‘To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offence’ – old Chinese saying

More years ago than I care to remember I was being whisked around Belfast, being given a quick schooling in the lie of the land. ‘Forget what you read in the papers,’ a CID officer told me. ‘Here it’s not unknown for Catholic paramilitaries to recruit a Protestant shooter to take care of a one of their own who has crossed a line – and vice versa. This is a murky place, nothing clear cut – nothing quite so black and white.’


I can’t say I was surprised by the CID officer’s words as, though not so extreme or violent, I had already found the world of corporate investigations a murky place, where nothing was clear cut – nothing quite so black and white.


I had been recruited by the software industry straight out of Trading Standards, where I had developed a reputation (no one else wanted to do it) for investigating computer crime – primarily copyright infringement: in simple terms the theft of software.


The work was straightforward enough. Every year the creative industries in the UK – software, film, music, books etcetera – lose, according to estimates, billions of income to piracy. This piracy can range from the making and selling of sophisticated counterfeits to distribution of software, film and music on floppy disks and CDs (in the early days) to distribution from pirate sites based anywhere in the world. My job was to hunt for the people responsible, gather evidence against them, recover the stolen property, and then prosecute them – either privately or in conjunction with Crown Prosecution Service.


In this I was often assisted by police all over the UK as they had realised that many of the people I was interested in were also interesting to them for other crimes. I was trusted by the police because they knew my background. I could help them execute search warrants. I could sit in on PACE interviews and ask the right questions, or at least know when the interviewee was spouting technical nonsense just to throw off the investigation. I had also something very useful to teach in regard to the seizure and forensic analysis of computer evidence. This was the quid pro quo. In the early days it was not unusual for me to arrive at a police station and find constables playing games on a computer they had seized only the day before – thereby tainting any evidence on that computer and wrecking any chance of a successful prosecution. These were the days when police forces across the country were struggling to learn the new rules of computer evidence and set up computer forensic teams of their own. And, as for the police, it was no problem working investigations with me: villains were villains, after all – nothing more needed to be said.


I was in Belfast because the police had made a large seizure of ‘stuff’ in connection with an investigation they were running. They wanted my opinion on what it was exactly they had found. This seizure was, in many ways, the Holy Grail for the software industry. For years the problem of copyright infringement in the software, music, film and book industry, had always been a hard sell. Copyright infringement was, to many, a ‘victimless’ crime. So, taking the argument to the extreme, to capture hearts and minds, the point was often made that piracy funds terrorism – and so off to Belfast I went to prove the point.


Did then software piracy fund terrorism? Were the coffers of the paramilitaries filled with more than just the proceeds of drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion, the knocking over of banks, and the fleecing of naïve (as polite a description as I can manage) Americans who mistook cold-blooded murder and mayhem for some kind of noble rebellion?


Possibly, maybe – someone was making money out of piracy somewhere. However, in my jaded opinion, just not that much. Easier, in my opinion, to make another phone call to Boston, Mass. and say another collection was needed for the cause. But then, in terms of copyright infringement, perhaps every little helped.


The majority of those I investigated hardly had connections of any significance at all – some to the more usual forms of organised crime, but that, as far as I could see it, was that. Many were sad and desperate individuals, struggling to save failing businesses or for an income stream to tide them over until they got back into full-time work. Others committed piracy just because they could, because they had the technical knowhow, but they thought it amusing to take what was not theirs and distribute it to any who might want it. These were the cool kids, the people who would tell me they were taking from the rich to give to the poor, or who (erroneously quoting copyright law) smugly explained that what they were doing was ‘fair use’ – not that such misguided explanations helped them much when they ended up in court.


Sometimes the very worst offenders were those people who would commit no other crime, who had never so much as had incurred a speeding ticket, and who would appear – on the surface at least – the very best of us. These were the people who would aggravate me the most – even more so than the ‘cool kids’; for they were outwardly the most moral and yet, in the comfort of their own homes, were disposed to downloading whatever they could from the Internet for free rather than paying for it. ‘Where was the harm?’ they would tell me. ‘What does it matter if I download a software program, a film, a music file, or even a book? No one gets hurt.’


I have wasted my breath more than a few times explaining the effort and investment that goes into the creation of software, film, music and books; my only reward for doing so nothing but glazed eyes and bored incomprehension – and this from people who, if they failed to get all of their expected salary from their employer at the end of every month, would throw a fit.


There was a certain mystique to working for the computer industry. The younger police were especially impressed by the names of the big international concerns I represented. But, as I mentioned earlier on in this piece, the software industry was a murky place, nothing clear cut – not so black and white. This uncomfortable truth I usually hid from the police. To them, a villain was a villain – no ifs and buts, no argument to be had.


And yet the overriding concern of the software industry was the making of money, winning a greater share of the market, and protecting any existing share that they had – not the administration of justice. It still bothers me to this day when I see former captains of the software industry – all billionaires – promote whatever new scheme they have in mind to save the planet. If these schemes prove useful, then fair enough; but I know, for the most part, that these former captains of industry used every bit of business sharp practice they could to get to the very top, which included at times the stealing of other companies’ software. Getting caught did not matter, as long as one had the financial muscle to engage the best lawyers in town to settle such ‘petty matters’ without the need to end up in court.


This was just history. What concerned me most day to day was undue influence on my (and my colleagues’) investigations. It was not unknown for criminal prosecutions to be thrown if money could be made by the offended company doing a deal with whomever I had been investigating. I will also never forget a frightened witness coming forward to tell me that one of the companies I was representing had a little problem with some software belonging to another company I was also representing – the problem simply being that they had not paid for it. So I went and sat down in front of a panel of senior managers of the problem company, told them what I knew, and that they needed to sort the problem out as soon as possible. All I got for my trouble was a warning – not exactly a threat – that it would be better for me if I left and never came back. Looking back I should have asked how any of them could sleep at night. I wish I had.


It was also not unknown for software companies to turn a blind eye to the pirating of their software in those regions in which they wanted to gain a market presence. Law enforcement could come at some undefined later date when everyone was trained up and using their software and wanted nothing else. It is also not unknown for authors in the past to actually upload their own books onto pirate sites to achieve a similar result – a tactic that has sometimes proved successful.


It should come as no surprise then that I kept from the police the truth that – in my humble opinion – many of the people I worked for were more bent than the criminals I was hoping they would help me bring to justice. Indeed, some police found it odd indeed when I said, on rare occasions, I actually felt sorry for some of those I helped send to prison. A villain is a villain, after all….


I reflect on those old days a lot – on the meaning of justice. I never set out to write crime fiction. I hardly ever used to read the stuff. But it seems to me, even now, that I am still searching for the meaning of justice – and writing about it seems a good a way as any try to find out. I guess that’s why I now write stories about ancient Chinese magistrates who took up positions often many hundreds of miles away from their homes to dispense justice – according to the dynastic codes – very much alone and in the way they saw fit; and also why I write fiction about some few investigators in modern China, modern authoritarian China, who try to bring justice to the people while serving in the midst of a wholly corrupt, wholly politically influenced judicial system. It is at the extremes of human experience, when my fictional magistrate and fictional investigators are tested to their limits, where I hope that the justice I have been seeking can eventually be found.


I wrote this blog post because of all the recent reports on twitter about the posting of books on pirate websites and the taking advantage by some individuals of special offers made by indie publishers. It may seem I am unsympathetic, that I have not been quick enough in this post to highlight what has to be an obvious wrong, and that there can be no real parallel between my past work protecting intellectual property for the cash-rich software industry and the modern book industry – especially in regard to those indie publishers (and authors) whose margins are tight and who constantly have to live hand to mouth.


I could offer some consolation by saying that those who download books from pirate sites are not true book lovers; or that, if they are, they will eventually go out and buy a legal copy anyway. I could say that I have read studies concerning piracy in the software industry that state exactly this. I could say that these pirate sites – often hosted in far off and (relatively) lawless countries – will have no real effect on whether a book succeeds or not. I could say that in ancient China (see the title of this piece) it was common for artists to be flattered by those who would seek to forge their work.


But I won’t. Instead, I will say that years ago I was approached by a small company for help in protecting their software. They were a small start-up, with a couple of years already invested in the development of a new product, but very frightened of piracy because their projected customer base was so narrow, therefore making them extremely vulnerable to those who might steal their product. Curiously, the staff of this company was very young, the majority of whom had been former hackers, thrown out of school for illegally accessing exam papers on school networks and worse: poachers turned gamekeepers all of them. They were now very happy to be legally employed and looking to me to make their new company safe. I said I would see what could do.


This turned out to be not much. I had too many other cases to run and nothing concrete to go on except their fears. Two years after I met with them the company went to the wall: bad product, bad business plan, or software piracy – I never ever knew.


I think about those young people a lot.


Maybe villains are just villains, after all.

Article by Laurence Westwood

1 reply added

  1. OldChinaHand September 8th, 2019 Reply

    Fascinating. I know from my own experience that white collar crime can be a great deal more involved than street crime.

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