Email to Toby Hemenway re: Piracy

Email to Toby Hemenway re: Piracy

NOTE: I’ve had a series of increasingly great responses from Toby – please see the comments

Toby Hemenway, a leading permaculture author sent me a message with very very thinly veiled threat to sue me for including his great book Gaia’s Garden here (someone else has also put it up on Scribd)

Here is the text of his message:

at you have a pirated copy of my book, Gaia’s Garden. My publisher, Chelsea Green, has prosecuted pirates often. You also have copies of Paul Stamet’s books, and Paul has been known to sue the shit out of pirates. You also have Fukuoka’s books, which my friend Larry Korn took years to translate. Larry, a pioneer organic farmer, badly needs the money from sales. Why would you steal from your colleagues and teachers like this? It makes it very hard to write again if we aren’t supported. You might want to take those books down. Free is not sustainable.

And here is my response:

Hi Toby,

Thanks for getting in touch. 🙂

Please forgive me in advance for this lengthly email, but this is a topic that is of great import to me (and I’m supposed to be doing my tax return! 😉 )

Firstly, let me share with you that I’m currently in the process of designing my first Forest Garden and I was just last night reading the 2nd edition of your great book (of which I own a hard copy). Thanks for all your great work!

I must say, however, that it saddens me greatly that people as enlightened as yourself have not yet realised how backward and pointless trying to enforce copyright is, nor accepted the fact that digital content that exists can be, and usually is, copied many many times.

It is time for many more authors and publishers (especially the good ones!) to acknowledge that the current, rather dated, publishing model is no longer sustainable in the digital networked age we find ourselves in.

The commons-based peer production of free software and content is in fact much more so;  Linux dominates the server market and more and more enlightened people use it on their desktops too. Firefox is now the most popular web browser in Europe. Wikipedia, whose software and content has always been free to share, is consistently in the top 10 visited websites on the planet.

Perhaps even more excitingly, the Open Source 3D Printer, RepRap, cost 60 times less than commercial competition and Open Source Ecology are designing, building and sharing a whole Global Village Construction Set, (think PermaFacture of just about everything 🙂 )

The electronic copy of your book (and all the other important and timely information nicely organised into folders on )  is out in the wild already, and was so before I got my hands on it (that is how I got my hands on it). There is absolutely nothing anyone can do about that, however many lawyers and court cases are involved. This is a fact that publishers and authors stuck in an old mindset and dependent on old business models ignore at their peril.

For some context, I’d really love it if you could please take 30mins to listen to this great presentation that Lawrence Lessig of the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave back in 2002:

He sums it up at the beginning with a short refrain:

1. Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
2. The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
3. Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
4. Ours is less and less a free society.

Perhaps also read these articles by Sci-Fi author Cory Doctorow…

Why free ebooks should be part of the plot for writers:

“My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity, and free ebooks generate more sales than they displace.”

The real cost of free:

“The topic I leave my family and my desk to talk to people all over the world about is the risks to freedom arising from the failure of copyright giants to adapt to a world where it’s impossible to prevent copying. Because it is impossible.


if I give away my ebooks under a Creative Commons licence that allows
non-commercial sharing, I’ll attract readers who buy hard copies. It’s
worked for me – I’ve had books on the New York Times bestseller list for
the past two years.

Free data sharing is here to stay

I sell my printed books by giving away electronic books

This post (and the comments) on Rob Hopkins book is also relevant:

The fact is, copying isn’t theft (the owner of the original copy still has their copy) and ALL creative work is derivative.

As for your threats to get Chelsea Green etc to sue me…

1. I have no money and no assets (OK, I admit, I do have about 300GBP in savings and 1000GBP invested in the Ecological Land Co-op, plus a few other bits and bobs here and there), so not sure what they’d achieve with that.

2. The small two-person co-op I work for and founded, United Diversity, is all about helping people to discover, contribute to and replicate intelligent responses to climate, energy and economic uncertainty. Our purpose is to improve quality of life on Earth whilst simultaneously reducing ecological footprint. Is this really the sort of organisation you want to sue?

3. As part of our work, we are indirect long-term customers of your publisher, Chelsea Green (through UK distributors, Green Books).  I have personally set-up and run market stalls at green fairs and festivals all over the UK and have sold 100s, probably 1000s of their hard copy books, including yours. Is this really the sort of person you’d want your publishers to waste their time and money trying to sue from across the Atlantic? Are there not many many far more urgent and important (let alone more fun, interesting and inspiring) things to be getting on with and using precious resources to do?

4. I personally take the viewpoint that whilst sharing copyrighted material that is not released under a Creative Commons (or some other modern, open, license) is technically illegal, that sharing it is in fact preventing a far greater crime; widespread ignorance and the destruction of ecosystems everywhere. Note that in the UK this argument has on numerous occasions stood up in a court of law. See, for example:

So whilst I “might want to take those books down”, then again, I might not.

Afterall, what good would it really achieve?

Like I said before, everything on is not only really important info very pertinent to our times, but its also already out in the wild. It is literally impossible to remove it from the Internet at large (which is where I got it all from in the first place).

What is really the point of removing it from my lovingly-collated pdf collection when anyone who can get online (that’ll be nearly 1/3 of the population on Earth then, nearly 2 billion people) and knows how to search will be able to find it and download it from peers spread all over the globe (some of which, no doubt, live in jurisdictions with more sensible, i.e. non-existent, copyright laws).

Of course, we’ve all got to make a livelihood. And in this overly monestised world we find ourselves in, part of that involves creating/ producing stuff for sale to others for money – because most of us still need money to live (although don’t say that to my friend Mark “Moneyless Man” Boyle who has lived for about 2 years without using money at all and is currently blogging about others who’ve been doing it for years ).

And, of course, I think creators of all kinds, authors included, ought to be fairly compensated for their efforts.

One possible solution to this conundrum in the digital age is what is known at the Street Performer Protocol or Threshold Pledge System

Numerous online crowdfunding platforms (e.g., etc.) are now available that facilitate such a system.

Flattr , launched last August, is also a great model that nicely fits the world we now inhabit.

How about we try an experiment?

Next time you are about to start writing a new book, or a new edition of an existing book, you estimate the amount of work it’ll take, and the revenue you’d expect to make, and then, using one of the many crowdfunding platforms, simply ask people to give you however much you think is fair, up front. In return you could agree to publish it as a public domain work, gifting it to the global commons. That’d be awesome! You could also simultaneously publish the book online and put flattr buttons on each and every post/ page.

I bet that would work. You could probably make even more money from your writing by publishing that way than you do now. Meanwhile your important work would be legally free to share (thankfully its already free to share, just not legally) and we’d all be a step closer to creating and living in the the world we want (not in a world dominated by bankers, lawyers and monocultures). Moreover, people like me who dedicate their lives to collecting and spreading important information wouldn’t have to live their lives in fear of law suits!

You’d also gain respect from all the cool young kids who’ve grown up with the Internet (i.e. the very people we NEED to get doing permaculture NOW) and who understand intuitively that artificially creating scarcity of electronic goods is as absurd as pretending the world is infinite and the economy can grow forever.

If you try it and it doesn’t work, I’ll happily take your book down from despite the fact that this would be fairly pointless and the only thing it is likely to achieve is to very very slightly reduce your book sales as less people (i.e. those few that find it via my website) discover your important work.

Warmest regards and much respect,


What do you think about all this?