words by authors writing their hearts out for free on blogs and websites, including this one. (And maybe all the unpaid contributors to Wikipedia.)
Coehlo admits he’s an example of Maugham’s maxim. “If someone were to offer me the choice of getting paid $3 million to write a book for three readers or $3 to write a book for 3 million readers, I would definitely do the latter,” he wrote in the International Herald Tribune Magazine Dec. 17.
Is he right when he says most writers would do the same?
Perhaps so. But maybe it’s my family’s labor union heritage that makes me wonder if this is fair to the workers, in this case writers like myself.
Apparently other writers who once lauded the “content wants to be free” line are having second thought as well.
New York Times columnist John Tierney is one of the enthusiasts who praised the spirit of digital collaboration back in the 1990s. “[I]it did not occur to me that the Web’s ‘gift culture,’ as anthropologists called it, could turn into a mandatory potlatch for so many professions—including my own,” he recently wrote
In a new book, “You are not a Gadget,” computer scientist and musician Jaron Lanier is another enthusiast thinking twice. He once lauded the Internet’s potential to allow artists, writers and scientists around the world to share their work instantly.
In that vein, I’m admiring of “citizen journalists” like the anonymous Iranian who recently won
a Polk journalism award. He uploaded the video of a female student killed during the Iranian protests last June, sending it around the world. (The video was captured by an anonymous bystander, and sent by an Iranian doctor with an email message “please let the world know,” then uploaded by the anonymous Iranian in the Netherlands.)
I’m less worried than former Times journalist John Darnton
that this kind of bystander activity could somehow undermine the professionalism of journalism.
Without the brave young Burmese video reporters who risked their lives to film the government’s violent repression of the monk-led protests in 2007 and send their videos via internet overseas, the rest of the world would never have known what was happening. As the movie “Burma VJ”
movingly tells it, these young Burmese working with hidden cameras were motivated by a desire for political change, not professional compensation.
But Lanier argues the end result of all this instantaneous, free sharing has been a destructive new social contract for the rest of us.
“The basic idea of this contract,” he writes, is that authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind… Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”
On Amazon. com, the author of the customer review
of Lanier’s book rated “most helpful” cites himself as an ironic example: Even his unpaid commentary is probably eyed by Amazon as yet another way to sell books!
No one has yet figured out how to charge for most of this activity.
To some extent today’s writers are no different from the legendary starving artist in the garret, driven to express her personal artistic vision even if she’s never rewarded monetarily.
When faced with the dwindling number of places willing to pay me to publish my stuff, simply putting my thoughts on the web without sifting them through an editor sometimes seems like a refreshing alternative—as I’m doing right now with this column.
Anyway, technofreaks often say that charging for digital content is a hopeless cause because hackers can get at just about anything. But as Lanier notes in his book, society doesn’t condone break-ins to homes and cars just because locks can easily be broken. The “free-open-culture ideology” is often used to cover the guilt of someone downloading music without paying for it, he argues-- though I doubt there’s much guilt there.
The result is much like a mob of looters, says Tierney. “When the majority of people feel entitled to someone else’s property, who’s going to stand in their way?”
I would add that writers are often saying, “Be my guest.”