Piracy, Uh, What Is It Good For?

April 28th, 2008 · 7 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

What do you fear more: obscurity or piracy? Seems to me most people fear the latter because we’re told that piracy is bad and must be stopped. 400,000 books were published/distributed in the United States in 2007, according to Rachel Donadio’s recent New York Times article (“You’re an Author? Me Too!”). If you’re trying to reach the surface and 399,999 other books are blocking your way, piracy might very well be the only evidence that you’re not totally obscure.

When threatened with obscurity versus piracy, it helps to understand terms.

Yes, you’ve been warned. Random, disconnected thoughts to follow.

The entertainment companies — music, motion picture, and publishing — tend to equate piracy with lost sales. The thinking, when putting industry spin on the problem, is that each pirated copy of a product represents a lost sale. That only holds true if the person who enjoys a free download or physical bootleg would have purchased the product anyway. Or if that pirated version doesn’t represent a digital version of something the consumer also legally purchased in a physical format. It also only holds true if the pirated material represents the only available option for that consumer in that media at that time (see: the entire Harry Potter catalog, digital version).

Piracy does not always mean lost sales, but, absolutely, authors suffer some loss of compensation when their work is pirated. There is no way to absolutely quantify this loss, but it’s worth considering that authors have, in the past, encouraged, heck, championed, losses that are analogous to what we’re now calling piracy. Consider these examples, old and new, of “lost sales”:

  • Libraries: Authors don’t make any more money if a book is borrowed once or a thousand times from a library (though wear and tear on a thousand check-outs might mean more copies sold). Yet authors and publishers are huge supporters of libraries (me too!). The thinking is that the volume of sales (lots of libraries) and exposure to new readers is worth the lack of ongoing compensation. Libraries bring readers and books together.

    And libraries aren’t really free to consumers: we support them via taxes. The free culture really doesn’t get free, but that’s another problem for another day. While authors and publishers and readers love libraries, these institutions are losing when it comes to funding. This “free” source of books needs to be nurtured if you’re serious about reading. Off soapbox now, except to say that you get what you pay for and if you’re not thinking about your tax dollars and libraries, you don’t love libraries.

  • Used Bookstores: Unlike libraries, where there isn’t a commerce component (unless you count book sales), used bookstores make money by selling books without paying the author or publisher anything. A book can be bought and resold many times, but the author only sees benefit of that first sale. Again, authors and publishers often see this as a positive thing. I remain skeptical. Bottom line is that books are distributed and monetized by third parties. It’s the doctrine of first sale in the physical world; there is not equivalent in the digital world.
  • Free Downloads: Though there is evidence that offering a free download increases sales of physical/legal digital product, the truth of the matter is that not every person who downloads will make a purchase. There will be a percentage of people who might have paid for the product but figure free is a better price. Still, those authors who give their work away seem to believe it was the right choice, with benefits outweighing drawbacks.

    Free downloads increase visibility for the author and the book, but they can also create negative impressions about the value of a book. So what — valuable promotional tool or gateway drug?

  • Book Swaps: People have been sharing books with friends and family since the printing press was invented. Nothing feels more fantastic that pressing a great read on a good friend and saying, “You have got to cancel all your plans this weekend. Read this.” But for well over a decade now, book swapping hasn’t been a benign, limited range activity.

    Basic human activity has been made into viable business in this Internet age. Once, this was a pretty limited activity — now, it’s a highly specialized practice. Services like BookMooch are building frameworks that bypass, all together now, the author and publisher.

    It is often argued that these service represent a “Netflix for books”. They do not. Netflix pays the motion picture distributors ongoing royalties for their service. These amounts are then reported for residual and participation payments. The book business has not been aggressive in this regard. However configured, these services allow their clients to bypass book purchases.

    Good or bad? I’m not seeing many authors talking about this. I think my position is pretty obvious.

Piracy — the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials — is something that must be fought. Sort of. Maybe it’s me, but finding pirated books is a lot harder than finding legal downloads (thanks Jill for being my test bunny; I learned that a lot of people are talking about your mullet). After I worked through a few Google pages of results in my quest for illegal books, I found some fringe stuff. I have no idea, on first glance if these sites are legal or not. Without doing extensive research — and the average consumer won’t — I don’t know if these are legal sellers or not. But they weren’t top ten results (and we know that few people go beyond the top ten)

I found an interesting site where the download service was run like a library (with X-number of lending days and available digital copies). Found a few services that charged for ebooks, but didn’t seem to be illegal (if so, man, these are so obvious, why haven’t they been shut down?). I found a site that, after forcing me through a really horrific interface, funneled me to a site that wanted me to buy books. How is the consumer to differentiate between legal and not?

It’s a question worth exploring. We live in a world where the world’s largest online retailer sells new books and used books in the same breath. If piracy represents the loss of sales, then surely ready access to used books are the epitome of piracy. But used book sales are good and piracy is bad and lost sales are, what, only lost sales when they’re piracy but not when they’re used book sales?

What is piracy? Historically, there was an inherent profit motive (and given the fact that pirates still roam the high seas…), but we’re living in an era where the “pirates” aren’t necessarily making money off their activities, and it’s unclear to what degree sales are being lost. File sharing, unfortunate and pervasive, has much in common with the activities I’ve outlined above. As I look over that list, I’ll note that I’m on record as advocating smarter, better ways to create fair, ongoing compensation for artists, but I don’t think this nation is up to the task of changing.

People who are actively seeking free, illegal downloads are going to put themselves through the extreme effort necessary to find these books because paying for a book or video or song is not an option (I never did find free, though I admit I wasn’t a motivated pirate). Keep fighting those sites and make it !@#$ hard to download a pirated copy of your books. Terrify the kiddies with stories about evil viruses and spyware. Make piracy the least attractive option for your customers.

When threatened with obscurity versus piracy, it helps to understand terms. 400,000 books is a lot. Way too many, if you ask me. Others disagree, and I think they’re looking at the micro rather than the macro. Thinking, reading, and talking about books is changing, and there’s a necessary weighing of audience-increasing sharing of books (in the physical and digital worlds) against the specter of lost sales.

Your challenge is to figure out where you stand on this issue. I can only help by offering up a whole bunch of great thoughts on this topic (some even more coherent than what I’m offering up here):

File Under: Square Pegs

7 responses so far ↓

  • Jim Murdoch // Apr 29, 2008 at 5:02 am

    Writers do get payments if their books are in libraries: Public Lending Right payments. See these PDFs for details:


  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 29, 2008 at 7:30 am

    That’s only the UK and Canada. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have the same sort of system (hence “this nation”). I’ve written quite a bit about how other countries handle ongoing payments for artists, but generally, nobody here seems interested, and I doubt there’s any political will to even consider change.

  • George Burke // Apr 29, 2008 at 8:44 am

    I don’t necessarily believe in the “Right of First Sale” doctrine. Although my book rental company, BookSwim.com — with no due dates, unlimited rentals and free shipping both ways — has gotten away by owning older books for a dollar or two apiece and freely renting them out to our BookSwimmers without the need to pay royalties, I believe a new model should be presented.

    Just in the way Netflix and Blockbuster obtain their inventory through revenue-share, I believe “netflix for books” organizations like BookSwim.com can embrace the same model. We can pay $X per rental to the publisher/author instead of buying the book upfront. This is a win/win situation as it rewards authors who write timeless books, while also allowing us to source more inventory with less paid upfront.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 29, 2008 at 9:36 am

    George — great comments, and I have to say I agree, though I suspect we’re in the minority. It would be an accounting nightmare — of course, there are technological solutions to help there — but I do like the idea very much.

  • bowerbird // Apr 29, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    are you sure it’s difficult to find pirated books?

    tell me what titles you want…


  • Speakeasy » Blog Archive » Fans or Pirates? // Apr 29, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    […] this, in the form of free sample chapters, and in Neil Gaiman’s case, free e-books. A recent post on Booksquare also asks a few pertinant […]

  • Clive Warner // May 1, 2008 at 9:24 am

    It seems to me pretty obvious that the market is changing away from books. I used to be an avid reader but I rarely read a physical book any more.
    There are too many alternative enjoyments that offer an immersive experience and demand much less imagination, e.g. Grand Theft Auto IV.
    In the music business the physical CD is dying; physical books will surely follow sooner or later.
    I wonder how writers will make any money in a digital future. I can imagine selling novels in bite-sized pieces over the Net, with a short video advert preceeding each piece. I suspect the ‘chapter’, invented by the Victorians as a way of defining a convenient reading session, will be replaced by something rather shorter.