intellectual property

15 Sep 2012, by

On Piracy

I was recently alerted to the fact that a number of my books are available on pirate sites. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, and I thought it would make suitable fodder for a blog so I thought I’d toss my hat into the debate.

On the one hand, I’m flattered. With almost a million indie authors out there who can’t get arrested, that sites feel my work is in suitable demand to offer it, albeit pirated, can only be considered a compliment. Another way of looking at it is that pirated copies are basically no different than the freebies I give out during free promos, and the more readers familiar with my work, the more are likely to buy something eventually.


Still another way of looking at it is that this is merely book lending, albeit with no limit on the number of times a book can be simultaneously lent. In the physical world, you can only lend a book one at a time, like a library. In the virtual world, you can do the equivalent of counterfeiting, which is where you fire up the Xerox machine and make 10K copies of that one book and distribute them. There is a reason that copyright wording restricts the ability to copy to the copyright holder, not the purchaser of a single copy of the book. If you want to look at it clearly, the content of the book is licensed for that single use copy, and the copy is the property of the buyer – but not the content, at least not to reproduce it. Because again, that would skew supply and demand.


NEWS: How about that? The Geronimo Breach is featured as an example in a blog on self-editing for indie authors. Worth a read.


The other hand is less pretty. That perspective is that piracy is theft, pure and simple – a book’s intellectual property is still property, as clearly articulated in the copyright notice, and it’s not anyone’s property but the copyright owner. That’s not ambiguous. One might argue that’s unfair, or bad, or shouldn’t be, but the one thing it isn’t is ambiguous. So if you are pirating, it is clear you DON’T OWN the property you are electronically copying and distributing, and that it is AGAINST THE LAW to do so, because the law views the taking and distributing of material that isn’t yours as copyright infringement – a kind of theft. Those offering pirated goods are offering stolen goods, and those downloading the stolen goods are participating in the theft – they are benefiting by getting something they would have had to pay for if they obeyed the law or if the stolen articles weren’t available for download.

I’m familiar with all kinds of arguments for piracy – that the receivers of the stolen property might not be able to afford the goods, or that it does no real harm and is thus a victimless crime, or that it can have a benefit for authors by familiarizing readers with their work, or that protection of intellectual property is basically greed-driven and “old paradigm.” I can sympathize with all of these arguments, but in the end I find them to be rationalizations for stealing. Inevitably those with broken moral compasses try to muddy the water and debate whether stealing is wrong or not (if you had to steal to survive, is it really so wrong? To save your baby? And so on), but I’m pretty clear that whatever it is, it isn’t right.

If I invest several thousands of dollars in editing and creating covers and the like, I hope to recoup that cost, plus a reward for my time in creating the work in the first place. That’s reasonable – as per the copyright, I own it, so I’m entitled to expect compensation (if I have the work for sale) for my effort. When someone decides to download a pirated copy of one of my books, they are gaining the benefit of my work without compensating me. All other arguments aside, that’s the net of the transaction. I don’t see the revenue that is my due as the intellectual property rights owner.

I’ve heard folks who say, yeah, but it’s not really hurting your sales anyway, or the sales of big companies, who are making tons of money and thus can afford to be victimized by criminals. The problem with that idea is that it assumes that I’m not being harmed. I would argue I am being even more harmed than a large company that can afford to have some lost revenue due to theft. Because I’m a small business, every lost sale hits me directly in hundred cent dollars. My self-publishing business is a business, not a philanthropic enterprise. It pays bills. It does so by being paid for the product it distributes.

I believe that the more people who read my work the better. But it is my right to decide which work I make free, and when, and to whom. If someone bought a hard copy book of mine (assuming I had them) and lent it to a friend, who lent it to a friend who did the same thing, I would have no problem with that. Because the form factor limits the ability to distribute it – there’s no chance of that same copy being lent 10K times in one month, or simultaneously. Likewise, I have no problem with someone selling it for 10 cents at a used book store or garage sale, for the same reason. But with an ebook it is very different.

It’s my right to decide, as the IP rights holder, when and how I want to give stuff away free. It is not someone else’s right. Forgetting for a moment any moral arguments, can we agree at least that if something is illegal everywhere, it’s probably illegal for a good reason? Now, one might argue that it’s OK to break bad laws, and I might even sign up for that. But the real question comes down to, how much of someone else’s property that I have no legitimate right to is it OK for me to use and receive the benefit of and distribute? Put another way, how many hours of your 40 hour workweek, after you deduct the roughly 20 hours you work for the government, and the 10 to 15 you work for the bank and insurance companies…how many of the five remaining hours are you willing to work for free, for me, so I can have the benefit of your labor? One? Two? All five? How would you feel if a criminal syndicate showed up and simply stole one hour’s worth of post-tax, post-mortgage/CC money from you every week? Would you be ambivalent? Would you be furious? Would you figure that you weren’t really being harmed, or worse, that you were being “greedy” because you sort of had use for that money you worked so hard to make?

Or we can look at it another way. You are a sculptor who has managed to create a line of work that is unique, and you have protected it so nobody else can knock it off and represent their copy as your creation. You make little sculptures for a living, and you have opened a store to sell your designs. How many sculptures is it OK to steal from that store? 1%? 10%? 20%? Or how many copies of the protected work is it OK to make and sell, represented as the sculptor’s work, in a shop right next door?

I’ve heard pirating likened to book lending. It isn’t. I’ve heard arguments that say “the more pirating of books, the better, as it increases my sales.” Well, maybe so, if you sell hard copy books through stores. But when the only thing you have to sell are the bits and bytes that compose the intellectual property of a book, there’s no such distribution or form factor-based differentiators. There is simply product X, which consists of bits and bytes, and pirated product X, which is identical in every way. I’m quite sure that if someone was operating a factory to create hard copies of Neil Gamon’s work and sell them alongside his legitimate work in bookstores or at the airport, he wouldn’t have the same laisser-faire view he tosses out now. If Barnes decided to print copies of his book, foregoing that annoying part where they have to pay the author or publisher anything, and then sold them for nothing as a loss leader to drive store traffic, what would the value of his identical legitimate offering priced at $12 be perceived as, right along side of the identical copy for free?

The answer is obvious. But somehow the concept that in cyber-space, because the bookshelf is virtual, versus in a store, it makes it OK to do the same thing. Except even a cursory analysis shows that it isn’t OK at all. If Nora Roberts has a book for $8.99 at Amazon as an ebook, and Shiftyreads has the identical book available as a free download for anyone who wants it, it DOES have an impact on how many books she will sell at Amazon. Of course it does. I can go on and on. If Baskin Robbins charges $4 for a scoop of Y flavor here, and right next door they give away knock-off Baskin Robbins flavor Y for free, will it have an impact on Baskin’s legit sales? Figure it out. Of course it will.

About the only two arguments I’ve heard for piracy being good are anecdotes from authors who seem to mistake correlation with causality (sales increased by 100% since being pirated), and those comparing it to book lending via libraries or in book clubs. Let’s address the first. If one makes the mistaken assumption that pirating didn’t occur BECAUSE the author was picking up steam and becoming more popular, one could mistake that for pirating RESULTING in higher sales. It also requires that one confabulate print books with ebooks. I could see where if you have a radically different product (print books) than the pirated ebook, familiarity with the author’s work which was a function of reading a pirated copy could boost paper sales. But I think it’s fairly obvious that they aren’t going to boost ebook sales of the available-as-pirated titles, if all the same work is available either as a pirated good or as a genuine one. If you think it will, go back to my Baskin Robbins scenario. How much more of flavor Y will Baskin sell out of its location if Pirate Ice next door gives away the identical thing for free? My gut says not a lot. Now assume that it’s a virtual storefront, and that the store is everywhere at once, available to everyone at once. Same question – how much ice cream will they sell? The answer – less than if Pirate Ice wasn’t giving it away right next to them.

In the end, I have arrived at several conclusions. First, pirating can increase visibility of an author’s work, which is good. No question. Second, theft of intellectual property is still theft, just as counterfeiting a stock or a note is theft (it deceives the receiver, and robs the remaining genuine articles of their value by the number of fakes in circulation – diminishing the true value of the real thing due to increased supply. All markets are supply/demand driven, in that if you increase supply to one unit more than existing demand, the price goes down). Third, I believe those taking the stance that pirating is OK haven’t thought it through, or are making some flawed assumptions (mistaking causality with correlation).

I think it comes down to whether you believe that theft is OK, or not. Because none of the pro-piracy arguments can surmount that one niggling detail – that copying and distributing the work is prohibited by copyright, and violating that prohibition is copyright infringement, which amounts to stealing from the intellectual property owner.

Put me down as anti-stealing, I guess. Call me old fashioned that way. If I seem intolerant on this topic, it’s probably because it’s my shit being stolen, not yours.

What do you think?


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