The Tale of the Farmer and the Pirate torrent

Category: Writing

I am a pirate. No, I don’t mean the Jack Sparrow wooden leg ho-ho-me-hearties variety; I mean the kind that consumes copyright material illegally. Now, don’t get me wrong - I don’t do this on a professional scale; I don’t have caches of megadrives crammed full of Hollywood blockbusters that I’ve ripped from torrent sites. No, I’m just a guy who watches pop videos, the occasional kids movie, as much music as I can take in on YouTube, and consumes daily ‘free’ articles and stories anywhere I can find them. I didn’t realise til quite recently that I was engaged in theft. Copyright theft.

The chances are that you’re a thieving pirate too. Recent studies show that around 76% of the population of the UK use YouTube daily. And according to Robert Levine, in his book Free Ride, even YouTube employees admit that over 70% of the content on the site is illegally uploaded. Put this all together and that is a hell of a lot of piracy. Actually, it’s piracy as the principle cultural activity, and that's just videos. ‘But hold on, old man!’ you protest, ‘Don’t be so old fashioned. YouTube is better than TV, it's cool, it's quick, everyone does it, it’s just the way things are now, and most of all it's free! And its not just YouTube,' you might say, 'Newspapers are free now too – look at the Guardian online, and photographs – there’s Flickr. Everything is becoming free. Isn’t that brilliant?'

Yes, it might seem that way, if you are a consumer, that is. But if you are a creator of content, say a musician, or a filmmaker, a journalist, or a photographer or a writer, the reduction of the product of your labour to material that is now available without any payment to you is bad news. In short it means that you, very soon, will not be able to make a living as a musician, or a filmmaker, a journalist or a photographer or a writer. This is particularly important for any young folk out there who might have any ambitions in these fields.
‘But of course’, you might protest, ‘this is the future, you can’t turn the clock back, and anyway it’s never been proven that piracy has any impact on sales.’ Well, I’m afraid it has. In 1998 the value of the music business was $14.6 billion, in 2008 it fell to $6.8 billion.

There were two reasons: one was iTunes – people had stopped buying albums and just bought singles instead; the other was piracy - people just stopped spending any money on music at all. Again, this is all great if you are a consumer, but if you are a musician, it isn't going to put a roof over your head. If you are, say Jack White of The White Stripes then you’d be concerned, even a little angry. As White says in Free Ride ‘What I’m worried about is that ten years from now there will be no videos and you won’t be able to record in a studio if you want because you can’t afford it….People keep saying ‘Shouldn’t music be free?’...I really just don’t understand that mentality – it’s an insult to an artist.’

Basically, if music is free and no-one is spending a cent, then who pays for the record to be made, distributed and promoted? Who pays for the year it took to write it? You can upload or download a song in a minute, but a lot of work has gone into that song.

It’s the same with newspapers. If you get all your news online for free then who pays for the journalists? Who pays for months and months of research in warzones and groundbreaking global news stories? The Guardian, for example, loses £100,000 a day, by giving its stories away for free. In the US, 13,500 newsroom jobs were lost in the last four years.

And as for books, we’ll we’ve barely started on that yet. The publishing industry really only went truly digital in the last year. Since then ebook prices have started heading at great speed towards 99p which makes everyone wonder – why stop there, why not just give them away? Book piracy is so easy that I managed to illegally download a book in thirty seconds last week, by accident! Publishers are refocusing on the children's book market and their backlists for baby boomers - because parents don't pirate and neither do geriatrics. That's the future of the book business, because, basically publishers don't trust those of you out there who aren't children, parents or grannies because in industry after industry it has been proven, that you are a bunch of thieving pirates who want everything for nothing.

‘OK,’ you say, ‘well I didn’t realise that by clicking on free content I was destroying these industries.’ Well, you do now. Nothing is really free. The cost will be paid in the future, when you start to look for work as a journalist, a filmmaker, a musician or a writer. To get mixed-metaphoric, it’s a bit like a field – if you pull all the crops out of it and don't pay the farmer and you don’t plant any seeds for the next year then the farmer goes bust and there won’t be a crop next year.

So you might like to ask yourself - which side are you on – Are you a farmer or a pirate? Do you want to be a maker of culture or a consumer? If the former then you might want to hesitate next time you or your mates are about to click on YouTube or type pdf or torrent after a book title in a search window.

Ewan Morrison

Ewan Morrison is the author of the novels Close Your Eyes,  Menage, Distance and Swung (all Jonathan Cape/Vintage) the short story collection The Last Book you Read, and the mixed format book Tales from the Mall. As a cultural commentator he writes regularly for the Guardian.

Ewan was the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Writers Award 2005 and 2008, was a nominee for the ARENA magazine O2 Entrepreneur Award 2006, and was awarded a VARUNA writers residency in Australia as part of UNESCO's City of Literature 2006, where he appeared at the Sydney Writers Festival and on ABC Radio.

In 2008 Ewan was shortlisted for the Le Prince Maurice Award for best English language love story. The award was held in Mauritius, and co-shortlisted authors were Salley Vickers and James Meek