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.