Tuesday, April 12, 2016


     Back when I was still involved in the implementation of military systems, there was an acronym of great and ominous import that sometimes approached ubiquity: TBD. It stood for “To Be Determined” or “To Be Defined.” It indicated by its presence that a requirement, or a fact that would support a requirement, was missing from the specification. Such a missing element would have to be inserted before the specification would be considered complete...yet there were cases in which a significant specification item remained TBD right up to the instant of the acceptance test.

     Well, I don’t do that sort of work any longer, thank God and all the saints and angels, but as the title of this piece should indicate, TBD has made a comeback in my affairs. However, today it stands for To Be Deplored. It encompasses all those things which, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous formulation, evoke appeals to God for serenity. There are quite a lot of them, as regular Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch will already know.

     Deplorables – a bit like Lunchables: they’re vended as individually addressable units that can be deplored independently of one another – span the entire range of human action. Their unifying characteristic is that under present conditions, there’s effectively nothing that can be “done about them.” However, they do consume a goodly portion of an American’s ire. By and large, we have not learned to bear them “with philosophy,” as H. L. Mencken counseled us:

     There is no half-baked ecclesiastic, bawling in his galvanized-iron temple on a suburban lot, who doesn’t know precisely how it ought to be dealt with. There is no fantoddish old suffragette, sworn to get her revenge on man, who hasn’t a sovereign remedy for it. There is not a shyster of a district attorney, ambitious for higher office, who doesn’t offer to dispose of it in a few weeks, given only enough help from the city editors. And yet, by the same token, there is not a man who has honestly studied it and pondered it, bringing sound information to the business, and understanding of its inner difficulties and a clean and analytical mind, who doesn’t believe and hasn’t stated publicly that it is intrinsically and eternally insoluble. For example, Havelock Ellis. His remedy is simply a denial of all remedies. He admits that the disease is bad, but he shows that the medicine is infinitely worse, and so he proposes going back to the plain disease, and advocates bearing it with philosophy, as we bear colds in the head, marriage, the noises of the city, bad cooking and the certainty of death. Man is inherently vile—but he is never so vile as when he is trying to disguise and deny his vileness. No prostitute was ever so costly to a community as a prowling and obscene vice crusader, or as the dubious legislator or prosecuting officer who jumps at such swine pipe.

     Rather, our ears prick up whenever some charlatan claims to have found a solution to one of them...and depending on how many of us buy his line, the consequences can range from a sore wallet to the destruction of a polity.

     This morning’s line of thought flowed from my ponderings over this essay:

     A buddy of mine has a very successful book series that he self-publishes on Amazon. Popular enough that he started earning “Quit Yer Job Money.” Although writing is actually a new job. The fans were voracious, and couldn’t get enough (Some even bitched when he tried to branch off and start a second series). Then one day, a week after a new volume came out and was flying off the virtual shelves, suddenly sales plummeted to about 10%, which killed his rise through the Amazon rankings – a key to getting new fans and continuing sales – and decimated his income. He had seen this pattern before. His new book had just been pirated. He went to the usual pirate sites and did his best to persuade them to take it down, but of course, the pirates were adamant. His sales were disappearing, but his bills were not. Now he is back in the day job market, which will slow down his writing, meaning the fans will have to wait much longer for new books. And that’s provided he doesn’t hang up his writer’s hat for good out of frustration.

     Now, I understand a bit of what’s going on, there’s an awful lot of piracy going on out there, and yeah, in strictest terms, virtually every picture you’ve got on your phone or hard drive that you didn’t take yourself is some kind of copyright violation. I’m not going to go down that puritan road. But let me go through the usual excuses and explain why they don’t apply to indy books.

     The whole essay is worth your time, both for what it gets right and where it misses the mark. I exhort you to form your own conclusions. What it drew from me is an old “law” that I’ve made use of on many occasions:

Porretto’s Third Law Of Engineering:
For Every Engineer,
There Is An Equal But Opposite Engineer,
And Sooner Or Later,
He’ll Go To Work On Your Creation.

     There is nothing that cannot be reverse-engineered, given enough time, manpower, and money. Anything one engineer has developed, another will eventually pull apart and figure out how to replicate. Shortly after that he’ll sell his “improved” version at a price that undercuts yours. In the nature of things, you will scream abuse and seek a remedy. However, the odds are against finding one.

     Indie writers are currently coping with this, as “Dr. Mauser’s” piece should indicate. I’ve been there. I’ve had stories lifted from me and published under someone else’s name. Indeed, I’ve had whole novels pirated. In the nature of things, I felt violated and looked for a remedy...but it’s in the nature of the laws of digital content publication that no remedy exists.

     It’s an aspect of the “free rider” problem. There are always free rider-wannabes, no matter what the good or service may be. Some goods make it easier than others to free-ride. Digital content provision is one of the easiest.

     Software developers have known this for a long time. Way, way back in the darkest Eighties, there was an independent compiler developer by the name of Leor Zolman who introduced a low-priced (for then) C compiler that would run under the popular CP/M operating system for 8080 and Z80-based microcomputers: BDS C. As was the custom then, he provided a printed user’s guide with his product. In the introduction, he made one of the most poignant pleas not to pirate his creation that I can remember. Yet despite the low price of his compiler – approximately a quarter of the price of any competing product – Zolman’s BDS C compiler became one of the most pirated programs of its era.

     What could Zolman do about it? Not much. He had to “bear it with philosophy,” as contemporary indie writers and publishers of E-books know to our sorrow.

     Pirates gonna pirate, and free riders gonna free-ride, and in the usual case nothing much can be done about it. The only countermeasure of any sort is to price your product low and offer support only to registered users. (A help line wouldn’t do much for the typical indie novel, though there might be exceptions.) With a dab of luck, your early customers will protect you themselves, by refusing to give free copies of your work to others unwilling to pay. Yet it’s inevitable that eventually someone would succumb, after which your book or program might as well be in the “public domain”

     This is most definitely To Be Deplored. We deplore it – those of us whose livings depend on income from a digital product deplore it with special fervor – yet we must “bear it with philosophy:” the attitude that flows from a comprehension of human nature and the wide distribution of human characteristics. The poor, Christ said, we will always have with us. He didn’t explicitly mention the thief, but I have a feeling it was somewhere in the back of His mind.


Unknown said...

Hah! I'm writing a sci-fi book, too. I'm pretty sure it will be a good one ...so good I'm thinking about not having it published at all. I'll show them pesky pirates! I can hardly wait to see how it ends...

Anonymous said...

I started working with glass in 1970. I quickly became familiar with antique beveled glass windows. Some crap but most were beautifully designed and executed. I learned how to do it myself.

By the late 70s, my studio was designing and fabricating truly beautiful beveled glass. In colonial zinc, thick old plate, lots of engraving...I couldn't keep up.

Then the flood of crap started. From Korea, from Mexico, even from my own city, Denver. I saw the writing on the wall as there was no way I could compete with this even though the quality was no where near mine. I knew they'd slowly get better and I started down other avenues with art glass keeping foremost in mind that I needed to do work that was not duplicatable unless they had a designer with my capability(possible) and dedication(unlikely). Any thing to compare to the kind of work I began then and to this day still do, requires many, many hours and an eye for it.

I've seen contemporary Chinese, Mexican and Vietnamese panels and they suck. HA! I've seen my dealers buy a lot of them and are unable to unload, almost at any price. They're out there, on eBay, auction houses... but when people want the real thing, and I only need a few clients a year and I'm way ahead, they come to me. I still can't keep up.

Erbo said...

There's currently a big example of the best way to counter piracy out there, in the form of the indie PC game Stardew Valley. Inspired by the game Harvest Moon, the game features virtual farming, mining, fishing, and social interaction, with lovingly-detailed "retro" artwork (looking like an old Nintendo game) and hours of original music. The game is addictive at opiate levels, and a time-sink on the order of Civilization or Minecraft (just ask my fiancee, who has poured many hours into it). And the most amazing thing about it is, this game is the work of one developer, Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone, who developed it over the course of several years, and who is highly engaged with his fans, responding to messages on Twitter and the official forums and releasing regular updates.

While there is some piracy of Stardew Valley, an incredible phenomenon has cropped up: requests for assistance in pirating the game that are posted to sites like Reddit have been met with offers to buy a copy of the game for the would-be pirates, out of respect for ConcernedApe's work and because they love the game so much. There's a strategy for combating piracy: produce such a quality product, and provide your fans with such a quality experience, that they combat the pirates for you.

($14.99 on Steam, if you want to try it. But beware that time-sink factor, which is the major reason I personally am afraid to touch it...)