Walking the Plank: A Sunday Stroll through Piracy


Yossi Vardi has been an inspiration to me for many years, and thanks to him, I was able to make DLD in Munich this year. [Thanks, Yossi]. Who else but Yossi would seek to prove, definitively, that snails dragging CDs or DVDs could outstrip ADSL? It was partly through his example that I learnt about not taking myself too seriously, not getting hung up about my own propaganda. Yossi does that to people.

While I couldn’t make the Sunday sessions, I had the chance to watch them on video later. I was particularly fascinated by Paulo Coelho‘s keynote, Creating Universes: if you want to watch it, you can do so here.


Paulo speaks movingly about three aspects of the impact of the internet: language, copyright and community. On language, one of the points that stuck in my head was his description of the process by which “thee” and “thou” became “you”; he suggested this took a few hundred years, and contrasted that with the shift from “you” to “u” in this world of SMS and Twitter. Intriguing. On community, what stood out for me was his plea for connectedness, how lonely the life of an author can be, how important it was to have a community he could speak to, and how the internet, and social networks, was making it possible for him.

But the meat in the sandwich was his speech on copyright. Basically he owned up to self-piracy, to aiding and abetting the creation of a Pirate Coelho site, a site where BitTorrent links to pirate versions of his books were made easily accessible. You can get more coverage on what he said and did here and here. I was particularly taken with the quotes on the TorrentFreak site:

In 2001, I sold 10,000 hard copies. And everyone was puzzled. We came from zero, from 1000, to 10,000. And then the next year we were over 100,000. […]

I thought that this is fantastic. You give to the reader the possibility of reading your books and choosing whether to buy it or not. […]

So, I went to BitTorrent and I got all my pirate editions… And I created a site called The Pirate Coelho.

The key statement that Coelho makes is this:

You give to the reader the possibility of reading your books and choosing whether to buy it or not.

Coelho makes some other salient points. He confessed to not having the rights to some of his books, particularly the foreign-language translations. And that made me think about music and cover versions and mashups and just how messy all this has become. If a book is translated 50 years after it was written, does that mean it goes out of copyright in the original language and stays in copyright in the translated version? Does that mean no one else can translate into that other language? Just musing.

That reminds me. Do you remember a 1983 Bill Forsyth film called Local Hero? It’s one of my all-time favourite films, not least because of a wonderful Mark Knopfler soundtrack. [incidentally, I haven’t yet heard much about Knopfler’s latest, Kill to Get Crimson. Any views out there?]


In the film, one of the most memorable moments for me was when the salesman-type, played by Peter Riegert, gets all worked up arriving horribly late at this tiny fishing village, bangs uncharitably hard and loud on the door of the “hotel” he’s booked into (which happens to be the local pub); the landlord, played by Denis Lawson, finally pops his head out of an upstairs window and says “We don’t lock doors here“.

Not locking things up. Making things free. These are lessons that authors like Paulo Coelho are learning, and they’re learning something about abundance economics as well: if you make abundant things free, then you can create a larger market for the scarcer thing. People pay a premium for natural scarcity, not artificial nonsense like DVD Region Codes.

Making things free is not easy. Take a look at this 1999 BBC.com story about what Stevan Harnad was doing then, and, if you have the time, continue to follow it at this 2000 site. A cognitive scientist, I hadn’t read much of his work before, and writing this post has given me the impetus to correct that. One of the wonderful side effects of blogging.

We live in a strange world. Where else could we even begin to comprehend headlines like “Legal ways around copyright for one’s own giveaway texts”? Anyway, I’m glad that people like Harnad exist, glad they make the time to teach us about some of these issues. [An aside. Reading through some of the research for this post, I landed up travelling down an unusual road. Actual case histories of what happens when someone steals something free. The example in question was where a large consignment of free newspapers on a campus was confiscated by authorities….]

Even when it is possible and legal to give something away, it is not always that easy. Over 20 years ago, in a film called Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor plays a struggling sportsman desperate to get rid of $30m in precisely a month, in order to qualify for receiving $300m. He’s not allowed to tell anyone about his problem, and the money he gives away gets an annoying habit of coming back in enhanced technicolor.


Sounds paradoxical: the more you give away, the more you get. But to me it’s not. It’s The Because Effect, as Doc taught me all those years ago. When something moves from being scarce to being abundant, stop trying to make money with the abundant thing. Give it away. Make money because of that abundant thing, not with that abundant thing. Concentrate on what’s become scarce as a result, and make money with that.


if you’re interested in this sort of thing, then there are two recent articles worth reading. The first, by James Wisdom-of-Crowds Surowiecki. Writing in the New Yorker, he looks at The Piracy Paradox, drawing some interesting lessons from the fashion industry, looking at where imitation pays off, the creation of new markets, the affordability issue, and related subjects.


In a similar note, I dug up an unusual article in Reason magazine from about a year ago. Written by Henry Jenkins (whose recent books, Convergence Culture and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers I really enjoyed), Jenkins looked at the effect that unauthorised copying of Japanese animation had on the US market. The moral of the story is so simple it bears repeating. As Paulo Coelho said so eloquently, if you give people a chance to read something before buying it, if you make it easy for them to try your book out, then, once they figure out they like it, they will buy it. They. Will. Buy. It.

This is not just about books, it’s about all digital culture. if it is digital culture then it can be abundant. if it can be abundant then make it abundant. Concentrate on making money on the less abundant things, throw the abundant things around like confetti. If people like what they read or watch or listen to, they will be back. For the concerts, for the memorabilia, for the CDs, for the DVDs, for the bonus tracks, for everything.

incidentally, no post of this type on this subject can be complete without mentioning Creative Commons. I am delighted with what they are doing with this symbol below:


I love the words that go with the symbol:

A protocol enabling people to ASSERT that a work has no copyright or WAIVE any rights associated with a work.

How polite.

2 thoughts on “Walking the Plank: A Sunday Stroll through Piracy”

  1. Kevin Kelly has a short essay on “Better than free” at [http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php]
    in which he develops ideas about what adds value worth paying for. He has found eight such benefits, but there may be others.

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