Copyright for Text-Based Works is Real

Comments have closed on a Wild Hunt post about a file-sharing Wiccan group by Terence P. Ward, but as a librarian who works in academia, I have a few thoughts to offer. One of my strong professional interests is how to reconcile information-seeking behaviors and assumptions of new(ish) academic library users with the realities of how information works, so I’ve done a lot of deep reading in tangential areas that might bring something to this discussion.

Information is expensive and a commodity. Basic levels of information services are provided through taxpayer dollars (public libraries) and advertising companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter) that sell your attention to advertisers in return for providing a free service. Specialized levels of information are available to academics and corporate professionals. I have increasingly become blunt about this when I talk to people about information because people deserve to know how the environment works. It’s the first step to navigating it.

Sharing copyrighted work is illegal, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if you purchased the work outright because the digital environment is different and covered by a different set of laws. It is not the same as just passing your print books on to a friend or donating them to Goodwill or reselling them at a used bookstore.

I’m not 100% on board with all of the litigation decisions made by authors’ and publishers’ guilds/collectives, admittedly. (Google Books is, in my non-lawyer opinion, a transformative use because it lets me vet that I actually want to purchase a book before I do so. This saves me money and time that I could have wasted on purchases or book checkouts that don’t meet my information needs. It also helps me find books that aren’t properly tagged with their real topics, which leads me to purchase books I might not have otherwise.) There are a lot of litigation things going on between libraries and publishers/authors, and I’m obviously on the side of libraries.

One of the cultural reasons people assume that sharing books and texts is free (while even people illegally sharing music and video would understand that they’re doing something illegal) is a mistake made in the early days of the Internet by text content providers — they often made their things available for free.

Text-based journalism, nonfiction, and fiction are still reeling from this. There’s a widespread cultural assumption that work done in text-based formats has less monetary value and that anything written in text should be available freely online because it’s “easy” to produce. This is simply not true. However, many of the things you read today about crises in text-based journalism/writing/media (and how it’s nearly impossible to monetize) came about due to this mistake.

While a Netflix original series includes multiple creators and actors per show, a writer (or set of writers, in the case of a collaboration or anthology) must spend months or years reading and distilling source material, in addition to the months or years it may actually take to write a text. Writers are often not paid for this time up front, in the case of books — they are paid by us, the consumers, after that work comes to the market.

Every time you pay that $19.95 for a work by an established pagan or polytheistic author, you are paying part of the salary le would have made while producing that work had le been paid to do it. The horrifying thing? Authors actually get paltry royalties for the amount of work that goes into their intellectual content. If you pay for Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime Instant Video, you already believe that you should have to pay for intellectual creative work, fiction or nonfiction. Text is no different.

If you disagree with the political and social affiliations of a creator, that also doesn’t give you the right to steal ler work — le still holds the copyright, so you’ll have to find ways to meet your information needs via other authors. When this happens to me, I have to stick to scholarly material (often) written by non-polytheists who make paggro first person asides about how x things wink-wink-nudge-nudge are moral precursors to Christianity and look at these silly primitives before they became Christians. Would it be easier for me to just steal a book to avoid dealing with those asides? Yup. But it wouldn’t be morally correct.

For those of us who can afford to support some authors through purchases, we have a moral obligation to our community to do so when we use their work; for those of us who can’t, text-based information is not free. You can make purchase requests at your public library. Those really do matter, especially for self-published works — the book profiling systems libraries use are not great at finding good content in independent markets.

You can also save up. The economic stratification in our society really, truly sucks, and it’s getting worse. This is the reality of our world. It will be the reality of our world as long as copyright exists in its current form and as long as people are nickeled and dimed instead of being respected for the labor that they provide across all fields.

Don’t despair, though! There are a lot of open access initiatives in academia that can be adapted for those who want to blunt the full force of these inequalities. For authors who want to make their work accessible to those who can’t afford it, have you considered collaborating on Open Educational Resources (OER) projects? You can make freely-available textbooks describing the nuts and bolts of religious practice. Creators who already have publicly-available online resources could come together to make a federated OER portal, too. Communities can collaborate on wikis to describe central tenets of religious practice — complete with actual citations to published work — that can be helpful to all.

These are just some of the options available. I don’t think that this blog comment will fix everything, and it’s likely that there are pieces of this news item that I don’t know about due to (a) not being on Facebook and (b) coming late to the comment party, but I hope that this is helpful.

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