Inverarity (inverarity) wrote in bookish,

Saturday Book Discussion: Arrr, ebook pirates!

So, let's talk about ebook piracy. Depending on who you ask, this phenomenon is The Worst Thing Ever and ebook pirates are spoiled, entitled, dirty rotten thieving scum of the earth (I have a vague recollection of a rather Big Name SF author who once said on Usenet that he thought all ebook pirates should be raped, but I won't name names because I don't have a link and wouldn't want to put such inflammatory words in someone's mouth based on shoddy memory - but no, surprisingly enough, it wasn't Harlan Ellison), or it is the brave new conjunction of electronic publishing and social media.

Now, let's be honest, some of you have done it. Are doing it. You are reading pirated ebooks right now.

Don't you feel ashamed?

Maybe not.

Arrr, Matey!

Where I Stand

Before I present the pros and the cons and the poll, I'll make my position clear:

I don't think you should pirate ebooks (or anything else). I think especially that if you can afford to buy it legitimately (i.e., you have no basis for pleading poverty), then you have no excuse. That said, I don't feel motivated to be overly judgmental towards those who do pirate. I think epiracy should be discouraged and kept underground, and certainly not made an "approved" thing, which is why you may have seen me jump down the throats of those who occasionally post here or in other book comms chirping that they'd like to know where they can get a free (i.e., pirated) copy of Latest Bestseller. Kid, seriously, if you're too fucking hard up to pay for it, at least don't be too fucking lazy to find it on your own. It's not like Google is hard to use. Yeah, I'm not a fan of "sharing" sites, but we all know they're out there and until the President decides to send the Marines into Russia to stop ebook piracy, they're not going away.

But, I am equally disdainful of published authors who shriek fury and outrage when they discover that 10,000 copies of their book were downloaded last month and that means if not for pirates, they'd be selling ten thousand books a month!

But... waving it in an author's face that you're pirating their book is a pretty shitty thing to do. Hence, my belief that if you're going to do it, you should keep it on the down-low. And if you like the author's work, consider yourself in karmic debt.

I do believe (as is so often the case) that John Scalzi says it very well in The Stupidity of Worrying About Piracy and Writing in the Age of Piracy. (Both of those columns are from 2005, but he's written things since then indicating that his position hasn't changed, despite the fact that ebooks are now far more prevalent today than they were seven years ago.)

His position is basically the grown-up one, and mine: I do not support or condone piracy, but I don't think it's worth making a big production over. If you're a published author and you see your stuff being hosted on an illegal file-sharing site, contact your publisher and have the takedown notices sent, but do not freak out on the Internet about how pirates are stealing money from you and OMG why isn't anyone doing anything about this and don't you realize that pirates will DESTROY BOOKS 4EVER!

The Arguments

So, I will now try to address, broadly, every point typically raised both by defenders and critics of piracy.

It's illegal

Well, there's no denying that. And if you think breaking the law is immoral, then that right there is reason enough not to do it. It's obviously not a strong argument for a lot of people, who either think the law is wrong or they put it in the same category as jaywalking or slugging someone who insults yo mama -- things everyone believes should be illegal but no one believes should really be prosecuted.

Some pirates will argue that Intellectual Property law is unfair (or should be abolished entirely). I am frankly not sympathetic to this argument at all, nor those who mindlessly recite aphorisms like "Entertainment wants to be free." If you reference the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, I will be more sympathetic, but I'll point out that has approximately nothing to do with whether or not ebook piracy should be illegal in the first place.

Where legality does enter the picture, ominously, is when stupid ineffective technology like DRM is used, and clueless legislatures enact laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act in a futile effort to stop piracy. These laws in fact do nothing to stop piracy, but sure do help corporations squeeze more money from every single Internet user, and endanger the free flow of information. And frankly, when shit like this gets passed is when I start cheering for the Jolly Roger on principle.

It's theft!

Depends on how you define "theft." It clearly isn't theft in the same way that stealing a book out of a bookstore is theft. Taking tangible goods not only deprives the seller of what you should have paid for the goods, but also prevents someone else from purchasing that item. Whereas an ebook is still available for purchase no matter how many people "steal" it. You have, however, declined to pay for something that the author, publisher, and ebook retailer all expected to be paid for.

An economic, if not moral or legal, question arises when you consider the case of someone pirating a book they would not have bought anyway. If I steal a book from a bookstore and then throw it in the trash without reading it, I haven't "benefited" from my theft, but I've still hurt the store and everyone else who lost revenues from that book. Whereas if I download a pirate ebook and never read it, or if I do read it but there is no way I would have paid for it even if I hadn't been able to pirate it, what "harm" have I caused? From a strictly pragmatic point of view: none. (Now, if I then redistribute it to other people, it becomes a different question.)

I can't afford them

Because of the aforementioned IP law idiocy, people in the U.S. may not appreciate how hard it can be for people in countries outside the U.S. (and especially in countries outside of North America or Europe) to buy ebooks as cheaply and conveniently as we can. There are countries where many ebooks simply cannot be obtained legally, and books in general are too expensive for the average person to afford.

While the degree to which you believe poverty mitigates "stealing" things you can't afford is up to you, I don't think many authors do (or should) fret poor people downloading ebooks they would never be able to afford and thus becoming fans who, someday, in hopefully less constrained circumstances, will be able to actually buy their books.

That said, I cast a jaundiced eye at privileged high school and college students who can afford their monthly WOW subscriptions and Starbucks but plead poverty as an excuse to pirate everything they read. And it also bears mentioning that, you know, even if you legitimately can't afford your favorite author's latest release, one usually doesn't argue that one is entitled to have anything one wants regardless of ability to pay for it.

Ebooks are too expensive

Avast, ye scurvy readers!

Let's dispense with the myth that ebooks are "too expensive." A few anomalies aside, ebooks are very rarely more expensive than the print version. Most publishers sell the ebook for a little less than the hardcover price when the hardcover comes out, then drop it to be comparable to the paperback when that's published. A lot of publishers sell ebooks at steeper discounts.

Ebook prices are still in flux and have yet to stabilize at a price acceptable to both publishers and consumers. The throwdown between the Big Six publishers and Amazon that resulted in the agency pricing model will probably be renegotiated eventually. There are fears from a lot of publishers and authors that ten million self-publishers throwing $0.99 Kindle books up on Amazon is resetting the public's expectations of what an ebook "should" cost to an unsustainably low price point. Eventually, I think ebooks will be the norm and they will be priced significantly lower.

I do, however, admit to failing to understand why $10 is "too much" for an ebook which will entertain me for many more hours than a $10 movie ticket.

Also, consumers need to realize that the assumption that an ebook is much, much cheaper to produce than a print book is a myth, at least if you assume an ebook that has been edited, proofread, formatted, and marketed to the same degree as the print version. The cost of physically producing, transporting, and storing paper books is actually a relatively small percentage of the overall cost of producing a trade published book. (The estimates I've read indicate that the "fair price" of an ebook, discounting all costs associated with paper book production, would result in perhaps $2-$3 per book in savings that should be passed on to the buyer.)

Illegal downloads = lost sales

This is the biggest myth authors trot out, usually in the midst of a towering rage upon discovering that their book is being pirated. They see the huge numbers of downloads of their book, compare it to their last pitiful royalty check, and see dollars vanishing from their bank account like water swirling down the drain.

It's easy to feel sorry for them. Most authors are not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. Even authors you might consider to be pretty "big names" don't make huge earnings. And the publishing world goes through periodic contractions and mercilessly cancels series that don't sell. When your economic well-being happens to be tied to your creative efforts, you've got self-esteem and livelihood wrapped up in the same product, and seeing people taking it without paying for it feels like a kick in the teeth.

Authors, however, need to understand that a lot of downloaders just suck everything in a torrent onto their hard drives. Only a tiny fraction of those downloaded ebooks will actually be read, and an even tinier fraction would have ever bought the book in the first place.

The only way actual economic damages from ebook piracy could be calculated would be if you could tally up (a) the number of people who illegally downloaded a book (b) who would have paid for it if the download were not available.

This number is certainly very small, and no author or publisher has ever been able to demonstrate actual lost revenues from ebook piracy.

Complicating that calculation, though, is the fact that of those who do illegally download a book, and read it, some fraction will probably buy books by that author in the future. And/or tell their friends about it, some of whom will buy books by that author. These second and third-order effects are almost impossible to calculate, but this is essentially the "Cory Doctorow argument."

The Cory Doctorow Argument

Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and editor of Boing Boing, has been advocating a radical new paradigm for epublishing for years: free.

I'd do him a disservice by trying to summarize his position here, but he puts his books where his agenda is; they are all available for free online. And the one to read to get his entire argument regarding epublishing is ©ontent.

It works for him. But he already had a following, and is a big platform with which to build a following. Whether or not all (or most) authors can succeed following his model is debatable, but he makes many persuasive arguments (and some less persuasive ones).

Doctorow is not the only author who releases free ebooks, though. John Scalzi has done it, Charles Stross has done it, and a growing number of authors are finding that making the first book in your series free or very, very cheap is a good way to get people to buy the rest of the series. So as both publishers and authors become more savvy, I think we'll see less author outrage over torrented ebooks and more authors who figure out how to take advantage of it.

It's no different than reading a library/used book

A common defense of ebook piracy is that there's no difference between reading a pirated ebook and borrowing it from the library or buying it used. The author doesn't make any money in those cases either.

The library argument is weaker. First, while it is (unfortunately) true that authors aren't paid for library checkouts in the U.S., in many other countries they do receive a small licensing fee for every checkout of their book. However, physical books wear out; they are only good for a limited number of reads, and library and used books are subject to notoriously hard usage. Libraries, unsurprisingly, are major book buyers, so when a book is in demand at a library and has a waiting list, libraries will often order more copies. So while a library checkout does not have the same one-to-one purchasing benefit for the author that buying the book does, it still registers as an increased demand for the book.

Now, used books are pretty much a wash for the author, and believe it or not, some (clueless) authors did use to rant that used bookstores were essentially taking money out of their pockets. (And way back in the day, there were objections to libraries on much the same grounds, especially publicly funded libraries that icky non-rich people could use.)

Today, most authors are more clueful about how libraries and used books, while perhaps not putting (as much) money directly into their pockets, have the very important and valuable long-term benefit of growing their readership, future readers who will buy future books. For an author who publishes many books over a lengthy career, the availability of cheap used books and free library books results in more sales long-term.

Eventually, authors will come to an accommodation with ebooks and downloading, realizing that much the same principle applies. However, the flip side of that is that consumers will have to come to an accommodation with authors: if everything you read is a free download, the author will never make any money, and most authors cannot survive on PayPal tip jars.

What say ye, Matey?

I think I have covered most of the arguments that usually surface in discussions about ebook piracy, pro and con, but feel free to add your own in comments.

Note: I fully expect there to be strong opinions on both sides. However, anyone who comes flaming in like a meteorite with either "Fuck you you damn dirty pirates DIAF!" (I admit that I talk like that when I am trying to drive pirates out of public forums) or "Fuck you greedy authors why should I pay for your shitty book?"... uh, well, I can't do anything about it, but you probably won't win a lot of converts.

Here's a poll. Individual votes are screened this time, in case you don't want to tell the world "Yes, I'm a pirate." (I can still see them, because I don't think there's a way to keep the poll author from being able to see how each person responded. But I promise I will totally be judging you don't really care about your individual habits.)

Poll #1810826 Ebook piracy

Do you read pirated ebooks?

Never, or almost never.
I have occasionally, but not often.
Only if the book is not readily available legitimately.
Sometimes, but I also buy a lot of ebooks legitimately.
Often. I only buy the ones I really think are worth it or to support the author.
I never buy anything I can download.

What do you think of ebook piracy?

I think ebook pirates should DIAF.
Okay, maybe not DIAF, but it's wrong, period.
I think it's wrong, but there are circumstances where it's justified.
I know it's technically a bad thing, but I really don't think it's a problem.
Meh. Who cares?
Free downloads for all! Embrace the future!
So, uh, where I can find all these free ebooks...?

What reasons (if any) do you think justify pirating ebooks?

If I can't afford to buy it.
Because publishers charge too much.
I only think authors deserve to be paid if I like the book.
I would pay, but I can't get them where I live.
The entire publishing industry and IP paradigm is corrupt, so I won't support it until it's reformed.
I buy enough books, I don't feel guilty about sampling some for free.
If I would have checked it out from the library or otherwise wouldn't be paying for it anyway.
I don't feel guilty about pirating, period.
Some other reason which Inverarity has not thought of but I will mention in the comments.

Previous Saturday Book Discussions.
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