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Friday, June 17, 2011

When It Pays to Ignore Copyright Theft

I saw an interesting article in last weekend's Guardian newspaper (UK) by Nick Duerden. It was about the latest best-selling book for parents of young children, which isn't even available in the shops yet.

The book in question is by Adam Mansbach, and it's called Go the F*** to Sleep. And yes, I've redacted the title to avoid causing unnecessary offence here or getting the email version of this post blocked by spam filters!

Not surprisingly, the book has generated quite a bit of controversy, but - as the Guardian article explains - it has also become a pre-publication best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, mainly through word of mouth.

Apparently, it all started when the author, driven to distraction by his baby daughter's reluctance to sleep, wrote a few poems and posted them on internet forums. The poems took the form of traditional nursery rhymes, but - as the title indicates - with a very adult twist in the language used. The poems attracted a lot of interest, and Mansbach posted a Facebook update saying people should be on the lookout for his forthcoming children's book. As the Guardian article explains...

"It was a joke, of course, because I certainly had no intention of actually writing it," he [Mansbach] says. But those poems he put up online began to circulate, prompting some ecstatic reader feedback. "Suddenly everybody was demanding to know when the book was coming out," he recalls, shaking his head in disbelief. "That took me by surprise, to say the least."

Mansbach began to think there might be some commercial potential in his idea, so he asked an artist friend to produce some illustrations, and contacted an independent publishing company in New York, Akashic, who cautiously agreed to publish the book. Meanwhile, the poems were going viral. To quote the Guardian article again:

"It was bizarre," says Mansbach. "They were generating so much online traffic, everyone forwarding the poems on to everyone else. Then, a couple of months ago, I gave a 10-minute reading of them in Philadelphia. The morning after, the book, which wasn't even out yet, went racing up Amazon's chart."

Indeed so. When I checked just now, Go the F*** to Sleep was actually number one in the best-seller list and number five at - despite the fact that it isn't even published until next week!

Obviously, there are various conclusions we could draw from this story. But one thing that particularly struck me is that Go the F*** to Sleep would probably never have generated this level of interest if the author had tried to protect his poems' copyright and stop them being posted on other websites. Imagine he had called in the lawyers and slapped a "Cease and Desist" order on the first person to do so. The book would most likely never have seen the light of day.

Of course, I'm not saying that as authors we shouldn't fight to protect our copyright when the situation demands it. However, I do think this example demonstrates that, in this digital age, taking a more relaxed attitude to copyright infringement can sometimes pay big dividends. If your work - or extracts from it - goes viral on the internet, the chances are you will have publishers queuing up to publish it in print form.

In this case, of course, the book is much more than the sum of its parts. Even if someone had downloaded all the poems, it doesn't mean they wouldn't want to buy the book itself. This is partly because the book is illustrated, but also because many people will buy it as a (possibly ironic) gift for parents of young children.

Even so, this approach can still work with other types of book, even practical books, where you might think giving away the contents would hurt sales. UK-based How-To Books, for example, allow visitors to download the entire content of many of their books from their website for free. Presumably, this has not harmed their overall sales and revenues.

So I do think there is something to be said for allowing or even encouraging people to infringe your copyright in some circumstances, especially if you are an unknown or little-known author trying to break into the big time.

I'd love to hear your views. Do we all need to lighten up about copyright infringement, or is this something we should always contest vigorously? Please leave any comments below!

Photo Credit: Wanted: Charlie Brown by Kevin Dooley on Flickr.

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Blogger Sarah Pearson said...

The best advice I ever received which I think works well here is 'know when to pick your battles'!

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Leah Carson said...

This reminds me of the Grateful Dead phenomenon. While other rock bands prohibited fans from recording their live shows, the Dead encouraged it. This sparked a cult phenomenon, and the Dead flourished while many tight-controlling bands died. It didn't hurt that the Dead constantly improvised their shows, so the taped versions were by no means a spoiler; fans were still eager to buy tickets to see the band live and find out what they'd do next time.

I'd be pleased if *some* sections of my Spoofbooks "Arts & Crap" and "For Pets' Sake" went viral. However, I'd feel differently if the entire books starting circulating for free around the Internet.


3:22 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, both. Other things being equal, I guess the most beneficial time for this to happen is before you have a published book out there. But even after that, as Leah says, a certain amount of unofficial 'sharing' can be beneficial if it helps raise awareness.

And yes, there are a few bands that have gone down this route, giving away their albums free online. This can work because their main income stream is live shows, and the free albums serve as appetizers for them. Not sure this model would work for most authors, though!

3:42 PM  
Blogger Alex G said...

I'll be picky and comment on your title first - you can't thieve copyright, only breach it!

More seriously, I'm very uncomfortable as a matter of principle with the whole idea of 'encouraging people to infringe your copyright' - this is effectively encouraging people to try to profit from work you create.

I sort of see your argument, but this is an exceptional case - it is dreamworld, something that won't happen to the rest of us (and that's realism not defeatism). It's not everyday reality that can be applied to the jobbing writer. If we all employed this tactic (I know you're not suggesting that), copyright would quickly be so undermined and the sharks would just seek to exploit the sudden weakness in the system.

They are my immediate feelings, but I suspect they'll change as I stew. Brilliant and challenging post, by the way - we do need to ask these questions.

Alex Gazzola

12:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nick, great post (as usual) I just have a quick question. If someone had read the first couple of poems, copied them, then continued to write a few more, in that style to eventually arrive at a book and then published it, where would the original author have stood legally?. I realise, in hindsight, that was not a 'quick question' but I know, the font of knowledge you are, will certainly be able to point me in the general direction. Many thanks, look forward to hearing from you and reading your next post. Tradd Farr (Facebook)

2:42 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Hi Nick

So how do you feel about your blog post, "My Greek Holiday", September 22, 2006, being copied on without naming the source and probably without your permission?

I discovered by chance that some of my travel ramblings had been copied (...68.html where yours is ...5.html). Frankly it pissed me off. Seeing that there were many other "travel experiences" I suspect that I'm not the only one offended. I did a small text search and came to your site, where, behold!, I find a blog post about copyright theft!


Eric from Denmark

8:08 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for all your comments, guys. I admit I was being deliberately provocative in this post, and I'm glad that it has generated some interesting discussion. Thanks to all of you for your kind comments about the post, btw.

Alex, I understand your concerns about this. But as a writing tutor yourself, you must have come across new writers who are almost paranoid about people "stealing" their work. I see it a lot on my forum at as well. It does still seem to me that in the case mentioned (which is unusual, I know) taking a more relaxed approach paid off big time for the writer concerned.

Tradd, the original author always has copyright under international conventions. The fact that someone else copied the poems and passed them off as his own wouldn't change that. So long as the original author could prove that he was first, he would get the backing of any court.

If someone wrote similar poems and also published them in a book, I don't think there would be any breach of copyright. It could happen - look at the number of books that 'borrow' ideas from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, for example. Personally, I think a title such as this would only work once - after that, the novelty factor has gone - but who knows really?

Eric, thanks for drawing my attention to the blog article of mine which has been plagiarized. This happens quite regularly online, I'm afraid, and you don't want to know about the entire books and courses currently being shared via BitTorrent and similar.

I used to get quite irate about this myself, but nowadays I tend to regard it as an inevitable aspect of publishing your work electronically. As Sarah said at the start of the comments here, you have to pick your battles. I'm not going to worry too much about someone copying an old, off-topic blog post - but when the text of one of my entire courses is put online (and yes, it's happened) my publishers and I do take action.

Personally, if people are going to rip off old blog posts, I'd prefer it if they credited me and included a link back to the site - I'd really have no objection to that. But if this doesn't happen, these days I don't lose any sleep over it. Just my personal point of view, of course!

9:37 AM  
Blogger Alex G said...

Absolutely: new (and, sometimes, more established) writers can be paranoid about 'theft' as you say - but I do think this comes from ignorance about how the business works. I think most people can be reassured when the basics are explained.

I'm not convinced in the case described he deliberately adopted a 'relaxed approach'. He just didn't consider he had anything of value. Did he even think 'copyright'? He's didn't consider himself a writer. He was just putting something out there - like millions do on all sorts of networking sites. Like I'm doing now on this comment. We're all quite relaxed in our attitude when there's nothing much to lose or gain.

Having slept on it - I'm still of the view that we can't be seen to be selective of how relaxed we are over copyright. It'll send out mixed messages - and the lack of understanding is already out there.

Maybe I'll change my mind later. Hope this one runs for a bit. Will go tweet it and try bring a few other people in.


12:28 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Nick, of course you should to pick your battles, but if you or your readers still feel like throwing a lazy punch, you can report a copyright infringement to Google (if it is your copyright). If convinced they'll remove the page or image from their search results.

I don't know if it will influence the culprit's PageRank, but there is always hope.


12:59 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, guys.

Interesting thought, Eric, but I'm not sure how keen Google would be to investigate an alleged minor copyyright breach - I just don't see how they would have the inclination or resources to act as the world's policemen in this regard.

If it was a particularly egregious case with major international ramifications then maybe they might take anm interest, but probably not (IMO) in the case of a copied blog post. But good luck, certainly, if you decide to pursue this approach yourself.

Alex, I understand your position on this. In theory I agree with you, but in practice I'm not so sure. In the digital age, copyright breaches are commonplace - sometimes they may cause financial loss, sometimes (as in the case discussed) gain, and much of the time they probably have no significant effect.

Personally, I've become a bit more relaxed about these matters, in the belief that by and large the credits and debits probably balance out. Where I can see that a particular breach could have a damaging effect on me commercially, I do of course take action, but as I said before, I pick my battles. If I was to try to fight every case when my work has been plagiarized online, I wouldn't have much time left for anything else!

11:21 AM  
Anonymous SEO writer said...

You are right! This book only got popular because he didn't care about copyright at all to begin with but it is still a weird happening. I wouldn't get this book because it is so inappropriate and not cool at all but the way it just took off is very interesting and gives food for thought.

8:49 PM  

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