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