Victimless crime: piracy

Posted November 25, 2013 by Nicky in General / 7 Comments

Disclaimer added 2nd March 2021: this was written eight years ago and I don’t agree with all of it anymore, nor am I at all interested in this argument anymore (just pay authors/creators for their content, it’s not hard, there are lots of ways to get hold of ebooks and other media now), but I don’t want to just wipe the record.

“Piracy is not a victimless crime.”

This was the warning on the Pacific Rim blu-ray my partner and I watched, which couldn’t be skipped, etc. As usual with these DVDs, even though the fact that you’re seeing that makes it pretty damn likely you bought the damn DVD. But it’s not really about DVDs — at least with the music and film industries, the reaction to piracy is more or less taken as read. There’s still a debate, though, in the book industry. With the availability of ebooks, suddenly everyone is afraid of piracy, everyone has an axe to grind — or some people (Cory Doctorow, mainly, Neil Gaiman to some extent, etc) embrace the genre, though there is some serious wrongheadedness on that side of things about the nature of an ebook.

(For my thoughts on the “dead tree books are the be-all and end-all” issue, please see an early post on this blog, RIP print?)

Look. The thing is… piracy is a victimless crime. It can’t be put on the same level as theft, because with theft there is a finite amount of an item which has cost money to produce, and the theft of that item means it can’t be sold for profit. If a shirt is stolen, it can’t also be sold to someone else at the same time. If a book is stolen, you’re out a copy of a book, and can’t sell it. But with ebooks… it’s a whole different ballgame. Okay, you’re being done out of a sale you might have made, but you aren’t losing a finite resource. The bits of code that make up your book aren’t unique. Even if someone takes off the DRM, copies it and sticks it on a torrent site, that does not stop you making a sale in the same way at all.

In fact, as many people who practise piracy will tell you, they use piracy as a way to sample media. Then if they enjoy it, they’ll probably buy it. I’m gonna ‘fess up: I loved Avengers so much that I wanted a cam of it the minute one was up so I could watch it over and over. Same with the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. The day the DVDs came out, I bought them. The blu-rays, even. Heck, I bought my blu-ray player so I could see Avengers in blu-ray, and I got the special edition pack with all the MCU movies in blu-ray at once.

Did I mention I also saw Avengers three or four times in the cinema? Same with Sherlock Holmes.

(If they made digital downloads available simultaneously with the theater release, I’d see a lot more films. As it is, pretty much only Marvel and The Hunger Games get my money before the DVD releases. I don’t do illegal downloads unless I’ve already been to the theater an ungodly number of times, but I’d be a heck of a lot more interested in a digital download or even streaming or… Anyway. Yeah. Not about the movie industry.)

I can understand the arguments against about intellectual value and ebooks not being free to produce, I really can, but it puts my back up when people talk about it being theft. Most people who pirate stuff would never buy it if they had to pay for it and couldn’t get it free. Most people who pirate a lot of stuff don’t ever view most of it.

I’m not sure I agree with the idea that piracy equals exposure and any exposure is good exposure. I can get why a bunch of hypothetical sales don’t look like much when it’d be a favour just to get a couple of purchases now. Working for free is never fun. But I do think we need to think carefully about how we define our terms: when it’s just a file full of code that’s been “stolen”, an infinite resource, “theft” seems very much like the wrong word — and accusing people of theft for doing something “everybody does” (which is, I know, not an excuse) isn’t going to win you any fans.

For whatever it’s worth, my suggestion is not to blame the individual fans who download pirated copies of your book (or whatever other media). Take a look at the sellers, see how much they’re jacking up prices or what kind of proprietary software they’re using, and change things. If it’s so essential to your income, you need to put aside a bit of your time each week to figure out who you need to serve take-down notices to. Heck, you can even ask your readers to report any unauthorised sites selling or giving away your book so you can get to it easier.

Don’t start from a place of suspicion. Engage readers in a dialogue, make them want to protect your work, and you’re more than halfway there.

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7 responses to “Victimless crime: piracy

  1. Victimless crime: I’m not totally convinced by your argument but I see where you’re coming from, and there’s a lot of sense in what you say.

    There’s a related issue here, I think. My wife’s a psychologist specialising in anti-bullying, and got a self-help book published by a small press company. It came out in a short print run and as an ebook, but for various reasons the print book wasn’t promoted, she bought out the remaining stock and they parted company.

    Now here’s the thing: the publishers quietly continued to sell the ebook version in small numbers without permission. The royalties turned out to be miniscule, but suddenly the numbers peaked into the high hundreds — turned out they’d done that limited period free promotion trick and there were all these digital copies being ‘bought’ for free. Stiff letters went back and forth, I can tell you.

    Now, I’d dispute that this action was victimless — the book represented my wife’s PhD work, plus long experience of working with young people added to a talent for writing without jargon, and here was that work and experience and investment being literally given away. In the larger scheme of things it wasn’t like she’d been mugged on the way to the bank, but she’d lost revenue from royalties on those hundreds of ebooks, and none of those customers is going to buy it again are they? However valuable they might have found it.

    • I wouldn’t say none of the customers, as I have a tendency to buy multiple copies of books I find valuable (as gifts, for giveaways like the one I did earlier this month, to own a hard copy if I had it in ebook or vice versa, if I was worried my original source wasn’t offering the book legitimately), but I agree it’s unlikely.

      I think it’s a different story, too, between small independent ventures and big publishers (like Tor, who’ve found they take no extra loss from selling ebooks DRM-free, despite that being supposedly more open to piracy). But in the case you describe the blame isn’t on any of the people who downloaded the ebook, but on the people who continued to distribute the ebook. I think that does approach much closer to the usual definition of theft.

      I’m fairly ambivalent about pirating. I’ve followed a lot of debates about it with interest, and there are lot of cases where I think it does no harm at all. (E.g. I’m in Belgium right now, but I have various online classes to keep up with. I own a copy of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness at home: Le Guin has had her share of money from me. But I need the book now, not when I get home. Legally, of course, it wouldn’t be justified to download a pirated copy, but morally as long as I didn’t then distribute the file myself, I don’t see that it’s an issue of theft.)

      Mostly I just don’t like the false equivalence of downloading a copy of an infinite resource and stealing a physical item. Speaking in terms of victims is maybe not the best way to frame the issue; looking it as an issue of finite vs infinite resources makes it more accurate. “Theft” and “victimless crime” are pretty emotionally loaded phrases, designed to get a kneejerk response, and I don’t think warnings like the one on my partner’s perfectly legitimate blu-ray of Pacific Rim bought from Fnac are going to reach the right people or have the desired effect.

      • Yes, I’m with you when you say you don’t like the false equivalence of downloading a copy of an infinite resource and stealing a physical item. And also when you suggest that “theft” and “victimless crime” are pretty emotionally loaded phrases, designed to get a kneejerk response. Finite versus infinite resources — yes, that puts it more into perspective.

        Slightly off the point: I find I’m — compromised isn’t the right term, but it’ll do for now — when it comes to photocopying music. Whenever I perform music, especially when accompanying singers or instrumentalists, I aim to use the publisher’s copy — mostly this nowadays comes with dire warnings about photocopying anyway. But I admit I often use a photocopy supplied by the soloist to mark up and practise from before the final rehearsal and performance.

        In my head I think of this as a copy ‘for study purposes’ (well, that’s what it is) and pointedly ignore the warnings. (The same often applies in competitions, when adjudicators are given photocopies to judge performances, which are supposed to be destroyed immediately after use.) The original thus remains bought and intact and in use, and nobody loses. While students have been doing this ever since the Xerox machine was invented, it seems to be implied that music scores are different from printed words where you used to be allowed (may still be) to copy up to 10% (is that right?) of the original for those selfsame study purposes.

        Sorry, blathering on a bit, ought to edit it down.

  2. I think there is a bit of confusion here, because eboks are treated like physical books in some ways, but differently in other ways. Every ebook I’ve read has a clause on its copyright page saying in a roundabout manner that it couldn’t be shared. I know the publishers want to prevent piracy, because it’s easy to resell and reproduce a code, but nobody ever prevented anyone from sharing a physical book. On the contrary. When I was young, sharing my favorite books with friends was a bonding experience. I’m sure writers should be paid for their works. I’m a writer and I sure want to be paid for mine. But I think the clause about not sharing an ebook should be removed. It doesn’t prevent piracy – it disrespects the integrity of the readers. As a reader, I should be legally allowed to share my favorite ebooks with anyone I choose. If they like it, they will buy their own copies, like physical books.

  3. ???

    “ If a book is stolen, you’re out a copy of a book, and can’t sell it. But with ebooks… it’s a whole different ballgame. Okay, you’re being done out of a sale you might have made, but you aren’t losing a finite resource”
    What is this suppose to mean, each illegal download is less bad than each stolen physical copy, and therefore victimless?

    Solid sample size of 1=most people. I read one post on this website and I dislike the post, therefore most people dislike this post.

    • Hi! Well, this post is around 8 years old, so it’s an odd place to jump in, but it’s a topic where my views have evolved somewhat and I’m happy to engage and correct the record somewhat.

      The original line of argument was that I could not see how downloading an intangible, infinitely renewable thing could count as theft. If I walk into a bookstore and take the only physical copy of the book in the store, not only have I stolen that so I haven’t paid for it, it also can’t be purchased by anyone else who is more inclined to pay. If I steal an ebook (which I don’t, but we’re being hypothetical here) then that doesn’t stop someone else buying the ebook; the ebook is still there to be purchased by anyone, anytime. Stealing a physical book can prevent an actual sale; illegally downloading an ebook cannot.

      I was more concerned, in other words, with physical thefts, and didn’t consider downloading an ebook to be in the same category at all — and I thought that calling it that was counterproductive and wouldn’t convince anyone (just produce kneejerk reactions).

      I still find it intellectually odd to directly compare the two, because I find the theft of the physical book worse… but I’m not interested in being conciliatory towards people who pirate content anymore, particularly because it’s really easy not to do that these days. I hope that helps clarify, though I don’t think you’re going to get this reply given the fake email you put in! 🙂 It’ll help for future people, anyway, perhaps.

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