Living with Piracy (Edited)

Note: this post has been edited. The ideas expressed here remain essentially the same as in the original post, though I’ve now rewritten several paragraphs for better clarity and structure. And, yes, I know – I’m a perfectionist, and this isn’t healthy. But we all have our OCD moments, no?

The New York Times’s got a funny little article about ebook pirating, published 11th May and online long enough to have garnered a respectable amount of blogosphere reactions. Of the authors interviewed for the article I like Stephen King’s the most, who says (in particularly King-ian fashion):

“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys (…) and to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

You gotta love Mr. King for something like that. His comment underscores a bigger debate that’s beginning to pick up, particularly over the past two weeks: people are sitting up and talking about ebook piracy, especially now that ebooks have become viable merchandise. Reactions differ according to group: most traditionally-published authors see piracy as a threat; newer, younger authors (like old-time blogger Cory Doctorow) think that obscurity is a bigger problem. 

There are better people than me out there who are thinking and grappling with this issue, so let’s take a quick look at who’s saying what in the wild web before we go on:

1. Readers apparently revolted against David Baldacci’s latest novel, after Amazon announced that it would charge $15.00 for the digital version. Reason for the revolt? They thought it was too expensive. Most people, apparently, think that since you no longer need to spend money on printing, marketing, and distributing ebooks you can afford to sell them at cheaper prices. Some publishers are now worried that these reader expectations will ruin them; the others believe that making ebooks cheap will increase the number of purchases, therefore enabling publishers to continue making reasonable money. 

2. So what happens if publishers refuse to lower their prices? The Freakonomics people weigh in

When digital music fans were confronted with this problem, they just made illegal copies. If Amazon keeps prices above $10, might we soon see a spate of e-book piracy? Or perhaps people simply don’t care enough about books to steal them.

3. Textbook author Peter Wayner confesses in a Nytimes blog post that he’s not sure what he should do, after discovering a pirated copy of one of his books online. He also talked about the issue in his personal blog, where he appears bemused by the whole episode. What I find particularly interesting here isn’t the post itself … it’s the reader reactions to Wayner’s predicament. Here are some choice responses:

“It’s not piracy. It’s re-tweeting.” -DH94114

“Sorry you feel the need to be paid for your ideas. I write poems and share them all the time, like most every poet I’ve known, with little hope or expectation of payment.” – Jed Brandt

Why not stop calling these people ‘pirates’? There’s nothing romantic about them — they are just thieves. – SB

“Personally, I am happy to pay for music and books, or if not I don’t buy them. I like that the Beatles sold enough records to stop performing and produce work like “Sgt Pepper’s.” I like reading books that clearly took a long time to write. I like The New York Times. Yes, we need a new revenue model. But only because technology and greed have made it newly easy to steal with low likelihood of prosecution, not because there’s been some marvelous and freeing change in the philosophy of information.” – Josh

Piracy Makes Sense … And It Can’t Be Killed

Digital piracy is as old as the Internet itself, and I’m pretty certain we’ve all come across piracy in some form or another in all the time we’ve spent online. If you’re like me, you’ve probably touched or used something counterfeit in your life, at least once – whether it’s a cracked copy of Halo or a bootlegged version of Word, or even a burnt CD of favourite songs passed from friend to friend. The truth about piracy is that we’ve all grown used to it. We may not agree with it, and we may not download illegal copies of books, movies or music. But most of us do recognize that pirated work is but a Google search away, and so we carry out our Internet activities around this the same way pedestrians on their way to work may avert their eyes from the homeless inebriate sleeping on a bench by the coffee shop.

I believe that it is wrong to steal, particularly when the work you’re stealing is the result of so much effort by the author concerned. But while I think that, I also believe that piracy is not preventable; and that it cannot be stopped. I say that any effort to destroy piracy on the Internet is doomed to failure simply because piracy – on the Internet, at least - makes so much sense. And so it does – to the students and the USENET users; to the fans and the media bloggers – piracy is a way of life. It is a logical end-point of the democracy and the anonymity of the web, two things that today’s Internet citizenry have grown up with. I believe that it’s not so much a result of human failure as it is a result of the systems that power the web: systems that just coincidentally fit the requirements for a good pirating operation to a tee. Stopping piracy would mean changing the very way the Internet works – which is absolutely crazy, not to mention entirely impossible. Till that (or some external change) happens we’ll have to live with semi-anonymous downloaders, with torrent files, and with an ubiquitous network of USENET servers.

But living with piracy isn’t as bad as you might suppose. Let’s indulge in a thought experiment: suppose we have to prove that piracy is a bad thing, but instead of making it a matter of ownership and principle, let us say that piracy is only bad if there is a proven harm effect. So then the next question to ask would be: what percentage of sales is lost to piracy? This is the only quantifiable measurement that hurts producers, frankly, and it is unfortunate that this very measurement is impossibly difficult to record. A certain portion of book/album sales may well be lost to piracy, but over time these lost sales usually contribute to something equally important in the online sphere – human attention. People who might not have otherwise heard of you would now be able to sample your work, if only through the bootlegged copies of your work floating around the Internet, and there’s a possibility that a portion of them later become fans and evangelists.[1] Similarly, people who are happy to ‘steal’ from you are likely to be equally happy with buying t-shirts and attending concerts and helping out with financial contributions over the same period of time … all this resulting in you eventually making money from your work.

The proactive approach to piracy

Piracy isn’t all bad. Quite a number of people in more matured online marketplaces (i.e., software and music) have survived and profited in an environment that favours piracy. The first step to dealing with it – as an online writer – is to take piracy as a given. If you’re producing content on the Internet, expect some piracy, particularly so if you’re good. The second step, however, is harder: you’ll have to walk a fine line between what you’re willing to give away and what you’d like your readers to pay for. How you communicate this is tricky. Let’ s take a look at two examples (both of which have appeared on Novelr before):

Johnathan Coulton, the web musician, is up-front about piracy: on his site, above his store, is the following note:

Lots of (music) is freely available depending on how technical you are – you can get all of it for free if you really try. But please remember I do make a living this way, so you like what you hear I’d certainly appreciate you throwing a little payment or donation my way. If you can’t afford it, for goodness sake please send copies of everything to all of your friends.

He also has a ‘Already Stole It?’ subheader above his mp3 page, which says:

No problem. If you’d like to donate some cash, you can do so through Amazon or Paypal. Or for something slightly more fun, purchase a robot, monkey or banana that will be displayed here with your message.

The second example I’d like to talk about is that of Panic, the makers of ‘shockingly good Mac software’. They’ve been doing it for the good part of 10 years now, and the best way they’ve found to tackle piracy has been to pop up a gentle reminder whenever a user enters a pirated product code, explaining to them that a) their code is from a pirated source, and b) Panic is a small, independent company, and it’d help them very much if you head over to the site and purchase one of your own. 

Most of the time, they say, the user does just that.

1.Incidentally, some forward-thinking publishers have learnt to boost book sales by releasing a digital version for free, online. These promotions only happen for select titles, however, and for select periods (plus they’re usually for genre fiction and genre fiction only). The logic is that people getting free books online will buy paper versions because paper is more preferable (they last longer, they don’t suffer from battery issues and they’re easier to read). And indeed this has proven to be true, at least for the time being.

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Category: Making Money · Publishing
  • Gavin

    I think this is a really interesting article, and it’s got me thinking. I will be back later with a more involved response regarding web-fiction, when I’ve let your words percolate in my head about. Later, Eli. :)

  • Eli James

    Will be waiting, Gav. =)

  • Gavin

    Okay, so piracy is reality. Some bands are dealing with it creatively — offering songs for free, and asking fans to donate what they think it’s worth. I respect that, because it’s acknowledging the fact that the Internet and digital technology makes it easy to copy things, and giving it away for free means pirates can’t really sell it. It frees the song and that trust gets rewarded, though how much I’m not sure, and how well it works long term has yet to be determined.

    With web-fiction, most of us are offering our stories for free. Donations are welcome, and appreciated. Some authors have memorabilia for sale, like shirts or cups or what have you. Others have Lulu editions so people can buy a print copy as an artifact of their experience online, or just because they prefer paper to digital.

    But in the end, it’s free material — it would be easy to pirate and plagiarize, but what would be the point? It’s already free. I don’t see it being a big problem for web fiction.

    Historically, no one “owned” songs or stories — traveling troubadours and minstrels and acting groups learned from each other, passed stories on by word of mouth, and elaborated, adding their own touches. Shakespeare borrowed from history and Italian plays, Mallory got his Mort d’Arthur from old legends. I think the internet is encouraging a similar dynamic, where creativity flourishes with a new view of “ownership” that is fluid.

    What it means, what it will look like long term, requires more thought, but I don’t think the old ways of traditional publishing and piracy really apply at all.

  • Eli James

    When Radiohead released their last album, In Rainbows, for free in 2007, nobody expected people to download pirated versions from torrent sites. And yet they did. Johnathan Coulton offers some of his songs for free, and all his music/albums are available for very reasonable prices. And yet torrents for his entire discography exists.

    A study in piracy is often a study in incentives. And it’s not clear what the incentives are when you look at these two scenarios. Could it be habit? Could it be a misguided sense of Internet egalitarianism? Some pirates share copies because they love the material so much that they must spread the word to their friends … which means torrent sites. What we can learn from this, however, is that in mediums where piracy is the norm rather than the exception, torrent downloads will exist regardless of the availability of the original work.

    Which simply means that if you’re big, you very well should expect and prepare for some piracy in the future. Not now, maybe, because ebook piracy is just beginning to pick up. But soon.

  • Gavin

    But if something is “free” like the Radiohead album or an ebook, is it appropriate to call it “piracy” at all? I mean, they can’t steal something that’s free — they’re sharing something they think is worth sharing. Aren’t they? In other situations it’s a misappropriation — giving away something that should cost money.

    But giving away something that was already free kind of just means they’re giving it more exposure, aren’t they?

  • Eli James

    Hrmm. Tricky thing. This devolves the discussion into a matter of taxonomy, though it is prudent to ask here if it really is ‘piracy’, or not. The articles discussing Radiohead call it filesharing … and in Coulton’s case, his albums are really, really cheap! But generally speaking, taking a file (whether it’s free or not) and putting it up on a filesharing site is generally frowned upon. Not sure why, though.

    I’m afraid I can’t give a definitive answer for this, Gav. Anybody else want to add an opinion?

  • RavenProject

    “Anybody else want to add an opinion?”

    I’ll take a swing: Metrics.

    Going with the album download example… a band can determine with reasonable accuracy how many people grabbed the album off their website. Far as I know — and please, someone correct me if I’m wrong — there’s no way to account for how many people grabbed the album off Joe Fan’s torrent.

    The number of downloads can be used to provide a moderate estimate of the band’s fan base. This number is then used for everything from selecting a venue for live shows to setting print runs for t-shirts to demonstrating popularity when Big Business comes calling.

    Of course, this assumes the our hypothetical band has just been putting the link out there on its own. The band may ask for people to register before downloading the album, providing them additional demographic information and an avenue for future communication.

    This ties into the discussion on “free” we had over in the pay-per-chapter thread. Just because there isn’t an exchange of currency, we can’t assume that the band isn’t receiving something of value. Even if it’s done with the best of intentions, our overzealous fan who distributes the content through his own channels instead of the band’s channels may end up depriving the band of some value.

    If our hypothetical fan really wants to help this hypothetical band, then everyone is better off if he directs people to the band’s chosen method of downloading instead of going off on his own.


  • Eli James

    @Raven: I can’t help but wonder if you’re an economist (are you?). ;-) Good call. You’ve reminded me of something – economists don’t generally see a price of an item as just the currency cost associated with it … they evaluate according to other cost factors – social or otherwise – associated with the purchase and factor that in to the final ‘price’.

    Metrics may be one of those cost-factors indeed. Another cost-factor might be the social/psychological sense of ownership … things just doesn’t feel right when you’ve taken my work and put it on a filesharing site.

    (I’ve read an anecdotal account of one such incident, however, and when the author contacted the kid doing it, he found one of his biggest fans. The kid was filesharing because he so loved the books! Talk about worst case scenario …

  • RavenProject

    Nope, not an economist, just fascinated by online business.

    I’d say you didn’t need to be reminded so much as shown another perspective, since you’ve always been a huge proponent of “human attention” as a benefit to “free” distribution.

    Your anecdotal account is probably correct and I’d wager not even uncommon. Savvy purveyors of content on the web are well-served to find ways to make it as easy as possible for their fans to promote on their behalf, whether it’s as simple as supplying cool web banners or as elaborate as an affiliate program.

    I had another element occur to me later: Copyright.

    One aspect of copyright law, at least in America, holds that the copyright owner must enforce his rights or risk losing them. That’s how you get otherwise ridiculous stories like Disney suing a day-care center; they can’t just let it go because it presents a risk to their copyrights and trademarks.

    So going back to Hypothetical Band (and if anyone actually names their band that, the name’s all yours)… judges may understand that pirates will take their music and deliver it without their approval. However, if it can be proven that that band was aware of that distribution and opted not to act, then it could be ruled that they have failed to police their rights and therefore forfeit them. Even the most liberal Creative Commons license places some demands on those who redistribute content.

    Again, savvy purveyors of content keep this in mind. For example, some companies provide “fansite kits” of pre-approved content which can be used… and a mandatory copyright notice to post alongside it.

    – John

  • Gavin

    But, (and this is just for the sake of argument) does an artist have any right to complain about “copyright violations” on something he gave away for free?

    Where’s the damage? How is it calculated? What was stolen? I think it would be a very tricky thing to try to bring to court, and so again, is this piracy? Especially when most cases could well be that kid, the “biggest fan ever” who just wanted to share his favourite song/story/etc. It’s exposure, which is the mentality of the internet culture right now — share everything. “Information is free” or whatever current slogans people are using.

  • RavenProject

    @Gavin: “But, (and this is just for the sake of argument) does an artist have any right to complain about “copyright violations” on something he gave away for free?”

    =Absolutely.= Copyright isn’t about money. It’s about the creator’s right to control how his creation is used.

    The creator can offer the work at no cost per his discretion. But only he has that privilege. If anyone else wishes to distribute the work, then they must have explicit permission from the creator.

    “Where’s the damage? How is it calculated?”

    Even if the pirate isn’t making a profit and wasn’t acting maliciously, he can still be liable for a *minimum* of $750 plus attorney costs.


  • Gavin

    Thanks! I really like the way you put this:

    The creator can offer the work at no cost per his discretion. But only he has that privilege. If anyone else wishes to distribute the work, then they must have explicit permission from the creator.

    I think it’s a wise law. I could argue with a judge that, since the product was free, there’s no financial damage if someone else distributes it for free also. But a law protecting the *freedom* of a creator to be creative and share it, according to their discretion — that’s inventive.

    It’s like codifying respect for a person’s ideas. In a practical sense, it’s almost impossible to enforce (as Eli points out, piracy is rampant thanks to the internet). But trying to teach people respect, at a societal and legal level, that’s still kind of a noble battle, even if piracy is running rampant today. People might learn to ask first, instead. Use their manners, you know? ;)

  • Gavin

    Crap – I meant to italicize only what I was quoting from John/Raven’s post — and I forgot to close the html coding. Sorry.

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