What You Need to Know about Book Piracy

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Pirate Bay LogoOkay, we all know about this. Piracy, the great and terrifying force that's destroying authors' means to make a living on one hand, and getting their work in front of thousands of new readers on the other. There's plenty of conflicting information out there. Let's get down to business, shall we? Here's what you need to know, my dear author friends, in a handy bullet point list.

1. Piracy is not something that can be stopped.

This is because of the limits of technology. Sorry, guys. It's not possible to stop piracy completely through technological means. If there was a way to do it, the big media companies would have found it by now, seeing as they've spent the last ten plus years throwing millions of dollars at the problem.

Now, having said that, let me elaborate a little. It's possible for you to prevent your work from being pirated if you never publish it and keep it on your hard drive or in your notebooks forever. I'm assuming, though, that you intend to actually publish your work, or you're already published.

So here's the best analogy: imagine your book is in a box. You have the key to this box. In order for someone to read your book, you must give them the key so that they can open it, or you must open it for them - but as soon as that box is open, they can infinitely copy your book, whether you like it or not.

I guess you don't want them to infinitely copy your book, because you won't get paid for any of that. But that's the trade-off, unfortunately. If someone can read your book, they can copy it.

2. Piracy can be reduced, however.

You can, in fact, cut the rate of piracy. You know what's working for the big media companies, whether they like it or not?

Netflix, and iTunes.

Think about it. What do these things have in common? They make it really, really, REALLY easy for a user to access the content. Netflix is a monthly fee, all you can eat option; iTunes is a one-click buy. This is what you want to aim for, when you're selling your books. Piracy takes time and effort that plenty of readers just don't have, but they'll do it if they feel they have to. If you want to sell your book and restrict it to the US, for example, you better accept that it'll be pirated outside the US by fans who don't want to wait around for their local release. If you make your book inconvenient to read for some users, say by adding DRM, then they're likely to pirate it to get a copy that 'just works'.

Case in point: the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling was famously against any kind of ebook release of her work because she feared they would be pirated, and, as a result, there was no legitimate way to buy Harry Potter in electronic format for years.

Did this stop piracy? Hell no. Pirate versions were the ONLY ebooks available, they were intensely popular, and Ms. Rowling didn't see a dime because the fans who so wanted those ebooks had no way of paying her for them. So, long story short, make it easy for people to buy and read your books, and they're less likely to go and pirate them.

3. It's sometimes good, and sometimes bad.

For most authors, piracy is less important than obscurity. If there's one thing that piracy is good at, it's getting content into the hands of lots of people through very efficient methods. Musicians, filmmakers, etc, have the same problem with obscurity, and plenty of them are willing to use piracy to get publicity.

For the big guys, piracy means they're losing some unknown number of sales from people who opted for the free copy instead of paying for it.

4. But the bad has never really been quantified.

If you step back from the usual emotional response - 'OH NOES THEY'RE GETTING MY BOOK FOR FREE AND NOT GIVING ME MONEY!' - and look at piracy from a purely business perspective, no one's ever really been able to prove conclusively to what extent sales are affected by piracy. The big issue is that there's no correlation. Game of Thrones, for example, is one of the most popular shows around at the moment, and it's the current title holder of 'Most Pirated Show on TV'. It's also a massive commercial success, so it's not as if piracy appears to be harming it that much.

See, if piracy was such a huge deal, then we'd a very particular pattern - commercial failures among movies and TV shows would be far more likely to be heavily pirated than normal, and commercial successes would be far more likely to be less pirated than normal. Fact is, we don't see that pattern.

So what does this mean for you, the author? Well, it means you should keep a cool head and don't worry about your books being pirated until you know for sure that piracy is influencing your sales.

5. It means your work is popular and people like it.

If your books are being pirated, then they've got something good going for them. Nobody shares stuff they don't like. Don't forget that the users doing the sharing are usually your biggest fans, too. You think they'd bother chasing after your books if they didn't really want them?

Popularity is awesome. That's step one in the big game of 'How can I make huge piles of cash from my writing?' Your next step is figuring out why your fans are pirating your books, and seeing if there's anything you can do to make it easier for them to give you money, but getting popular is the hard part. I think a lot of authors forget this.

6. People have lots of reasons for pirating.

It's not always about the money. When it comes to ebooks, it's really not about the money. Most people can afford a few bucks for a book. The denizens of the Internet are used to getting their content instantly and conveniently, to the device of their choice, in the format of their choice. Take away some part of this, and they'll resort to technical means to get it back.

To go back to Games of Thrones on this: Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal pretty much gets it right. Some pirates can't afford to buy, sure, but a huge bunch more are simply not given the option to start with, because of licensing or regional restrictions or who knows what else. Some can afford it, but don't want to spend a few hundred dollars on a new device to watch one show or read one book. Some can afford it, but don't want to spend their cash on something that could turn out to be terrible so they try it before they buy. Some can afford a few books, but their budget doesn't allow for new authors who may or may not be worth reading.

Some don't have credit cards, and Amazon doesn't take Paypal, so they may not be able to buy your books if they're only on Amazon.

See what I mean? You can call every pirate a degenerate and immoral cheapskate if you wish, but that's not really accurate.

7. Fighting piracy is a HUGE sink on money and time.

I have to point to the majors on this one. The MPAA and the RIAA (the licensing bodies for Hollywood and the big music companies) have sunk millions of dollars and years - repeat YEARS - into combating piracy. They've taken just about every avenue open to them and their enormous wallets, up to and including suing the individual pirates in mass lawsuits. They have almost nothing to show for their efforts bar a few high profile cases against infringers who will never be able to pay the fines.

That's kind of the problem, really. The amount of time and effort you have to put in to fight piracy on any level (again, a problem that might not even be a problem) is astronomical. It's also pretty emotionally draining, and who wants to deal with that when you could be writing?

8. It's not theft.

Semantics, okay? But it matters in legal terms. Most piracy is a minor civil crime, if anything, and it's counted as infringement. Theft involves depriving someone else of their property, and when a book or movie or whatnot is copied, the original stays with its owner. Plenty of people like to talk about theft when it comes to piracy, and those people are plain wrong. It's an emotional argument designed to stir people up about it.

No, it's not theft of a sale either. A hypothetical transaction doesn't count as property.

9. Everyone commits some level of piracy every day.

Okay, so piracy is copyright infringement. These days, copyright is so narrowly defined that just about anything a person does with a media file is infringement.

Let's say a reader buys your ebook. If they do the following with it, is it piracy?

  • Make a backup copy
  • Convert it into another format to read on another device
  • Quote a few paragraphs in a blog post

Answer: yes to all of them. They're all copyright infringement. Any time someone makes a copy that doesn't fall under fair use, it's technically infringement. It certainly doesn't stop with books, of course. And most people don't think about it at all.

In closing

Having read extensively about piracy over the last few years, here are my final thoughts on this:

Piracy isn't something that can be reduced down to a few snappy sound bites. It's a highly complex social phenomenon, and describing it in black and white terms isn't useful. Whether it's bad is debatable, and whether it's good is hard to quantify, but fighting against it is probably not worth your time. The best strategy, if indeed it's possible to have a strategy at all with regard to piracy, is to ignore it.