Neil Gaiman explains why he doesn't sweat "piracy"

In this video from the UK Open Rights Group's excellent ORGzine, Neil Gaiman explains how he came to understand that "Internet piracy" of his books is good for sales and good for readers and writers.

Gaiman on Copyright Piracy and the Web


  1. Neil Gaiman is awesome. Not only only has he written some of the most bizarre and amazing fiction, but he is willing to tell the world that the more author’s share their thoughts and ideas, the more author ideas get out there. Organisations like RIAA and the Author’s Guild are so caught up on trying to protect their rights, not the artist/author’s, that in the end everyone loses out.

  2. I think piracy does work for Neil, but it doesn’t for all artists. It really really isn’t one size fits all. I am speaking from first hand experience and from being involved as working musician and composer for 20 years. Boing Boing lives in a bit of a fantasy world about piracy. I assume you all have jobs, and are making these claims about piracy from a secure income base. I am a working NYC musician without health care. This is my income base and I really don’t need kids downloading my albums off of sites like Bit Torrent. It really doesn’t result in bringing me more work. My album IS on band camp, you can listen to every track, but that is my choice. Band Camp is great for some folks, like Zoe Keating but it’s not for everybody, as it’s not for everybody to have their work pirated.

    In the end looking at the data Band Camp provides, I doubt if I’ll do that again, most of my sales come from people who have seen me perform or from people like Neil who like my work and talk about it. I don’t mind if people share my album, copy my album, send mp3s to each other, but these people are in relation to me. The relationship between me as an artist/musician/performer and my listeners and “fans” is one of respect. They want an mp3 of some song I haven’t recorded formally yet, I send it to them. They can’t afford a ticket, I try to get them in, they in turn, buy my album, share it, and hopefully treat it as something special, because it is something special to me.

    1. I gotta say that your comment is self-contradictory… you are against kids on bit-torrent downloading your albums, but yet you let in people for free, or give them songs because you say they are already fans. But the point of this article was this author is making new fans from the downloading, same as you, though it may not be readily apparent, some kids out there are hearing your music at another friends house who happened to download it. The same happened when we were all kids and hearing some good music at a friends house… we didn’t pay to hear that.

      Most of the bands I love now, like the Dandy Warhols, I’ve heard for free because a friend of mine downloaded their tracks and I heard them at his place. Now, I go to every one of their concerts when they play even remotely close by, and I know that in the music biz artists make way more from live performance than they do off of track sales – because of the record companies, or whatever overhead, so they’ve gained a steady stream of income from me alone… how many others do they have for that same reason?

      I’m sure that working in the biz for 20 years, you’ve seen the business shift rapidly, and that has caused you to be somewhat jaded, but if you’re making good music, and doing live performances, you will end up with more fans because of the downloads. Besides, the people downloading your tracks, probably aren’t big enough fans to buy your album, but their friends who hear it in passing soon may be.

      1. I don’t think sxip’s comment necessarily contradicts itself. I think there is a line between sharing/promoting and piracy, though there is probably quite a bit of overlap and areas of grey. It is partially intent, but also seeing where the flow stops–did that download stop with one person? Did it help the music/art/writing disseminate and find new fans, or did it simply stay in someone’s pocket?

        Where do you draw the line between piracy and sharing? The easiest answer is when someone else is making money off of YOUR work, but I’m sure there’s more to it.

        Maybe creating a solid connection between the platform where something is being shared for free, and where it can be found to buy to keep as yours forever and and ever until death do you part, is key.

        Sharing your work and allowing it to get out of your hands really does help the fire spread faster, but you do need to keep track of where the money is going, or more accurately, where it is not coming from. Which I fully recognize as an independent artist with no healthcare and a chronic disease.

    2. I agree with sxipshirey. Piracy is not one-size-fits-all. Sure it works for Neil. It exposes people to his work, thus, ultimately, selling more of his work. In that case, piracy = advertising. But Neil is just one man, and he needs advertising, and doesnt need much money to consider his work a success.

      Now imagine someone like me, who is an animator for a big hollywood company. If the movies I work on get pirated, it doesnt translate to more people going to the movie or buying the DVD. The movies I work on cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, employ hundreds of people, already have tons of exposure, so every pirated video downloaded is nothing more than a sale lost. And since there are so many pay-options like Netflix, it makes pirating inexcusable.

      The good thing for movies, however, is that people still like to go to theaters for the giant screen, big sound, and 3D…

      1. The good thing for movies, however, is that people still like to go to theaters for the giant screen, big sound, and 3D…

        The recent hype over 3-D is one of the reasons I no longer go to theaters. The quality of storytelling in most of the movies being made now is another. The abysmal projection quality in some smaller/older rooms is yet another. The incomparable classlessness of those who talk and make/receive phone calls and text messages throughout is the final nail in the coffin.

    3. So, first you say “This is my income base and I really don’t need kids downloading my albums off of sites like Bit Torrent” then you say “I don’t mind if people share my album, copy my album, send mp3s to each other”. Which is it? because this to me looks like two opposing positions.

    4. I think if you are at the point where people want to pirate your work and are actively seeking it out, then you are probably doing okay in the first place. People illegally download The Beatles and Katy Perry and Avatar and Neil Gaiman. Not a working musician that probably isn’t known outside of a few thousand people. No offense. And if anyone is pirating a working musician’s music, it’s probably a negligible amount.

    5. …buy my album, share it, and hopefully treat it as something special, because it is something special to me.

      And that’s why we call you an “artist” and not something less flattering.

      I earn some money that I don’t have to spend just to survive, so I will spend that money on things I think our culture needs, like education, art, minefield remediation, access to birth control, etc. etc. etc.

      If I like your art, I will buy it, regardless of whether I could steal it or download it free. I will buy it because I want the artists whose work I enjoy to keep on creating great art, and they can’t do that if they have to spend all their time flipping burgers.

      I think the next generation intuitively understands this, but they haven’t yet matured enough to be the change that they want in the world. They haven’t gotten to the categorical imperative stage of moral development yet, and they reach that stage later and later as the rich western countries spend more and more effort on infantilising our offspring, in the name of “protecting” them.

      Hang in there!

  3. Sorry to double post but this may be of some worth. In today’s world people spend all of their money already, and more if they can borrow it. It is impossible then for them to actually buy all the music that they download. Believing that if piracy stopped the music sales would skyrocket is dwelling into delusion.

  4. As a music fan, I like places like Youtube and Bandcamp (wich I only just discoverd, late to the party).
    I bought albums from the Cinnamon Chasers and Hello Ninja after listening to them on the web.
    Would never have discovered them otherwise and they would never have made money from me.

    1. Yeah it’s worked that way for me too. I never bought many CD’s in the past anyway but I found my favorite discovery of 2010, CIVIL CIVIC, through them giving away mp3’s for free on blogs. (and Bandcamp too FWIW) I went on to buy both their 7″s and see them live in concert. There is no way I would have taken a punt on a CD I hadn’t heard and they sure don’t get played on the radio. So it can work. But I’m sure it’s mixed results for different artists. I think anyone working on the old model will suffer badly. The new guys have adopted a new strategy. It’s just economics. Artists aren’t exempt from the blind powers that drive them markets.

  5. The point of sharing (some of) an artist’s work is so that it can actually be recognised as part of the culture. I don’t listen to Katy Perry nor do I listen to the radio stations that play her, but after sitting down with my family and seeing Lea Michele perform “Firework” on Glee, I cannot get it out of my mind and my dreams have begun to revolve around the Jungian archetypes embodied in their production of it. Sharing to Glee, sharing to my family, sharing to all levels of my mind, sharing to culture. It works the same way for any other work.
    When I have students, I routinely point to Gaiman’s Sandman going into Hell to retrieve one of his silmaril (h8trs gna h8) as a retelling of Orpheus, of the riddle game, leading into Anansi Boys and from there into incorporating those techniques into public speaking and debate. Not everyone has Sandman or Anansi Boys, but most anyone can find a torrent of Sandman or I snip the scene I’m discussing from Anansi Boys – and my students go on to buy the collections and the hardback or whatnot to read them all the way through.

    Sharing allows a discussion of the art, the incorporation of the art into the culture, the spread and utility for humans of the art. Art for the sake of the pocketbook will die by the pocketbook, which often closes.

  6. I’ve bought American Gods and Good Omens at least three times along with a lot of others. The record is Cryptonimicon with 5 times.
    When you move every nine months or so, you tend to shed belongings.
    So now I don’t feel bad when I download anything by Gaiman, Pratchett or Stephenson, I feel I’ve paid my share.
    As a bookseller by trade, I can’t wait till we’ve killed of the bookstore. I worked in both independent & big-box stores (B&N) and they all suck, to some degree. The big-box underpays their staff drastically & in return they get shitty staff. The independents have the knowledge & ethics, but seldom the book. Except for a few lovely exceptions, most independents have a crappy selection. Sure it can be ordered, but if reading is to be done, it is to be done today.
    Instead of general bookstores, we could just give the job to the libraries, they need the work. Most authors here in Denmark make their money from library-loans anyway. Rent, don’t buy :-).

  7. Not sure when Neil Gaiman’s experiment was, but Baen Books has been doing this since 2000. Eric Flint had similar thoughts (not sure who had them first) and convinced his publisher to do this with a bunch of their authors. They found similar results as Neil.

    Basically, Baen has a ‘free library’ ( ) which has a list of ~100 books that are totally free and are in several different ebook formats. Books come and go, some are older works by authors and others are newer.

    Eric wrote about the experiences from 2000 to 2002 in a series of postings at

    I know that I’ve picked up a few series from being stuck somewhere in an airport bored to death and finding a book there. After finishing the ‘free’ book, I’d buy the rest of the series because I’d found something really interesting.

  8. I’m not so sure… Gaiman’s talking about the beginning of the internet when there wasn’t a comfortable way to read pirated books. That’s different now. sxipshirey is almost certainly right in that what works for one artist might not work for another.

  9. Bang on. What an artist should be selling is himself. That is: producing true fans that will pay in some way to support him and his art and feel good about it. Book, songs, ideas, etc. initially are just the advertising for the true product that is the artist himself. Before file sharing, the marketing of an artist consisted of maybe a snippet of their art and some hype. That hype may or may not have been honest or could just have been misleading given our specific tastes. This led to many false starts in trying to become a “fan.” This also produced bitterness when we discovered that at times we were taken in by false advertising. Now if we let sharing with our peers be the marketing for the artist, we get a truer representation of the artist and his art. And, for the artist, the marketing is essentially free. As for the starving marketers… well, too bad for them. I like this new way of discovering an artist.

  10. In my neck of the woods, piracy isn’t generally done by people with lots of money laughing evilly as they get goods for free.

    It is done by kids and poor people who never had the money to purchase those items to begin with, so you can’t really count them as lost sales. Before the internet they simply went to friends houses, libraries, or listened to the radio.

    Back in the 70’s when the recordable cassette boom hit, the industry decried the same thing for music. Kids making mix tapes were going to destroy everything! Strangely enough, the industry wasn’t destroyed, and it won’t be destroyed now.

    However, one area where I feel it truly is a problem is for something like video rentals. Someone pulling something off the net and watching it pretty much destroys any reason for renting it, and if they really like it they’ll probably just buy the DVD, which may help the studio but not the rental business.

  11. Strangely Sxip I’ve come across your stuff via piracy, I’d be unlikely to come to your shows as I’m in London rather than NY, but like your stuff and the Luminescent Orchestrii enough to buy an album.
    if you’re ever in London I’d come to see the show

    (anonymous only because I can’t log in for some reason)

  12. Hello. I just wanted to add a little something to what Sxip said. I think some of you are missing something. Sxip said he didn’t people who share in relation to him. He can speak for himself, of course, but my opinion is that he doesn’t mind if fans share as long as it doesn’t prevent him from making a sale. If you want to send a buddy a couple of tunes, he won’t care. If you really liked a track you heard at one of his shows, he’ll send you a live recording if it’s not properly recorded yet. If you decide to send your buddy an entire record so that (s)he doesn’t have to buy the record, that’s not cool. People can disagree, of course, but they should be aware that there are such things as sliding scales, and indeed, piracy isn’t for everyone.

    Also, keep in mind that piracy is also about control of a product/message/whatever. Sxip just wants to have a reasonable level of control over his music. We’ll disagree on what’s reasonable, yes, but that’s his opinion. I don’t think it’s unreasonable but that’s just me.

    That being said, Sxip’s awesome. Check out his music. It’s fun, funky, a little weird (in a good way) and filled with a lot of heart.

    *smashes soapbox*

  13. I wonder how the growing popularity of e-readers will affect Mr. Gaiman’s attitudes. It’s one thing when for most people reading a pdf of a book meant that they had to be in front of their computer. I’m sure that many people wanted a physical copy to read on the toilet (sorry if that’s crass, but you know it’s true). However, now that more people are getting e-readers I wonder how many of those people will simply skip out on actually getting a physical copy since they can just put their downloaded copy on their device and take it wherever they would have taken the hardback.

    I personally love having a real, physical book to hold in my hands as I read. For me it enhances the experience, but there’s an entire generation coming up that has no real physical connection with their media and won’t miss having something in their hands as they read.

  14. This is going to sound trollish, and kinda mean, but I honestly think it is true in many cases, so I’m going to say it anyway.

    I think there are definitely people who are hurt by piracy, yes. However, I think that the majority of those people are hurt because the works they are trying to sell is bad.

    Neil Gaiman is an amazing writer. Of course if you read one of his books you will become a fan. You will then gladly pay to get his old works, and his new ones. If you see his name, you will open your wallet, because of the good experience you had the last time.

    Now, let’s pretend there is a terrible author named Geil Naiman. He’s as bad as Neil is good. Well even though Geil’s books are really bad, he manages to get a lot of marketing dollars behind them. Back before book piracy was easy, people had to buy Geil’s books to see if they were good. Or at least they had to check them out of the library. This meant that Geil would get a ton of sales, perhaps even best-seller levels of sales just because of marketing, an appealing title, a fancy cover, good positioning on shelves, etc. In a world of piracy people are going to try before they buy. Geil is ruined. Everyone realizes he sucks, and nobody buys his books.

    If piracy isn’t helping you sell more copies of your books, music, games, etc. it’s very likely, though not always, because your stuff just sucks, or at least isn’t good enough to justify the price you are charging for it.

    I think there are a lot of artists out there who feel entitled to money for their work just because they put in a lot of work. Well, I hate to break it to you. People are only going to buy something if it’s good. The quality of the results determine popularity and sales, not the amount of time and effort put into it.

  15. I think it’s curious how decrials against digital filesharing are usually framed as its being a threat to a particular industry, and thence to the livelihoods of the people employed by that industry. Isn’t the number one rule of commerce that markets change, and that corporate success requires adaptability? Just because musicians’ main source of income might’ve been CD sales in the previous decade that doesn’t mean that’s an appropriate business model for them in today’s technological climate. Just because Hollywood has held market dominance in the visual media for almost a hundred years that doesn’t give them a right of expectation that their model should be allowed to flourish ad infinitum. (@agreenster, haven’t you ever looked around at the massive behemoth that the American movie machine has become and asked yourself “for how long can this possibly be sustainable?”)

    I think Cory has the right idea to frame the artist/fan relationship regarding filesharing in pragmatic, rather than moralistic, terms. Filesharing happens, and will only continue to happen as technological advancements make it ever easier. As a 21st century artist it is incumbent on one to find a business model that leverages that fact rather than resists it. Will some people lose their current livelihood as a result? Undoubtedly so, but that’s a fact of progress, and progress engenders many new industrial activities (and their concomitant livelihoods) in the process.

    (Most of these thoughts are probably cribbed from: )

    1. >>@agreenster, haven’t you ever looked around at the massive behemoth that the American movie machine has become and asked yourself “for how long can this possibly be sustainable?”<< Of course! But animated films continue to be dominant at the box office (5 of the top 10 in 2010's box office were animated films) so Im not worried...yet. However, my broader point is that piracy could cause large groups of people (who work together to make a higher quality product) to be less profitable. A film like Tangled or Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon could never be made by one person. Heck, 50 or 100 would be a stretch. Is it a good thing to think everyone should go rogue? One of the reasons I love my job is that I get to work with large groups of talented people toward a common goal. I'd hate to see film quality dip because of piracy. Im not saying it's happened yet, but once the technology is there to get full HD pirated movies easily available, it can happen. You say its okay for people to lose their livelihoods because its a side effect of progress. And I'd agree with you if their product were inferior, or outdated, or any other market reason. But if it's because thieves have gotten really good at thieving? That's progress?

      1. Commerce is ugly. It is competitive and vicious.

        I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.

        Then you got the Toy Story artists being paid to sugar coat it all and make us believe that everything is dandy and we’re all wonderful people with hearts of gold.

        Toy Story 3 grossed $400,000,000 at the box office against a budget of just over $200 million.

        @agreenster: If you all haven’t figured out a way to engage people online, your marketing department and the executives who are running your show are a bunch of talentless hacks.

        Also your movies are cute, but they are extremely narrow and basically socially useless. They are not the gold standard against which we should be measuring “film quality.”

        @Kabur Naj: Well-made points.

        If we all lived in Toy Story land, we could all spend our time creating art. As it is, artists for time immemorial have had to make compromises to stay alive. So now you don’t have to kiss as much Medici ass, but you DO have to spend your valuable time sitting at a computer engaging people online, being a smart business person, being fast, adaptable, etc.

        If you want to make a living at art, it has never been enough to simply be good at the art.

        @sxipshirey, you live in as much of a fantasy land as anybody if you think you should be able to be a commercial artist without putting time and energy into the commerce side of it. It sucks, yes, but we live in a commercial culture that is much more powerful than us. I’m sure you are a bright person who already knows all that and that you are doing as much as you possibly can to make it happen for you. I admire those qualities very much and I hope things improve for you somehow.

        I want to change that world. I spend time working to change it, and I know millions of other people do to. But if we really want to change things, can we admit that the world is populated with billions of vicious assholes and the assholes are well-organized and the culture we have collectively developed is stacked against a profitable, personally satisfying art practice?

      2. “The movies I work on cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, employ hundreds of people, already have tons of exposure, so every pirated video downloaded is nothing more than a sale lost. And since there are so many pay-options like Netflix, it makes pirating inexcusable.”

        I gotta say that coming from a video game industry perspective, the movie industry has it much better.

        You have:

        DVD/Blue Ray/CD Sales (not including “special editions”)
        You can put your movie back on screen for more $$ (Star Wars: revamped..Star Wars:3d!)
        Lease your property to the tv networks/cable
        Sales from related products (Why do you think they are making Cars 2? Toys!!)
        Lease for digital downloads on iTunes, etc.
        International sales with (relatively cheap language conversions)

        Sounds like you have different revenue streams that can more than make up for any loss of potential piracy.

        What does the video game industry have?

        Initial sales/Collection editions
        5 years down the line: A compilation ed.
        International sales (which are actually pretty hard to make)

        I don’t want it to be “We have it rougher” kind of bit. It’s more to show that the initial run of a movie isn’t the be all/end all when it comes to profit. Other media it can be (hopefully the video game industry can figure out a way to have more revenue streams ourselves or we are going to be pretty screwed.)

  16. To answer some of your question, touring isn’t the replacement source of income. Touring has gotten harder and harder on bands over the last 20 years. Venues pay less and less in the U.S., so all income streams are less and less. This is why many of my favorite musicians go to Europe to tour because you are treated better by venues there. In our culture the clubs don’t want to pay you (and many of them are struggling anyway), the government doesn’t want to fund art and much of the public doesn’t want to pay for music.

    Yes, this is the way it is. This is the way this system works, but don’t tell me that it’s good for me. It isn’t.

    I remember having a very funny conversation with my brother..”Pirating helps me discover music!” How much music have you bought lately” “Oh…none”

    For many of you, discovering music through piracy leads to buying it but for most people it is the end point.

    I am not an abstraction. I am actual person. I have dedicated my life to working hard at what I do.

    An artistic relationship between artist and fan is just that, it is a relationship, and all good relationships are based on respect.

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