How To Build A Better Pirate

February 28th, 2007 · 3 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

The creative community has an almost unnatural fear of piracy. Billions are being spent to protect works of art from “unlawful distribution”. Billions. Like millions, but bigger. Because it starts with a B. The belief is that each and every time someone grabs something off the Internet for free, a sale is lost. There isn’t much evidence to support this theory.

If you treat your customers like potential lawbreakers, then, well, you know what a self-fulfilling prophecy is, right?

There are, indeed, people who will go out of their way to acquire illegal merchandise. We would never be so precious as to assert otherwise. We know of individuals who, indeed, put more effort into not paying than they would have spent on a legitimate copy of something. These are the rare ones. It takes a lot of work to find illegal copies of movies, television shows, music, and books online. Especially books. In many cases, the risks associated with piracy — the potential for spyware, viruses, getting caught — make stealing a losing proposition.

We have long asserted that most people, given the choice, would happily pay for works of art. Yet the major media companies (and, frankly, some not-so-major media companies) persist in perceiving their customers as potential criminals. Nothing says “I value your business” like this attitude. Fear of piracy trumps reason, to the point where digital works of art come with more strings and restrictions than their physical counterparts: we have reached a point where it more practical, more useful for consumers to purchase physical CDs — fewer restrictions, easier to make copies — than to download music.

How backward is that?

Physical books, likewise, have few barriers to entry. Except scarcity and price. Those are frustrating barriers for consumers: the entire secondary book market thrives because of this. However, when a consumer does purchase a book, they can do just about anything they want — including freely distribute it to complete strangers on the street — without penalty. Sure, some people might be insane enough to reproduce the entire text and try to sell illegal copies. These are the few, the crazy.

Even as more consumers move online and utilize digital works, the media companies try to restrict their ability to interact with the media. Digital Rights Management, a system that prevents the good people from using digital media they’ve legally purchased in the same manner as, at a minimum, physical media, is the term for all of this gatekeeping. We’d warrant that DRM does more to keep good people out than it does to keep pirates at bay.

There have been many examples supporting our theory that people will happily pay for digital or physical media, even when a free copy is available. Look no further than your local library: free books galore. Yet many consumers buy books. Getting a book free from the library comes with trade-offs: scarce resources, meaning one might have to wait in line to read a book, limited time frames, meaning one might need to read fast because the book must be returned. For many consumers, the benefits of buying outweigh the benefits of borrowing.

Likewise with digital media. But there’s a curious caveat to this rule. Even when free digital copies of material are made available with the same ease-of-use as paid copies, consumers often opt to shell out cold, hard cash for something they might get for free. We believe that most people value what they’re receiving and want to make sure that value is made clear. In the past, we’ve used (probably without his knowledge) Cory Doctorow as our poster child for the “even if you give it away, they’re gonna pay for it” theory. We can add author Eric Flint to our pantheon:

The sky did not fall. To the contrary, many of those books have remained in print and continued to be profitable for the publishers and paying royalties to the authors. For years, now, in some cases. Included among them is my own most popular title, 1632. I put that novel up in the Baen Library back in 2001—six years ago. At the time, the novel had sold about 30,000 copies in paperback.

Today, six years after I “pirated” myself, the novel has sold over 100,000 copies.

Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? You know, why buy the cow and all that. Of course, that seems counterintuitive, too. There was anecdotal evidence during the heyday of Napster that music sales increased. Probably because there was more access to a wider variety of music for consumers, but, well, you know, the music industry clearly thinks that homogenization is better than diversity.

The key to the success of the Baen library has not been free books — it has been, as Flint notes, flexibility and easy access to paid product. Rather than restricting the reading of books to a specific media player, software program, or hardware device (sigh, will the major media companies ever learn?), people who buy the books can, well, read them whenever and however they want. They can even, of course, share them with friends. Sort of like real life, you know?

Another key aspect of this is price. Right now, digital media isn’t such a great deal for consumers. Consumers clearly will pay for digital media, but they don’t want to be overcharged. E-books are not yet a huge piece of the market, but they are a growing segment. Selling an electronic book at hardcover or even mass market paperback prices is, well, a sign that publishers don’t understand what they’re doing.

Most consumers want to do the right thing — most media companies have decided that couldn’t be the case. If you treat your customers like potential lawbreakers, then, well, you know what a self-fulfilling prophecy is, right?

File Under: The Future of Publishing

3 responses so far ↓

  • Lee // Feb 28, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Interesting post. I’ve been convinced that giving it away as a gift is fine but am beginning to wonder if I should consider another model for my next novel.

  • SusanGable // Feb 28, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    I don’t think giving it away leads more people to buy stories. A song is different — you can play the same song a zillion times, enjoying it as much or maybe more each time. Most people don’t reread books. Very rare books. After all, there are so many books out there!

    For example, I recently borrowed a series of books from a friend. (Actual, real, physical copies. Not a copy she had made for me. (g) And therein lies the problem with a digital file – you can not only share it with ONE friend, but everyone on the planet without actually giving up your original. ) They were fabulous! I enojoyed them so much I felt guilty for having borrowed them, and enjoyed them so much, I felt they deserved keeper status, so I should go out and buy my own copies.

    Good intentions as they are, I still haven’t bought those books. And, truthfully, if I have limited money to spend on books, I’m more likely to spend my money on something NEW, something I haven’t read yet. Because that’s the point of a novel – encountering a new story, new characters.

    So I don’t buy the “give it away and they will buy it anyway” theory. (shrug) I’m all for giving consumers a way to sample the book — even in eformat — but I’m not giving away the whole thing.

    Stephen King’s Pay on the Honor System experiement didn’t work out so well. And he’s Stephen King.

  • Maximum Persuasion // Jul 20, 2007 at 8:24 am

    I doubt the piracy issue would ever end.

    In my country, you can find libraries that literally abet piracy; check out their shelves. Thousands and thousands of hard bound photocopied books.

    Then there are CDs full of digital media.

    But while piracy can’t be stamped out, I think people will still continue to buy simply because millions of us still want a physical copy of the real thing.

    Kinda like collecting Nikes or Rolexes