Monday, July 18, 2005

book piracy

As I had my morning shave at my barber's, I read an article in the PDI about book piracy - particularly, the practice of copying text books for academic courses like medicine and engineering, as well as other fields of study.

Photocopying books has been standard practice for as long as the technology has been available. The actual books are expensive and out of the financial reach of majority of students, or are simply unavailable. The solution has been to borrow someone else's copy of the text (or to check it out of the library) and then hie on over to the xerox machine where select passages (or often, the entire book) is copied. The article strongly recommends ending this practice, educating everyone on the concept of intellectual property as well as copyright laws, etc, etc.

In my mind, it is all too easy to offer solutions that, on paper or in theory, seem sound as well as right. In practice, however, it is not as easy to implement. The reason that so many students copy books is because they simply cannot afford to purchase the entire booklist their course of study requires - tuition fees and related expenses are already skyhigh. They do not get these xerox copies or pirated books (some people sell copies of entire books at roughly 1/3 the price of the originals) for pleasure or entertainment. These are books for used for study, unlike like the P70 DVDs of Pirate Billy and crew. Perhaps government can come up with a program to subsidize a large part of the cost of these original text books so that the ultimate retail price to the students is reasonable. However, a single reasonably costed book when multipled by 5 or 10 or 20 or whatever the number of required books is causes the total amount to be unreasonable. Do we just shrug our shoulders and tell the student and her family "E, pinili mo kasi yung mahal na kurso - problema niyo 'yan"? Should universities, as the anti-piracy folk would have them do, require students to buy and read only original books - and ban students who have photocopies from attending class? Is that the proper thing to suggest? Is the motherhood statement of all the anti-pirate folk strong enough to overthrow the everyday reality faced by the students who need books but cannot afford them in original editions? The Filipino student finds ways to get by: she will scrimp on transportation, food, supplies and yes, books, to stretch the continually weakening peso. Should we penalize her and her family because they cannot afford any more?

From the perspective of the anti-piracy folk (who are possibly also the Intellectual Property People), things are getting just a little bit better but not because of any true affirmative action on the part of the Filipinos. As of 2003, the Philippines had the honor of being the Asian book piracy champ. We lost the title in the following years when Pakistan and China took the competition by storm. We lost by the volume of pirated material produced by these countries, and not because we lessened ours.

I am very conflicted on the entire piracy issue. As a creative who produces and publishes original content (stories, comics, books with one hat; websites, campaigns, design work, copy with another) I appreciate the need to protect what I've made. But what I cannot accept is an all-enveloping motherhood statement that does not take into consideration the social realities that face the Filipino on a daily basis.

We cannot act and make recommendations with the presumption that every Filipino could possibly afford everything in the original, and that every purchase decision should, without question, lean towards the original thing. In the case of film, for example, I actually like the fact that the language of film is being slowly spread among many people who would not actually be able to afford the expensive originals of obscure art films (I've had surreal conversations with some pirates and fellow customers). Instead of erecting and maintaining cost barriers and policing markets, I think producers should think of new business models and adapt to the fact that for many people without the power of cash, there is almost no other option- except to do without. One of the big Hollywood producers went to China and priced their DVDs at the equivalent of US$1-2 - originals.

This is a complex issue and is certainly not a matter of asking me, eyebrows raised in disdain, "How can you support intellectual theft, Dean?". I would not engage in a discussion with anyone who makes such a simplistic assumption. Our failure to look at the bigger scheme of things is exposed when we only consider the "poor creative", the "poor author", the "poor producers". Yes, we need to take them into consideration (and certainly because they are the powerful people behind the intellectual property lobbying), but we also need to think in larger terms. It is the music industry, awakened by the very real threat of online P2P downloads, that acted with an eye towards what the true social situation is. Yes, they tried to shut down and sue everyone, but in the end, they are partnering with the same people who made the peer-to-peer networks with the intent of shifting their business models to accomodate the new facts of life.

There is no question that piracy hurts people, that's a given. But we should also open ourselves to answering difficult questions before we jump on the bandwagon of what seems to be an ethical no-brainer. Should the experience of art be democratized? Should profit of the publishers/producers (therefore, business) be prioritized over the need of people for information? Should knowledge be made freely available at the lowest cost to students? How can we lower the cost barriers of original materials?

The truth is that we are not only protecting the authors and creatives but also big business (text book publishers, music outfits, film studios).

My personal truth though is this (tongue firmly in cheek): whatever happens, I will still get the pirated porn.

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