The best things in life are free?

I’ve been on holiday with my husband this week, staying at a cottage with no wi-fi in a remote corner of the Lake District. This experience has certainly taught me a lesson about what I truly find most valuable in life – ie, a decent wi-fi connection.

It’s annoying enough not being able to check Facebook or the weather forecast – or the tide-tables if you want to go bouldering at St Bee’s – but what especially got on my nerves was BlinkBox. Before departure, I’d downloaded a few things – the movie Interstellar and some episodes of Supernatural – thinking we’d be able to watch them offline. But when I settled in to see what oogly-boogly Sam and Dean have to deal with this time, the file refused to play unless it could access the appropriate media licence. Which it could only get via the BlinkBox website. Which I couldn’t get on, because no sodding wi-fi. Whaaat?! Dick move, BlinkBox. These were files I had paid for, files I had downloaded under the mistaken impression that I somehow owned them and would be allowed to watch them on my own laptop without any further trouble. Wrong! Stupid Digital Rights Management. I’ll bet you don’t have problems like this if you just PIRATE stuff.

Which brings me on to writing. While DRM is imho definitely evil – punishing as it does only those who have actually paid for things – many creators are understandably concerned about piracy, and that doing away with controls is just an invitation for everyone to help themselves to your intellectual property. On the flip side, an awful lot of writers have embraced the possibilities of the internet age to connect with readers directly, via digital self-publishing and websites such as Wattpad, which allows readers to comment on books and even help edit them as they are written. The problem with most of this stuff is that you don’t get paid for it, which I guess makes it a form of voluntary self-piracy. I’ve heard older writers – and the Society of Authors – complain that too many people giving their writing away for free has lowered prices for everyone and made it harder for writers to make a living. While I’m sure this is true, it also reminds me irresistibly of the case study in Superfreakonomics about prostitution in Chicago, which found that prices for sexual services had dropped dramatically over time as more and more women were prepared to sleep with their boyfriends without getting rings on their fingers first. Like the Chicago ladies of negotiable affection, professional writers can moan all they want about being undercut by the amateurs, but you can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle: everyone’s having too much fun.

And there are cases which show that it’s possible, if enough people like your writing, to monetise the giving-it-away-for-free model; bloggers and fan fic writers who’ve scored publishing deals, authors who’ve launched books via Kickstarter. My current obsession, the surreal comedy-horror podcast Welcome to Night Vale, is a good example: it’s available to download entirely for free, but they make cash via PayPal donations, live shows, and merchandise sales. Plus they’re bringing a book out later this year – the kind you have to pay for. Unless you pirate it, I guess, but don’t do that.

Where does all this leave me? Well, I suppose I sit in an interesting position; on the one hand, I’m trying to get a traditional publishing deal complete with actual, you know, money, and I’m certainly not about to post the full text of my novels online for anyone to download for free. On the other hand, I am writing these words on a blog, and I sure ain’t getting paid for them. I’m a firm believer in the right of writers to be remunerated for their work: and if you’re not prepared to pay for something, you have to be prepared to be given whatever people are prepared to provide for nothing. But there’s also something quite comforting in the thought that, if no publisher ever picks up my work, that’s not necessarily the end of the story.

Postscript: fear not, dear readers, I did eventually manage to jerry-rig an internet connection via my phone’s spotty 3G signal, and I got my fix of the Winchester brothers. But I’m never staying at a cottage without wi-fi again, that’s for sure.

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