Mar. 4, 2011

Neil Gaiman: Web piracy is good publicity

I have always wondered why people become so agitated about pirated music or movies but have no problem with lending books. Why is it “stealing” to listen to a song or watch a movie without paying but perfectly okay to borrow my books and read them without paying? We even use tax dollars — my tax dollars! — to support this scandalous book-lending via public libraries.

I understand the technical argument. Borrowing a book does not involve making an unlicensed copy of that book, the thing that copyright specifically forbids. But in the case of books, that is a distinction without a difference. One does not need to own a copy of a book to enjoy the full benefit of it; one only has to borrow it. That is because books most often are read only once then never again, at least not for several years. So possessing the book for a few days or weeks is as good as owning your own copy, unlike a song, which you will likely want to listen to over and over if you like it. Of course, this excludes the value of books as display objects — “books as furniture.” But then, the current frenzy about internet piracy is about illicit digital copies only, and you can’t very well display an MP3 file either.

I am not advocating for piracy and certainly not for closing the public libraries, only for keeping things in perspective. There has never been — and should never be — an ironclad rule of copyright that demands a payment for every single use of an artwork. It violates society’s interest in the free flow of ideas, yes, but, as Neil Gaiman points out, it is also not in the artist’s interest to have his every creation locked up out of sight behind a pay wall.


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