Repelling boarders: an author’s guide to literary piracy

Intellectual property theft, just by virtue of that thunderous phrase, somehow sounds worse than any other kind of theft. It suggests, accurately enough, that those lowdown scalawags are stealing nothing less than the very issue of your mind. Given the choice you’d beg them to take your TV, your grandmother’s jewels, your millions. Just please, don’t take the intellectual property.

And then you go posting it all over the internet. Look, we’re in the golden age for the potential, if not always the reality, of copyright theft. Anyone desirous of impinging on the copyright privileges of authors, artists, photographers, and others aren’t hard pressed to do so—happily enabled by the same technologies employed by the content creators themselves to build and share their work.

Bottom line: if you’re creating intellectual property in durable form anywhere on this planet, you can be pirated. If you get famous enough, you will be.

If you take those facts as a starting point, you can begin to enjoy a different perspective on piracy. Indeed, a lot of authors are. Neil Gaiman, for one, gives a fascinating talk here, where he all but declares piracy good for business. Actually he does declare it, saying that he saw 300 per cent sales increases once he started giving books away. He points out that in places like Russia, where literature piracy is rife, he was able to build up loyal audiences long before his publisher got around to selling foreign rights and arranging for translations.

Author Peter Mountford goes Gaiman one step better. He says he’d prefer to get paid for his writing but when it comes down to it, he just wants to be read. And if he’s going to be pirated anyway, he’d just as soon be pirated well. So when he learned that his novel A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism was being translated into Russian—and he was quite certain that no such translation had been authorized or paid for—he allowed himself to be drawn down a convoluted path where he spent months helping his rather inept pirate-translator figure out his word choice and nuance. It’s a fascinating story, told well in Mountford’s recent article for The Atlantic.

But with apologies to Mountford, there’s one who told a piracy story better. But then, Mark Twain was always peerless at storytelling.

In his long-delayed autobiography, he tells a multi-generational tale that starts in his boyhood, with a shy neighbor, whom he goads into climbing onto an icy roof in chase of some yeowling cats, and who ends up sliding down and, horribly embarrassingly, into the midst of the prettiest girls in town. It’s a very much Tom-Sawyer-esque story, which is probably why Mr. Clemens was still telling it so amusingly, close to 70 years later.

But he doesn’t share it in his memoirs for its own sake; it’s mere backstory. For some thirty years after the event, he received an invite from the paper Sunday Mercury to write for them anything he might fancy to write. They offered an irrefusable amount (Twain called it “over-pay” but adds “I did not say anything about that, for I was not so scrupulous as I am now”). He responds with the above-glossed story, “Jim Wolf and the Cats.”

Within a couple years, he says, that same story appeared in a southern newspaper, under the byline of a then-famous southern writer. When his own version was again published elsewhere in the following year or so, Twain was, he says, accused of stealing the southerner’s work. Twain says he never defended himself. “Few slanders can stand the wear of silence.”  He mentions elsewhere that he thought it best never to engage with slanderers unless you could get some large advantage from it.

Another quarter-century goes by, and Mr. Clemens is in London, enjoying the company of a few expatriate Yanks, some with similar literary interests. He mentions a young American who approaches he and his chums with a most tear-jerking story of a hungry wife and newborn child, and of a remittance check that’s gone astray. Some of Twain’s friends don’t believe a word of it, others including Twain are moved to tears and rush to fold money into the poor man’s hand. He’s back in a week, the timeframe he promised to return with his repayments, with more sad stories. The check still hasn’t arrived and now the baby is sick.

Twain not only presses more cash on the wretch, but takes it upon himself to help ease him of his woes. He takes him out on the town, buys him dinner and drinks and chats him up. Learning he’s a writer, he happily endorses the young man’s latest manuscript with an editor he knows.

The manuscript is accepted and payment is sent to the young man, but it arrives too late. The baby has died. All the money has been spent on doctors and medicine. Now there are burial costs. And his wife is still hungry.

Before Twain can reach for his wallet, one of his more curmudgeonly friends puts his foot down. The young man can have a few more pounds, he says, only when he can produce a baby corpse or at least a crying mamma. He takes a bit more pressure before crumbling and admitting – it had all been a sham.

Mr. Clemens is still processing the petty swindle when he learns that the young man’s recently published manuscript, the one he’d endorsed, was yet another version of “Jim Wolf and the Cats.”

It’s unclear as he writes it whether he was laughing about it. I know I was, but then I wasn’t the one being robbed.

How an author deals with such theft must be intimately personal. What works for one might not work for another. It’s easy for myself, or Neil Gaiman, or Peter Mountford to advise you to relax and accept piracy, accept you can’t do anything about it, and maybe even look within it for some advantage. But that advice might not be for everyone. I can see that.

So the only better advice I know, which sadly might not be possible for us all, still comes from the most unimpeachable of sources. Mr. Clemens advises you to wait a century then get the last word.

About editor, facilitator, decider

Doesn't know much about culture, but knows when it's going to hell in a handbasket.
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