Piracy and Paganism

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Thorn Coyle pointed me to a blog post at Scarlet Imprint, a small publishing company that creates high quality limited-run esoteric works (we’ve mentioned their recent poetry collection Datura here). In the post, the publishers decry the trend of their titles, and the titles of other small esoteric and occult publishers, ending up on file-sharing sites.

“This has been described as a ‘golden age of occult publishing’. From the internet it appears that there is a thriving international occult community and that publishers are reaping the benefits. This could not be further from the truth. Most magical publishers are very small businesses struggling to survive. Occult authors are making precious little, if any, money. This is not the motivation behind the work.

We work a seven day week at Scarlet Imprint because we believe in what we are doing. Producing books is a massively demanding occupation. We wasted another day today trying to stop illegal copies of our books when we could have been finishing Geosophia for the printers and working on our own writing. We are sick to death of this, as are Ixaxaar, Golden Hoard, Xoanon et al.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, esoteric works have been pirated and put on various torrent sites for years now. The justifications for this are many. That they can’t afford the book, so it’s OK to steal it, that it’s out-of-print and the used book market is exorbitant, that the author is dead so his beneficiaries should release the works to everyone, or that they don’t like the organization or company that controls the rights to a certain author. Some pirates/file-sharers even claim that they are doing the authors/companies a favor by downloading the book for free, that it’s a form of promotion. This was an argument used against composer Jason Robert Brown when he tried to convince various individuals to stop trading his sheet music for free.

“Let’s say Person A has never heard of ‘The Great Jason Robert Brown.’ Let’s name Person A ‘Bill.’ Let’s say I find the sheet music to ‘Stars and the Moon” online, and, since I was able to find that music, I was able to perform that song for a talent show. I slate saying, ‘Hi, I’m Eleanor and I will be performing “Stars and the Moon” from Songs for a New Worldby Jason Robert Brown.’ Bill, having never heard of this composer, doesn’t know the song or the show. He listens and decides that he really likes the song. Bill goes home that night and downloads the entire Songs for a New World album off iTunes. He also tells his friend Sally about it, and they decide to go and see the show together the next time it comes around. Now, if I hadn’t been able to get the sheet music for free, I would have probably done a different song. But, since I was able to get it, how much more money was made? This isn’t just a fluke thing. It happens.”

The problem, of course, is that not all experiences are scalable, and what Trent Reznor or Cory Doctorow finds profitable and worthwhile may not work for every artist, publisher, or company. In the end, and this should be something key to anyone active within the Pagan and esoteric communities, it’s about consent. You can’t force your preferred business model or promotional ideas on someone else, no matter how right you think you are. If it’s unethical within the circle, it is certainly unethical outside of it. It doesn’t make you a romantic rebel, it just reveals you as someone with no consideration for how your actions will affect someone else.

Further, our businesses and artists are working on a very small scale, with very limited resources. A few sales could mean the difference between putting out another book or closing shop for some small publishing houses. Even if we allow that piracy against “big” acts or corporations is ethically neutral, to do it to one of our own, no matter what the justification, is a hurtful act. To use another example, Pagan artists like Pandemonaeon, Damh the Bard, or Emerald Rose produce very small runs of their CDs, usually only around a 1000 copies. Even “bigger” acts like Faith & The Muse or various artists on Projekt Records aren’t all that much bigger in terms of the number of CDs they produce and sell. Every time we download one of their songs or albums for free instead of ordering a CD or purchasing a legal download we literally cost them money.

“Last night I was directed to a very interesting New York Times graphic showing how little money is left in the music industry.  Wow! On the FB thread, there were a few comments along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m sure this affects the major labels, but Projekt fans wouldn’t steal.” Sorry to burst the bubble, but Projekt fans steal just like everyone else. Projekt’s total $$ is 50% of what it was a decade ago, and if it wasn’t for legal download (iTunes, mainly), it would be 25% of what it was 10 years ago. When somebody steals an Unto Ashes or Soulwhirlingsomewhere or Steve Roach or Black Tape For A Blue Girl album, that means less money for Projekt, less money for the artists, and a much higher chance that someday you won’t find anymore music from this artist.”

Some may now be wondering what my personal stance on this issue is, after all, I’m a big proponent of Creative Commons and making information easily available on the Internet. I don’t place ads on my site, don’t sell anything, and hold one fundraiser per year to help fund my activities. I also admire folks like Doctorow who are taking chances with their content in order to build new models of making money as a creative person. But that brings us back to problem of consent. I’m choosing this model of doing business. So when you share my articles around, you are doing so with my blessings. Since I’m coming from a place of grass-roots journalism, I want what I’m doing to spread with as few hurdles as possible. But I would feel very differently about it if I were selling a limited edition book, or trying to sell a CD. I love it when people forward my posts around on Facebook or via e-mail, but you are doing a Pagan musician no favors if you buy one copy of a CD and then allow all the other members of your magical or religious group to make free copies of it for their own use.

But even if the moral argument, or arguments from a stance of magical ethics, doesn’t move you there’s a very simple practical reason why we should support our businesses, writers, and artists with our money, and that’s because it enables them to continue doing what they do. Without enough revenue we don’t get better books, or new albums, or thriving businesses. We don’t build the infrastructure that so many say we want and need to move forward and service our ever-swelling ranks.  We are at a time of transition when it comes to media, and how our community as a whole responds to it will decide how able we’ll be to face the challenges and needs of the future. Times are tight, and the temptation of simply taking what we want is greater than ever, but if we give in to that temptation we risk hobbling our own progress in the name of short-term benefit.