Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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Ursula Le Guin’s Faux Pas

May 13, 2009
New York, N.Y.

According to yesterday's New York Times (5/12/09, B1), science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin recently found one of her books posted on the internet:

“I thought, who do these people think they are?” Ms. Le Guin said. “Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?”

It's a rookie mistake. Seasoned victims of piracy know that nothing inflames the hornets more than denying their right to freely download and share all forms of media.

But certainly Ms. Le Guin's initial reaction is understandable. The first time you see your book posted on the web, it's equivalent to the sensation of being shat upon. As the years pass by, however, and it happens more and more, you realize there's not a damn thing you can do about it, and the initial insult modulates to the somewhat less offensive feeling of merely being sprayed with spittle.

The best thing to do is to just keep your mouth shut. Try instead to cherish those ever-dwindling readers whose curious morals persuade them to buy books rather than download them, and who thereby thank the author with kindly hug.


I think what inflames even more is the idea that not only has someone stolen your itellectual property rights but that they are using your content to make money. This probably happens much more with non-fiction writers these days. The job boards are filled with ads wanting people to quickly re-write articles that will pass copy scape. A whole industry seems to have developed around writers who don't have any imagination in their body, but are good with a thesaurus.

Ron Andrew ODaniels, Wed, 13 May 2009 09:49:41 -0400 (EDT)

From a different perspective - what I hate is when piracy, or more specifically the fear of it, harms the paying consumer. For example - if I buy a book from, the ridiculous DRM tethers me to certain location or device. Paying customers are reduced to buying DRM'd media, then downloading from and supporting pirate sites and software in order to remove the DRM so that they can actually consume the media they purchased!

I love what NIN and others have done. I feel proud to give the *artist* (or author) my money directly, rather than some over-hyped record company execs.

Lance Robinson, Wed, 13 May 2009 09:59:23 -0400 (EDT)

Property rights are important. Consider the assault by the Obama administration on property rights of the senior dept holders of Chrysler. Yes I'm being snarky, becuase I'm pretty sure you are only concerned about property rights when they are yours. If it's any consolation, I have hard copies of many of your books I purchased at Amazon.

— David Docetad, Wed, 13 May 2009 11:10:50 -0400 (EDT)

On the DRM: Why is it that I can order a book from Amazon and have them ship it all the way around the world, but they won't sell me a digital copy to read on the iPhone Kindle app because of international rights issues? The same goes for Audible, who will charge the same membership fees to international members, but give you access to only a fraction of the full catalog.

You know what? The Pirate Bay doesn't have rights issues.

Content creators (like the venerable Ms Le Guin whose Earthsea trilogy introduced me to fantasy novels when I was in high school, and yourself, Mr Petzold) need to apply pressure to publishers and distributors to *get out of the way* of progress, get rid of artificial and outmoded restrictions, and get with the program!

If I want to read a book on my phone, and the only way I can get it there is to pirate it, guess what? But if I can conveniently purchase it from a reliable source at a reasonable price point and not be encumbered by activations and limitations...

— Filip, Wed, 13 May 2009 11:18:50 -0400 (EDT)

That is a rather short-sighted, if not an outright ignorant remark. As a reader, I most certainly have the need to wipe the spittle off my face. I'm lucky to never have bought any books by Petzold, orelse I'd demand my money back.

e-books are here to stay, and individual authors (especially of such stature like Le Guin) can easily create and sell their own content without further marketing. The fans will be overjoyed.

Similar applies to unknown authors, who can profit from word-of-mouth marketing.

I would gladly pay 5 USD directly to the author, with 4.98 USD going directly to author's pocket. The distribution overhead is literally negligible. Plus, think of the trees saved.

But the book has to be free of Digital Restriction Management, and reasonably priced. The overall result will be a wider distribution, and a considerably larger cash-flow for the author. Middlemen, unfortunately, will receive the short end of the stick. And you know what? I don't really give a damn about them.

Eugen Leitl, Wed, 13 May 2009 12:04:05 -0400 (EDT)

I agree, but in some countries the books aren't even available and if they are, they are highly overpriced. The seller just asks for equivalent amount to the dollar price.

My recent experience would be a legendary database book "Transaction Processing: Concepts And Techniques " by Jim Gray. Its priced at Rs. 7804.

Thats a month's salary for some people here. Thats so unreasonable. Why wouldnt they download it from net?

— ranter, Wed, 13 May 2009 16:05:47 -0400 (EDT)

Ursula K. LeGuin is stupid.

Put her Earthsea books online at Baen and I'll buy in a heartbeat. But no... she prefers that people pirate them.

Baen has an excellent strategy. It gives books away with a polite request to buy if you read. I plonked 70 dollars on them a couple of weeks ago; I'll do the same at the end of this month when their latest Poul Anderson comes out.

David Ratnasabapathy, Wed, 13 May 2009 16:14:36 -0400 (EDT)

"If I want to read a book on my phone, and the only way I can get it there is to pirate it, guess what?"

Ah, the moral philosophy of a psychopath, baldly stated.

Still, I applaud you for being honest about it, Filip. Take pride that you are at least one spiritual notch above those who try to rationalize such behavior as somehow just.

— GrumpyYoungMan, Wed, 13 May 2009 18:51:13 -0400 (EDT)

"Ah, the moral philosophy of a psychopath, baldly stated."

i agree. filip is a complete murderous psychopath for wanting to pay for a hard copy of a book and an electronic version for the price of one.

only a crazy person would have a such a thought!!

Ah, grumpyyoungman and I are so sane for not having such thoughts. Ah, I bet Filip even lets his friends borrow his DVDs!!! Ah, the shame of a corrupt moral philosophy!

— GrumpyYoungMan'sBFF, Thu, 14 May 2009 15:45:20 -0400 (EDT)

She obviously hasn't wisened up since 2007, re: As a consequence, I've bought several of Cory Doctorows books, while zero of Le Guins.

Look at David Pogues experiment by selling a DRM-free PDF of one of his books -- yes, piracy of that book became more prevalent, but he sold more copies than he would otherwise by his own estimate.

Copyright certainly has a purpose, but the issue certainly isn't as black and white as Le Guin thinks.

Oddbjorn, Thu, 14 May 2009 15:45:20 -0400 (EDT)

Think of something you have created, and think how you would feel if someone else were making money off of it instead of you, even though you had created it.

It amazes me that people think they are *entitled* to have an electronic version of a book, and they are *entitled* to download music, movies, or books for free. Just to clarify, it's called "stealing".

Just because you can, it doesn't mean you should.

— RobinDotNet, Sun, 17 May 2009 03:57:01 -0400 (EDT)

Hi Petzol

There is no way, one can buy a book when it cost so much third word nations (e.g after converting dollars into rupees). Plus most technology book lost there value (e.g books on .NET 1.1 become almost useless as .NET 2.0 have so much new stuff to learn) , so why purchase these books?.

Petzol you should know this stuff , as you are into this business for decades , the time has change , if you want to pay your taxes , you need to get out of your book writing cocoon and start your own consultancy firm , even better prepare your own course ware on WPF etc. This is how you made money these days!


Senior Consultant

TCS India

— mathew, Mon, 18 May 2009 03:05:47 -0400 (EDT)

As a software author i recognise that some of what i write is going to be pirated, no matter what protection i build in. In a way it is a complement that someone considers your work worthy enough to steal. There is nothing you can do about it, it is a basic part of the human psyche. What i do to counter it is to write good software that fills a need and price it reasonably so that people don't mind paying for it.

What really pisses me off though is when people count a pirated download as a missed sale - to do so is simply wrong, as there was never any guarantee they would have (or could have) bought your product to begin with. Instead of getting septic at those downloaders you need to try and turn it into a sale, you do that by combining quality and price, if you don't capture them immediately you may do with future products. There is no point whining about something you can't fix, instead you need to roll with the flow and work out how to spin it your way.

— munter, Mon, 18 May 2009 06:28:51 -0400 (EDT)

Charles, were you trolling? You got a good catch anyway ;-)

Dave, Thu, 21 May 2009 05:13:08 -0400 (EDT)


I vehemently disagree with your politics, I skip over your blog entries on anything but tech, and I have trouble getting through the reasoning behind some of the problems you solve in your examples. But, I have bought every tech book you have ever written, sometimes multiple copies, and will continue to do so. I have a career that has been enabled by the lessons learned from your books, from the OS/2 PM days all the way through the current WPF/Silverlight technologies. The people that steal your work and try to justify it by saying it is too expensive, are still stealing IMO. You are in the right here, and they are in the wrong. I dont steal cars, tv's, computers or books. If I cant afford them, I do without and make do. Once I save enough to buy something, if it is still needed, I buy it. It's called personal responsibilty.

Sorry to see it has gotten to the point that producers are demonized because they want to profit from their work. I guess Ayn Rand was right, Atlas is starting to Shrug.

— PM, Tue, 2 Jun 2009 10:37:22 -0400 (EDT)

The piracy issue is a lot on my mind lately because I want to release my book in PDF and ePub formats, raising the question of whether to use DRM. (The book is already available for the Kindle, which does use DRM.)

Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Publishing is adamantly against DRM. None of O'Reilly's books use it, and they have data showing that their sales INCREASE because they don't. From O'Reilly's famous article on this, "Piracy is Progressive Taxation":

"Lesson 1: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy."

There's quite a bit of evidence that O'Reilly is correct. Even this NY Times article about the increase in piracy said something very telling:

“Some of the most frequently uploaded books, like the “Twilight” series, are also huge best sellers.”

O’Reilly thinks this is not a coincidence. They say that piracy is only up because ebook sales in general are up:

After David Pogue wrote a column in the NY Times complaining about the piracy of one of his books, Adam Engst posted this very well-argued response:

"Supply and demand are inextricably linked, and if there’s no supply for the demand Pogue freely acknowledges, it’s easy to see how someone could feel relatively little guilt in downloading or sharing an illicitly acquired copy. I’m not justifying such behavior, but the harder you make it for someone to buy an easily replicated digital commodity, the more likely they are to share that commodity as a way of making things easier for others. Look at the parallels in the music industry. Apple made legitimate purchases of music both easy and inexpensive via the iTunes Store, and anyone who was on the fence about whether it was acceptable to share music suddenly had a viable alternative. Providing a legitimate purchase path for electronic versions not only generates revenues, but also reduces illicit copying."

And then there's this interesting post – results from asking people why they pirated his games. The response convinced him to stop using DRM:

This was expected, but whereas many pirates who debate the issue online are often abusive and aggressive on the topic, most of the DRM complaints were reasonable and well put. People don't like DRM, we knew that, but the extent to which DRM is turning away people who have no other complaints is possibly misunderstood. If you wanted to change ONE thing to get more pirates to buy games, scrapping DRM is it. These gamers are the low hanging fruit of this whole debate.

Even iTunes just halted DRM:

At BookExpo 2009, one of the founders of Scribd spoke at a panel. He said they invested a huge amount of money in DRM technology, and almost no one uses it. Everyone uploaded unprotected PDFs. Seems ebooks will soon go the way of iTunes.

In short, there is a school of though - quite convincing - that piracy is nothing to worry about, that it just indicates general demand, and doesn't impact sales at all (except maybe to increase them). Evidence suggests that honest people don't steal when there is an available and reasonably priced option.

Sheryl Canter, Sat, 18 Jul 2009 10:40:52 -0400 (EDT)

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