Unintentional Pirates, or Listening to Readers

July 21st, 2009 · 8 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

One reason I focus on the world of digital publishing is because it’s the most exciting thing in the book world today. Oh sure, we might, collectively, raise an eyebrow or two at the humongous advances paid to authors like Yann Martel, especially given the current state of industry and the author’s own admission that he’s not expecting it to find a huge audience.

We sigh over embargoed books by politicians who, ultimately, reveal so little in their books, it makes us wonder if the embargoes are a Hail Mary attempt to trick readers into buying a book before word-of-mouth does its job. These raised eyebrows and sighs are part of business as usual. Amazon repossessing books from customers?

Now that’s news.

Others have covered this topic quite effectively. Does that mean I’ll ignore it? Of course not.

Last week, in the comments to Dominique Raccah’s post on ebook release patterns — a topic that remains hot this week — there was a brief back and forth about piracy. More than one person has suggested that denying people ebooks can lead readers to pirated books. This suggestion invites outrage — how dare we justify a clearly illegal behavior!

To which I reply, “No, that’s not what is being said at all.” Listen, learn, understand, employ smarter strategy.

The Amazon story is, at heart, a case of classic piracy: somebody (apparently) stole something for the sake of future profits. But the customers who bought the book were not aware that the book they purchased was illegal. One student is now able to use, possibly for the first time, the “Amazon ate my homework” line.

Amazon’s response was sloppy. They should have communicated with customers before invading their privacy. They should have eaten the loss. They should have done more to ensure their customers were made to feel comfortable about, and there’s no way to avoid this, Big Brother watching them. The fact that this can and did happen highlights something early ebook adopters have been saying all along: we don’t feel like we own these books, at least not in the commonly acknowledged way.

Piracy exists. It’s not going to die. Heck, every futuristic novel we read contemplates the existence of piracy (usually with pirates fighting Evil Empires). So why do ordinarily law-abiding people engage in piracy? I think understanding what drives people — people who firmly believe that all four tires must come to a full stop at the octagonal red sign — to go through the hassle of finding and downloading illegal books.

I don’t believe that every instance of “piracy” is an instance of a lost sale. I do believe that most instances of customers seeking an ebook and not finding a legal copy represent lost sales. I don’t believe readers, especially in today’s crazier-by-the-moment market, necessarily know that they’re accessing illegal copies. I do believe retailers like Scribd need to be more aggressive about policing what’s on their sites.

I believe pirated versions of books indicate a level of demand for backlist titles. I don’t believe withholding digital rights stops piracy. I do believe people will happily pay for books as long as their basic requirements are met. I don’t believe “that’s how we’ve always done it” is a good response to change.

What I believe most of all is that, more than ever, publishers need to listen to what readers are saying. The two sides may not always agree, but there’s a really good chance someone will learn something new.

File Under: Square Pegs

8 responses so far ↓

  • Doug Knipe [SciFiGuy] // Jul 21, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    What a wonderful common sense approach to the whole subject. But then if common sense was so common more people would have it wouldn’t they?
    If I want to rent a book I’ll use the library not Amazon.

  • Chris Hoopes // Jul 22, 2009 at 7:29 am

    The one observation that is missing from this article is that the book was not pirated. The two books that were “repossessed” are public domain outside the United States. They are even public domain even in Canada.

    The company providing these ebooks has the right to deliver them outside the USA. They just didn’t have the right to do so within the United States. “1984” is back on Amazon’s Kindle list (from the same distributor) with a disclaimer stating it is intended for use outside the USA.

    It’s not a state of piracy, but one of them overstepping their permissions.

  • Kirk // Jul 22, 2009 at 10:35 am

    @chris – the status of “1984” outside of the U.S. isn’t particularly relevant to Kindle owners who, by definition, are all in the U.S.

    The book in question was being sold in violation of the U.S. copyright. Even if this was being done unintentionally many would consider that to be a form of piracy (profiting from an IP product that someone else owns the rights to).

  • Melinda Blau // Jul 22, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Is it also piracy when someone–say someone from Russia–lifts your blog word for word without attribution. Yesterday, show a friend how search engines work, I googled “consequential strangers,” the subject of my upcoming book. Lo and behold i found a site written in both English and Russian,,,and a post by me relating GM’s bankruptcy to its disregard for CS. I put a lot of time and thought into that post and while I realize it might lead to best seller status in Leningrad someday, it feel as if pirates had come onto my ship and left with some of my booty.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 22, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Yes, Melinda, that is stealing. I’ve had this happen to me (and it was both angering and funny as the pirates stole in way that was more nonsensical than anything), and it’s stealing. We need better international protection and better ways to protect copyright holders.

  • Walt Shiel // Jul 23, 2009 at 5:16 am

    First, I object to the use of the term “piracy” with all its romantic overtones.

    Folks, piracy is just a euphemism for theft. Period.

    Motives are irrelevant. As is ignorance of the law, which has never been an accepted legal defense.

    If the Feds had gotten involved in this issue, they probably would have found out from Amazon who had those e-books on their Kindles. They could then likely, legally have seized all those Kindles. What Amazon did was far less invasive, albeit with really poor customer communication.

    Buy a stolen car (or would you rather say “pirated car”?) without knowing it’s stolen. How long do you think the cops will let you keep that car once they find you have it?

    Theft is theft, whether of physical or intellectual property. Let’s not glamorize it.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 23, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Walt — I am going to disagree here. I do not believe the customers who bought these books were aware they were not legally for sale in the United States. They went to a trusted retailer and made what they perceived to be a legitimate purchase. There is no evidence of ill-intent on the part of the customers. Why would the Federal government become involved? Amazon handled this poorly because these customers did not know what they had purchased. Their actions were invasive and highlighted the fact that ownership of digital media is different than ownership of physical media. Yes, we’re making up new rules as we go along, but this case should make it clear that the automatic slapping of the term “pirate” on unwitting customers does both them and the problem disservice. It’s really hard to take media companies seriously when they use false statistics to bolster their case — piracy is a serious enough problem without overinflating “lost sales”.

    Add in the fact that not only were the books repossessed without notice, so were any notes and associated consumer commentary. Amazon, in effect, took back these books and illegally confiscated someone else’s intellectual property.

    Likewise, there is some evidence that twere was territorial rights confusion over this title. I do not know for sure, but given the patchwork quilt of copyright laws we have around the world, these mistakes are only going to increase. Add in the confusion over legitimately public domain over in-copyright (do you honestly think the average US citizen is aware of the nuances of copyright extension laws?), the preponderance of free samples, and the lack of legitimate stores, and you have a lot of readers who simply don’t know.

    I do not believe we will ever be in a position to address the serious problem of piracy until we address the underlying reasons. Contrary to media assertions, most people understand that they have to pay for things. They do so willingly. Understanding the factors, including unintentional piracy, behind these behaviors is the smartest, fastest way to solve the problem. Because as we’ve seen in the music industry, litigation didn’t help nearly as much as offering smart, legal choices for consumers.

    (And while I applaud Houghton’s quick action to get a legitimate digital version of this book online for readers to purchase, c’mon $9.99?)

  • Walt Shiel // Jul 24, 2009 at 5:13 am

    Maybe, in my hurried response, I was not clear.

    I do not apply the “thief” label to the end consumers in this case but, instead, to the publisher who screwed up (intentionally or otherwise).

    But you cannot legally “own” property that was sold without the legal right to do so. I see no reason why digital property is any different. If it is not a legal copy, you don’t really own it even if you paid for it.

    Of course, there’s no doubt that Amazon blew it with the way this was handled. But I think they were correct in determining that they needed to do something to protect themselves from potential litigation from somebody.

    And I always start with the assumption that people are, in general, honest and will do the right thing. Those who prove me wrong are never trusted again. But I won’t damn everyone else because of those bad actors.

    As a result, I am anti-DRM and our e-books don’t use it, unless we have no control over it (as with some retailers).

    Also, I believe that publishers are foolish to stick to the $9.99 price point and said so in a blog post last month.