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Stealing by Another Name -

 October 24, 2002 

If you were willing to pay for your GPS, why wouldn't you pay for your charts and guides?

A couple of days ago we bought a chart to fill in a blank in the collection we have for heading south. For some boaters, this would have been an unusual thing to do for at least two reasons: electronic charting has rendered paper charts obsolete for many navigators; and we paid for the chart. On the first point, we confess to being technologically challenged. David doesn't figure he's certain of our position unless he can make a pencil mark on an expanse of paper and stare at it for a while. Also, everything electronic on our boat has at some point broken, so we're convinced any computer navigation programme we got would crash at the precise moment we were navigating a particularly treacherous stretch of water. At least for now, we'll stick with paper, even if it means suffering jeers of derision from more progressive boaters.

On the second point, photocopying charts and guide books is commonplace in the cruising community. In most instances, this is illegal. NOAA charts based on US surveys are the exception. We have a bundle of high quality reproductions of US government charts that were printed by an enterprising outfit in Bellingham, WA. The unauthorized reproduction of most other charts and cruising guides is a no-no. Why do so many people do it anyway? We've heard several reasons.

Some claim that original charts cost too much. One recent letter-to-the-editor in a sailing magazine argued that the high cost of charts and guides prevents cruisers on a shoestring budget from travelling the world's oceans. Clearly, this is unfair. Also, it was alleged, the people making exorbitant profits from the sales of charts and guides are filthy rich CEO's and their corporate cronies. Why, it's almost your patriotic duty to reproduce copyrighted material illegally in order to redistribute the nation's wealth in a more equitable fashion.

When it's pointed out that even Robin Hood was considered by all to be a thief, despite his good intentions, we hear that stealing "intellectual property" (that is, charts, books, CDs, etc.) isn't really stealing because it's so easy (just push a button), no one gets hurt, and - in almost all cases - no one gets caught.

We don't agree with these arguments. Now before we hoist ourselves too high on our lofty moral perch, we'll admit that we've stolen a few pieces of intellectual property in our day. The advent of photocopy machines, cassette tape recorders and, more recently, CD burners has made copying so pervasive that few people stop to ponder its legality. This isn't an excuse, but it's the best explanation we can come up with for why we sometimes used to copy a few pages from a book or two. Then Eileen started self-producing music recordings. When we'd come across bootleg copies of her tapes and CDs, we knew that some fat cat record company tycoon wasn't suffering. That was our cruising kitty taking a hit! Our self-righteous attitude toward illegal copying is at least partly related to our own self-interest.

Once our eyes were opened, we discovered that a lot of other quite decent folks were being hurt by people taking their material and not paying for it. In the eight years we've been cruising, we've got to know several cruising guide writers and one navigation software producer. Most of them self-produce. All of them are out there cruising the same waters as you and us. None of them appears rich. Our friend Chris Doyle, who writes a series of popular Caribbean cruising guides, scoffs at the argument that impoverished cruisers should be forgiven for ripping off charts and guides: "Anyone who owns a boat and spends the work week sailing who says that he cannot afford to buy a chart is being absurd. We are talking yachting here, not refugee camps."

Chris claims that because of his sunk costs of producing one of his guides, making an illegal copy is no different (from his perspective) than breaking into his boat and stealing one. Just because copying is easy and commonplace doesn't make it right. We hope others agree.

David & Eileen