The Cost of Free: How File-Sharing Hurts Us
This morning on the Today Show, I watched a story about identity theft through file-sharing sites such as Limewire. While users (an alarming number of them children) use such sites to steal copyrighted material, such as music, movies, and more and more frequently, novels, identity thieves are reaching into their computers (as often as not their parents' computers) and downloading personal information. Then, before you can say Chapter 11, the victims' tax returns, college financial aid applications, and banking information are out there in cyberspace, where anyone can steal them... and wreak absolute havoc in your life. Apparently, this problem is nothing new and extends to plenty of other file-sharing sites as well.
I heard a couple of stunned parents find out their tax return had been fraudulently filed before they had the chance to do it, with their $2000 refund wired into some thief's bank account. They seemed stunned because they had no clue that their daughters' file-sharing habits were hurting anybody. Until thieve reached out and hurt the family, taking "everything we've worked for."
Though I feel compassion for the victims of ID theft, this is sort of the way I feel when I see my work coming up as available for "free download" on Internet searches. I even see sites (many of them off-shore, with no contact info offered) claiming to have material that hasn't yet been properly edited or published. I work for nine months to a year on each book, with little guarantee of numeration, only to see it stolen, and its sharing passed off as innocuous "fun" and a "great way to save money." As if downloaders have a god-given right to take whatever can be stolen.
Not long ago, author Stephanie Meyer of the popular Twilight series had the partial rough draft of her work in progress, Midnight Sun, stolen and widely, illegally disseminated over the 'Net. Meyer was mortified, angry, hurt -- as any author would be. In fact, she was so upset, she abandoned the project for a time, unable to handle the pain of having the material out in the world before it was ready. By following the link to her response, you can get an glimpse of the quality of pain this illegal distribution caused her.
The trouble is, many people think of all artists, whether they be authors, musicians, or those in the movie industry as something other than "real people." They believe (with a painful degree of wrongness) that we're all so rich this won't affect us. They also think of the publishers, distributors, and other purveyors of art as faceless corporations, too large to be seriously damaged by the loss of "a few" sales. But the fact is, when theft puts publishers or record labels out of business, they can't go out and find new artists, or pay them for their labors. And less-established, rising stars (the struggling majority) will never get their chance. Nor will the public have the chance to experience their talent, since they'll be forced to go work in fast food jobs.
But if simple decency and fairness aren't enough to stop people from downloading or teach their kids that they won't tolerate it, perhaps the specter of identity theft will do it. Because there's no honor among pirates, nor on the file-sharing websites where they so often weigh anchor.