My article yesterday on content theft has sparked some keen conversation here and in my email stream.  One reader — “Robert William King” … I put his name in quotes because he refused to sign in using OpenID to leave a comment confirming his identification — sent me an email that appears to defend the behavior of the pirates stealing my content and I share his thoughts with you now…

I have no idea if “Robert William King” is a content pirate or not, but his argument appears to support the thievery side and not mine:


Unfortunately I wasn’t able to just reply directly to your blog post due to not having any login credentials, but I hope this reaches you appropriately.

I read your site every chance I can, as you always seem to have interesting and or insightful things to post. I found that I agreed with what you said almost all of the time, with the exception of your most recent post on Urban Semiotic: How to Fight Content Theft.

I don’t think anyone will deny that posting content normally distributed through retail channels has absolutely no effect on the retail sales/profit of that market; exactly how much though is a constant matter of debate.

Given that the internet has really empowered people to do so many things and possibly change the way content and services are rendered, does it not seem like perhaps the future of monetary gain through these markets is to allow people to contribute whatever amount they feel is of appropriate value?

I can appreciate the notion of feeling harmed that someone has stolen your work, and potentially cut into the overall margins. There is no arguing what is felt by seeing this happen to something you have created. There isn’t really any justification for it either, but what I’m suggesting is that an examination of what might be the future are major projects by both Trent Reznor and Radiohead. Both very highly “successful” artists that released their content on-line at literally no retail price, but instead requested that the burden of monetary value be placed upon the consumers themselves. I last heard that this type of product/service marketing in these two instances have worked out to be very profitable for both.

While many distribution channels are still not as nearly cutting edge or experimental as this, this might be something to consider. It could end up being “the new way”.

I understand people want free content or, if they cannot have it, they want to decide what they think they should pay.  In my experience, people rarely understand the real cost of producing content and, if they can, they choose not to donate if they can get away with it.

Janna and I created as a donation-sponsored site that is heavily used — and after a year of constant use by the public and zero donations from the madding crowd — we decided to remove the “Donate” button and let the consumers consume for free at our donated expense.

Janna and I also made our first book Hand Jive — free for download on the internet after the rights reverted to us as the authors.  That book is heavily downloaded but no one ever clicked on our Donate link to pay us or to make a contribution — and so we removed the button and, again, let the willing masses pull down our content without cost while we foot the bandwidth and hosting bill. 

Human nature compels most people to get something for free if they can get away with it and having to pay even a small token as a memento of appreciation can create a terrible backlash.

When I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, we were often plied with free Broadway tickets.  Tickets that cost the paying public $150.00USD were free to us and you never saw a more critical and unappreciative morass of Ivy League educated morons who hated each and every show.

One of our professors, a theatre book publisher, always hated the idea of giving us free tickets.  He said we should be forced to pay just a few dollars because, he rightly argued, if you have zero monetary investment in the event — you have no reason to even begin to be engaged by the performance.  Without your money at stake there is no covenant created between performer and audience and “the cruel critic” becomes the norm instead of the eager and involved investor.

At the time we all rebelled against the idea of paying one penny for a Broadway theatre ticket because we believed we were entitled to free performances, but now, in retrospect, I can see how the argument you must be invested monetarily in a for-pay experience is required in order to find success as a seller and a purchaser.  Without the exchange of something of agreed-upon value in pricing there is no revelation of learning or catharsis — there can only be complaining and ungratefulness.  

When the piracy supporters try to argue that “content wants to be free” they are taking the super-critical point that ideas and information should not have a commercial value.  That’s fine for them, but they should not piteously plant their wants on our needs.

If a publisher decides to sell a book for $40 why does a pirate believe they can take that property and give it away for free in a republication scheme?

Pirates rely on stealing other people’s content while never creating anything of value in the marketplace except in self-righteously discounting the established works of others.

If an artist decides to rely on the donations of fans — that’s fine — but when a publisher pays an author and fills a distribution channel with hardcopy product — there is no legal or moral excuse for the pirate to take unauthorized control of that container and transform it into another container based on their whims and wishes.

There’s no reason arguing this point with thieves because the content pirate relies on a fantastical view of the world to excuse their lawlessness — for them to begin to care about the long-term reverberation of their behavior destroys their very argument that stealing is good:  One day there will be nothing left to steal.

If we continue to let pirates set the price point and distribution terms of published works, no new works will be created because authors can’t afford to write for free and even if an artist decides to go the “donation only” route, you’ll still have content pirates waiting in the waters to steal that “donated” content to make it totally free just because they believe they are entitled to destroy the free market system of consent and exchange that gave them a modicum of power in their self-contorted vacuum of excuses pretending to be ethics and ideals.


  1. That’s a pretty despicable thing that was done and your anonymous commenter leaves a pretty weak defense. True, Radiohead did make a lot of money by offering their recording for free but they made a name for themselves first and sold a lot of albums the “traditional” way

  2. Hi Gordon!
    Yes, I was very surprised by that email — especially in the writer’s refusal to properly login and comment so the argument could be held in the light of day — but I can see why supporting the pirate’s POV would not go over well against the method of manners expressed.
    It is all about reputation and banding — but the decision on selling or donating or giving must always belong to the artist and not the pirates.

  3. Here is “Robert William King’s” email to me as of this morning:

    I’m a little disappointed that you chose to label me as a “pirate”, rather than to objectively consider what could be the future of publishing. I was merely interested in creating a discourse, but instead you chose to lock me into the idea that I support ripping people off, which I do not.
    I don’t understand why I had to become the sole target and even your example of someone who believes in something that could be a different form of market exchange.

    If he truly wants a discourse, I have no idea why he refuses to login to comment directly on the article and confirm his identity.

  4. Unfortunately now it looks like I am being held up against the “please show your papers” tactic used by oppressive nations around the globe against those who voice their opinion.
    I didn’t really expect that it would turn out this way; specifically, the way being the assumption that anyone who disagrees or submits a reply is automatically discredited because they refuse to disclose their identification to the world.
    All I wanted was to spark some objectivity and hope that maybe, just maybe, something like the content theft in the previous post could be turned into a potential business opportunity mostly for the benefit of another potential voice for alternative distribution. Heck, even if it had turned out that the method was tried and failed, at least there would have been another voice in the debate to say “yes, I tried it but it didn’t work for (xxxxxx) reason”. Having more informed public is always a good thing in any debate.
    Now I am in the lynch for creating this kind of conversation, like some martyr. What a strange world.

  5. We will assume you are “Robert William King” — Yahoo doesn’t do OpenID particularly well — and we thank you for logging in here to have your say!
    I apologize if you felt I was making you the dunning example of a pirate. That was not my intention and I felt I was careful not to broadly paint you as one of the thieves — even though you were making interesting points I’ve hard them make…
    I found your letter interesting and confusing — especially since you said you were a long time reader of this blog — because it seemed as if you were suggesting that piracy was a new form of commerce that should be explored… as is “pirating” your own stuff for free distribution to foil the pirates at their own game by gaming them…
    There’s no lynch mob here — comments and emails are always rich areas for exploration and discussion here and across the 11 blog Boles Blogs network — and it is a delight to be able to have a conversation with you here in the bright light of day instead of in backend email only because you were passionate about your argument and I wanted to dig in to the guts of it and using your note as a leaping off point today for a wider discussion is appreciated and I thank you.

  6. The point I was trying to make isn’t that piracy is a form of commerce, but it should provide clues on how to develop a form of commerce that deters piracy. Some things to consider:
    * Copy machines have been out for a very long time, and one would be hard pressed to argue that copiers are somehow the downfall of the book publishing industry. If anything, it’s allowed for massive improvements in the book/content distribution industry, and have enabled many people to create newsletters, fliers, and the like that they probably would have never had the capability to otherwise.
    * MP3 Players were initially thought to be the end of the music industry forever. It only took about 10 years for iTunes and Amazon to become established, and now they sell mp3s through a direct distribution model.
    * VHS, DVDs, Betamax. They were all thought to have been the downfall of movie ticket sales. Through some difficulty, they were finally embraced by studios and now they are a huge market.
    I argue that the internet is no different, and that business models have to change to survive, and to even become profitable.
    Yes, piracy is bad, but you can’t clutch to the purse strings of traditional business models forever. Technology has forced them to expire in their current incarnation, and history should be a teacher of that.
    And it isn’t so much that I “feel” you were calling me a pirate although that much is true; on your front page you practically labeled me as one, and that’s what I object to.
    I feel some amount of sympathy for what happened, but misdirecting your rage to me resulted in now me feeling insulted enough to come reply. This is not the way it should have went down.
    Maybe in the future when I hope to reply to someone’s post through email I’ll be sure to pick a real “anonymous” email address, perhaps “”, to maintain the troll stereotype so that it can continually be reinforced by misplaced aggression.

  7. I know you don’t like being associated with the piracy people, but so much of what you argue is of the “content is meant to be free” mindset.
    Copy machines certainly have hurt the book publishing industry — especially textbooks. That’s why textbooks prices are so high. Publishers have to “bake in” the expected sales losses because of students who buy one book and share it by copying it. I’ve seen entire departments at major universities copy a single book and provide it as a “handout” to students in class. It’s still piracy and it’s still Copyright infringement and the publishers foot the bill for the stealing.
    It is much harder to copy a hardcopy book on a copy machine than scanning a book and sending out hundreds of .PDF copies for free on the internet. Just because the technology makes the stealing easier doesn’t mean we should give in and give away all our content for free.
    Amazon and iTunes do not give away their MP3s. People pay for the right to buy and — again — piracy complications raised the price of the most popular music. iTunes went from 99 cents a song to $1.29 cents a song for the most popular music when Copyright protection was removed in order to subsidize lost sales through piracy and file sharing.
    Blu-Ray DVDs are heavily protected from copying and the neat thing about their protection scheme is that it can be changed as modified as the locks are cracked. Movies, TV and other entertainment venues value their original material and they are not interested in giving it away for free.
    Watch “The Office” on and you have to sit through several 90 second commercials. Order “The Office” from On Demand at home and you’ll pay 99 cents for the experience. Television and cable networks hate Tivo and when “DRV” becomes “Streaming Network DVR” you will not be able to fast forward past the commercials. So, yes, technology changes the meme and the exchange — but the power of commerce is what defines the context of the monetary benefit and “free” doesn’t pay for bandwidth.
    I understand your want to change the exchange rate between content and pricing, but there always needs to be some way to prevent the outright copying of original, protected, material or else the Copyright is meaningless and authorship is left null.
    Why protect a right if the right cannot be policed and punished upon infringement? Why be in business if the expectation is you are not allowed to make any money off the enterprise when people feel they should set the price of the purchase instead of the original publisher?

  8. Oh, and P.S. —
    For the past decade I have provided free content — original writing — on the Internet. No ads. No subscriptions. No nothing. Nobody ever offered a donation or provided the means to easing publication costs. I do this in the spirit of sharing thoughts and bringing together the community of understanding even those the “monetizers” around me mocked me for “writing for free.” Few people believed I wasn’t making money. They couldn’t believe there wasn’t some end game they were missing that was making me rich.
    Getting paid real money for writing books and textbooks pays for my life and lets me provide other free, original, content. I can’t give away 100% of what I do or there would be no me.
    There are others, though — that copy my work, and the work of my writers — and pirate it for use on their own sites where they do earn advertising dollars.
    Content scraping is difficult to fight — so even if you try to provide free content — there’s always someone out there ready and willing to steal what you create to turn a profit off the blood on your back the sweat from your fingers.
    Even though I give away my work free, does that mean I should lose control of my Copyright and my ability to stop people from re-distributing my work without my authorization for free or for their monetary gain? Copyright is about ownership and the preservation of an original idea.

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