Tuesday 6 September 2011

Piracy: The complex Malaysian Christian stand

So I was talking with this guy, Caleb, at my cousin's wedding dinner on Sunday night and we somehow got from music into books and into piracy (the copy-your-content-and-sell-it-cheap kind, not the Captain-Jack-Sparrow kind) and online file sharing.
And you know the thing about piracy is, it's not good. It's not nice and it's not Christian. To put it harshly, it's stealing. Sort of.

I mean, I write. I post stuff online. Right now, all of it is free, because most of the stuff I do is blog. Or write articles for people. But I would really like to write a publishable novel, and I might go the e-book route through Smashwords or Amazon. And if I do that, I would really like all the money for those sales to come to me. Like, if each person were to buy an e-book and the royalty comes to me, rather than say if A buys it and then passes a copy to B who passes a copy to C.
Then comes the other thought - what's so different between that happening with an actual print book and that happening with an e-book? I mean, I often borrow books off other people (which is, in fact, A buying the book then passing it on to B and passing it on to C). The difference is - there is only ONE actual print book, as compared to THREE different copies of the digital version.
And how about buying second hand books? I buy A LOT of second-hand books. The money still doesn't go back to the original writer/publisher, does it? It's all very complex. Why is the re-selling of second-hand books legal, but the re-selling (or sharing) of a digital version not? The argument goes back to the number of copies of the book available, doesn't it? There will only always be one ORIGINAL copy of the print book (let's not talk about making photocopies) whereas, there could be many, many copies of the digital version by now.

I also sing and act non-professionally. I know the amount of time and trouble it takes to get things right. Writing a song is a work of art, crafting everything together and getting the arrangements in shape is not only time-consuming, it's expensive if you're going to hire out. It's not good enough to say that oh, but the singers/actors/production houses are so rich anyway it's not going to make any difference to them. The reason they are able to get rich is because they sell A LOT of albums/shows. If you're a new artiste, fresh off the racks, in all probability you're not going to make enough to break even. If you pirate every album or movie you come across, there will be NO industry left because they won't be able to cover any of the costs! Yes, burning a copy of the album is super cheap. But the technology and the time and the effort it takes to come up with the original product is not insignificant.
A music album would need at minimum the band and the singer(s), the graphic designer (to come up with album art or at least the little logo thingy if you buy it off itunes), the composers/song writers (assuming that these songs are not written by the band/singers themselves), the guy who does the musical arrangement (may or may not be a separate person) and the sound engineer (or whatever you call the person who mixes the sound together) - I'm probably missing out a lot of other people (marketing, maybe) and don't forget that while they're doing all this stuff, they need money to keep themselves alive. Then there's the equipment - piano/keyboards, guitars, drums, whatever other instruments are being played, sound desk and all the recording devices, microphones, amps, mixing software...
True, you could probably do without a lot of these and record everything off your laptop, but the sound isn't the same, is it?
A movie? There's the director, producer, actors, cameramen, gaffers, video editors, computer graphic-y/animation people, costume designer, music director... if you've ever stayed to read the credits THAT'S A LOT OF PEOPLE INVOLVED. Let's not start on equipment.

And yet, the thing is, I don't think many Malaysians realise this. It's just a movie to watch, or an album to listen to and if you can get a perfectly good copy for RM4 where the whole family can watch together, why bother going to the cinema at RM8 - RM10 per person (imagine if you have a family of 5) or an original VCD/DVD which may be between RM30 - RM50?
I admit, I do hunt for bargain VCD/DVDs (often priced between RM12.90 to RM19.90). Nothing wrong with that - it's still the original. I don't know how the royalties/payments work that way, but I'm still buying the original product. (I suspect the distributing shop takes the hit, but these are usually obsolete/old/overrun/written off stocks anyway).
Actually, scratch the "Malaysian". I don't think most of society realises this anymore. The concept of paying for value has kind of gotten thrown out the window in recent years. There's so much free stuff around that people feel entitled to having other stuff free, and get outraged when they're asked to pay for it. What's so hard about doing all this artsy stuff anyway? is the kind of reaction you get, as if writing a book can be done in a day. Or writing a song is just a hobby. It may be a hobby for you, but it's a livelihood to others. And if they don't get paid, they can't continue giving you the content you want.

The problem for me, as a Malaysian, is that it's pretty much a way of life, a culture almost. Music and movies are often overpriced for the average person (especially if you're a student) and I admit to having copied music/e-books from friends before. And sometimes there are some great stuff that doesn't come here officially/legally and the only way you can get hold of it is through online file sharing (or the local pirates).

And there's that saying that if your stuff gets pirated and sold on Batu Feringghi, that's when you know you've made it as an artist...

So I don't know. It's wrong. It's plain confusing.
It's a stand I suppose one has to make and I'm trying to. It's difficult.


  1. Hi! Lots of food for thought. While I agree that artists have a right to make money off their art, they also have to be practical as well.

    Piracy has always been around in one way or another. Technological advances only help those who don't want to pay get their hands on more things.

    And yet, one has to ask if those pirates would have paid for those things anyway. I can see the issue for big companies, because when taken all together, the piracy of their various properties amounts to a large amount of lost revenue. Thus the crazy lawsuits by the RIAA and the MPAA against Joe and Jane Q. Public for something as little as downloading a few tracks off bittorrent.

    As an artist, I have to think of things practically, instead of idealistically. Yes, I would love it if all creative things are valued justly. But they won't be. And I can't spare the time and effort to pursue those that pirate. What's more, I have come to believe that the word FREE is one of the best ways of promotion, especially for those who don't have the might of a corporation to back them (this increasingly pertains to writers, including those with agents and book deals).

    I have to believe that the majority of those who want books, or want music, or want movies will pay for quality and will pay those artists they appreciate. Increasingly, I am seeing musicians and writers give away things and actually promote piracy to gain publicity. I think that this is the way, in the future, that promotion will go. We'll see.

    Thanks for the insightful post!

  2. Hi Reinhardt!

    I agree with you that free is one of the best ways of promotion... however I would prefer for that decision to be in the hands of the artists, rather than for someone else to make it for them.

    And yes, piracy has always been around and will probably always be an issue. I suppose it's just how it's managed and how rampant it gets.

  3. Oy, the age old question of where you got it from . . .

    I'm not in Malaysia, I'm in the USA. Piracy is a problem here, too, and to be honest, even I have something in my home that I'm sure wasn't obtained legally.

    I will say, that if I acquire something that I know isn't 'legal', if I really enjoy it, I save the money so that I can buy it legally, because I feel they deserve for me to because I got something from it.

    If I don't enjoy it, well, it just goes in the trash - I'm not going to keep something around that I wouldn't buy.

    It's a tough subject, because sadly it is very common these days, no matter what part of the world you're in.

    I understand completely about living on a very tight budget - that's how I was raised. What that used to mean, though, is that you went without something if you couldn't afford it. Not that you copied it.

  4. I like your articulation about second-hand books. Never quite saw it that way :) Again, I guess a book is of original value only during the first purchase. And that this what the author deserves and is entitled to. An after-sale value is not guaranteed and when it does get sold again - that would be a bonus. Perhaps that is how it works, so don't feel bad about buying second-hand books. I have a feeling that the authors won't fault you for that :)

  5. I am ambiguous on this question also. I know piracy is a problem. I compare it to the beadwork I do. There are many hours that go into the making of one of my projects. People aren't willing to pay the price and in order to make a living, I have to accept a lower price for the work. It doesn't help when I face competition from imported items that are sold for just a couple dollars and mine are priced 10 times or more for the same type. People often say that they could make it themselves. Hah. I've only had one person tell me that she tried and discovered that she'll happily pay the prices.

    Writing is the same-many hours that aren't considered when people complain about the purchase price. I've looked at some of the free offerings and most I wouldn't pay for. Makes it easier to see what editors, etc. do and appreciate them more. On the whole though, it's easier to sell many more stories than it is to sell more beadwork.

  6. @Rebekah: "What that used to mean, though, is that you went without something if you couldn't afford it. Not that you copied it." True. People just don't have that conviction anymore, though.

    @LayHoon: Haha I'm sure they won't fault me.

    @Niiganab: I've never tried doing beadwork... it's a level of skill I just don't have - I have clumsy fingers!
    But it's a common problem - there are so many cheap machine made stuff here that the local beadwork/embroidery scene is suffering.