Wednesday, July 16, 2014

STOP THIEF Part 1 - Confessions of the Reluctant Pattern Pirate

The Pride of Baltimore, a privateer ship similar to the Cygnet, ship of the reluctant pirate Charles Swan courtesy of the Wikipedia Commons.

This might get a little long, but I promise, the story is worth it. Please note, before I start here - my accounts are gone. I closed them down. I deleted any content I saw might be connected to the sites mentioned. I removed anything I shared. And I tried my best to remove any comments I had made. I've never uploaded anything that was remotely within copyright, or intellectually owned by anyone else. I've reached the end of my investigation, so that really meant I had no business interacting on these sites anymore.

Nearly 10 years ago, someone posted a message to a Yahoo group that no longer exists saying that they found this cool new site with tons of knitting and crocheting content. Excitedly, my friends and I visited the site and discovered that it had a lot of cool books and other foreign patterns on it that we had never seen before, and it blew our minds with the horizons that had already been passed in Spanish, Russian, and Japanese knitting. 

Then I started to see our English designs go up on there. Not just the big corporate ones, but small designers who were just starting out, designers that who were the beginning of the vibrant marketplace at Ravelry. And I was horrified. 

What kind of person would do that? And then I realized - my friends, chatting back and forth about this resource, were in effect, becoming part of this virtual stitching circle that was quite honestly, clearly violating international copyright law. 

It took a little convincing (well...maybe a lot) but we STOPPED. We deleted everything. And we started reporting the places on the site that violated the copyright of the people we knew. And then we started reporting the corporate violations to the companies, like Rowan, Alan Dart, Martingale Press, Crochet Today, Interweave, Vogue, etc. 

And we saw progress. The violators were punished, while leaving the rest of us alone to chat about the aftermath, and our own stitching. And so things were quiet. Then another site cropped up. So we collectively reported it. And it went down. Then we learned about this new thing called torrents. So we started quietly policing those too, getting people to take torrents down and manipulating the seeding process to make the torrents unusable. 

But the sites keep coming. And increasingly, they are in Russia and China, where it is increasingly hard to defend intellectual property. So we started talking to copyright lawyers and intellectual property lawyers. Their work got a few more sites down.  


But of course, another site came up. So this time, filled with indignation, I joined. All these designers' generosity was being repaid by these jerks who were charging for their designs! And the charged money for the privilege! So I decided to study the system, and see how it worked. Basically, the design of this site and clones is that you earn a currency (mostly called coins) and you earn status to move up in rank. The sites are in multiple language, with the one pictured above requiring participation in English with members from all over the world.

Without rank, you can't do much. You can look at a limited amount of items, and you can participate in text messaging and games and chats, so the site automatically encourages people to "share" patterns with others in order to earn more currency and more status. As long as you don't share something duplicated elsewhere on the site, your work will get approved. Usually it requires minimum work to upload it, naming the designer, the type of file, the language and an image of the pattern. 

So the more currency you earn and the more rank you have, the more you can download and see on the site (as certain things are limited to folks of a certain rank). 

You can see the problem in this - basically, it encourages people to upload whatever they have, no matter if it is paid, free, theirs, not theirs - inadvertent theft still is theft. And its all free to those who want to spend the hours.

At first, I couldn't get the users to engage. It was impossible to stand out as a beginner. After a bit I arrived at the solution.

I could pirate my own work.

So I did. And that got me enough points to be able to move throughout the forums. At first, I tried pointing out that the patterns are free elsewhere. I mean, why spend money to get the currency for the site when the items were free elsewhere? It didn't make sense in my head.

And I got friends to help me. One by one, they were banned by their IP address, making them unable to access the website in question. But somehow my account endured. So I kept posting. Finally people started warming up and explained that they could earn the currency needed without worrying about buying currency. And then they said they were smart enough to go get the items from the site they were free from, because they were members there too.

Which got me thinking: who are these people? I had this stereotypical vision of the angry Chinese hacker, stealing from our American designers and posting them for free for their people. It made me sad and ashamed that I stereotyped people in this way. :-(

So I kept at engaging them. When one site had a bit of a meltdown, another site was born, and folks invited me there. So I went with them. And watched the site grow as people shared multitudes of craft instructions ranging from cross stitch patterns, knitting patterns, crocheting patterns, and fifteen other crafts. 

The benefit of this, of course, was that I could get to know these folks from the very beginning. I could learn the inner workings of the folks at the beginning of the setup of the site. So I started pirating far vintage patterns, very far out of copyright, intellectual property long since forgotten and not owned by anyone currently (I intend to write a blog series in the future, talking about this investigation process!), trying to make me a high ranking member of the site. And I succeeded. 

The higher my rank got, the more trusting people became. 

I learned that fully half of the people on the site were Americans. The rest were folks around the world, with issues getting access to crafting patterns, trying to practice their English with us. Most of them were older, many on a fixed income doing their crafts in retirement. They view the site as an extension of their stitching circle. At least half are not computer savvy but liked networking with other stitchers. They found the site through Google or by word of mouth. They didn't think about aspects of the site that I thought about, like ethics of depriving designers of web traffic, or if what they were doing was theft. After all, it was just exchanging between friends, right?

Except it wasn't. The site we all came from? It hit 65,000 members. The "new" site? Hit 2,000 members. Can one really legitimately argue 2,000 people are your best friends? 

But I just kept talking to them, trying to understand the actions, because it didn't make sense to me. Then it started to roll in. Multiple people said they were just passing along something their other friend sent them. That friend got it from another friend. At this point, they felt there was little harm in sharing something that had been shared eighty billion times before. They viewed it as building karma in the community, not stealing.

The other curious thing that came about on the site was that these people were still BUYING things. many of them stating they had craft budgets of $15-20 a month to spend on patterns and other materials, and mentioned that the site increased their pattern buying, because they became a fan of this designer or that designer because they had tried out a pattern on the site. This didn't jive with what else I learned, because it didn't make sense - if you're going to buy patterns, then why bother with this crazy site and getting more patterns that you didn't need? 

Then I came upon a post by John Brownlee over at the Cult of Mac blog. And now I get it.

These folks don't appreciate the patterns that they have. Brownlee's quote here says it best: "It’s clear to me, in retrospect, that my piracy was mostly mere collecting, and like the most fetishistic of collectors, it was conducted with mindless voracity".

These folks aren't really dedicated stitches, stitching hundreds of pieces a year. They're mindlessly collecting things because they can. They know artists like Laura Aylor, Heaven and Earth Designs, Lydia Tresselt, and more are amazing, and therefore want to "admire" their work by collecting it. 

One of the funniest episodes I've ever seen that has an amazing allegory about collecting and hoarding, check out the episode from Season 4 of South Park "Trapper Keeper" (still shot above courtesy of South Park Studios).

Except they aren't really admiring or collecting, they're hoarding. They have the digital equivalent of a house on Hoarders, filled with patterns and sharing more patterns, making this monster up that they will never, ever make, never making those patterns blossom into real things. The intangible, always to stay intangible, never moving forward.

Are designers losing money due to piracy? Yes. Are they losing opportunity to sell to these folks? No. It's an important distinction. Should designers be chasing these people? Well...defending your intellectual property is important, but the amount of time and money involved in doing so can make such actions cost prohibitive. And considering that these people don't represent future opportunity, because they'll never make your pattern and convert to a paying customer...it might not be worth it. 

Stay tuned for part 2 - trying to be a genealogy pirate, part 3 - learning about book piracy, and part 4- what can be done about pattern, book, and genealogy piracy.
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