Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

More thoughts about ebook piracy

This is mostly about ebook piracy, though of course it applies to other types of file sharing as well (music, movies, games, software, etc.).

Small disclosure: I am a published author. No, I'm not talking about my fan fiction, and no, I haven't published any novels. But I have actually written words that I got paid actual money for, and for which I still do receive (very, very small) royalty checks. And while I haven't gone looking, I have no doubt that those words I got paid for are available on any number of file-sharing sites. So, I'm being pirated, man!

Piracy is interesting because people get so exercised about it, on both sides. I'm still largely on the "anti-piracy" side of the fence, though there are some good points made by other people in defense of illegal file sharing.

Authors, in particular, tend to get very, very upset about their books being pirated, which is understandable, because unlike Warner Brothers or Microsoft, a midlist author who is struggling to make a living probably is suffering an economic hit when people pirate her books. Go to writers' forums and you'll usually find that the topic of book piracy provokes incandescent rage (and is responsible for many writers still having a fear and loathing of ebooks).

Unsurprisingly, J.K. Rowling is one of the most pirated authors in the world, even though she has yet to authorize any of her books being released as ebooks.

Now, I don't really sympathize with authors who having screaming conniption fits and insist that every illegally downloaded book (or even some improbable percentage of them) is a "lost sale." But let's be honest: some of those illegally downloaded books are lost sales. It's disingenuous to claim that there is not, among all the kiddees downloading everything they can just because they can, some small but possibly-large-enough-to-make-a-difference-in-a-quarterly-royalty-check percentage of people who would and could buy the book but are perfectly happy to get it for free.

Author Jim Hines argues this point reasonably, being clearly on the "anti-piracy" side without losing his shit over it.

On the opposite side is author Cory Doctorow, who makes all of his books available for free online, yet still sells well enough in bookstores to make a full-time living as a writer. He argues quite persuasively in his book Content how this can be so, and why every author should embrace his model.

I understand his arguments, and agree with a lot of them, but not every author can be Cory Doctorow, and I'm really not sure how many authors can make enough money to make writing worthwhile by publishing all of their work for free and hoping enough fans will love them to be willing to pay for it anyway.

John Scalzi (an author I have said before I admire greatly) has posted a few times on this topic, and his stance is basically: "Don't tell me you're pirating my books, I don't want to hear about it, but no, I don't spend much time worrying about it."

But again, Scalzi is a pretty popular author and he's also taken a very business-like approach to writing, where he makes sure he has multiple revenue streams, not just sales of his novels. So in his case, he probably can be comfortable that whatever losses he suffers from piracy are made up for by long-term audience-building.

Now, I suppose one can also legitimately question, as deepad does, whether authors are even entitled to expect payment for their work. I am not wholly unsympathetic to anti-capitalist critiques, though I tend to find them wanting in general. In a world where no one has an expectation of being paid for their creative output, you're going to have a lot fewer people willing to put in the time and effort to create in the hopes of making a pittance, or else you're going to have to rely entirely on some sort of patronage system, where either the government or rich people subsidize a few artists whom the masses can enjoy for free. Yes, it's fair to point out that struggling midlist Western authors are still pretty privileged by global standards, but they still have to pay their rent, so "Neener neener why should you get paid for your work when you eat better than most?" has a hollow ring to it, I think. The inevitable answer is: "Fine, but then why should I entertain you for free when you don't think I deserve to be supported for my work?"

I don't think piracy is always "wrong" or "stealing"; if you truly can't afford to obtain a book legally, if you live in a place where books are prohibitively expensive and there are no libraries, most writers would probably take the Doctorow/Scalzi view: "Let 'em download my books; I'm building a fanbase for the future."

The problem (for me, at least) is that a lot of these brave crusaders sticking it to the Man 'cause Information Wants to be Free are kids surfing the web in comfortable environs on a computer that mommy and daddy paid for, or young adults out on their own making a living and enjoying everything BitTorrent and PirateBay can provide that they don't think they should pay for. If you could afford to pay for that book or CD or movie but you just think you're entitled to something for nothing, then stop pretending your "piracy! Yay!" position is based on some kind of principle, rather than just a spoiled sense of entitlement. No, illegal downloading isn't the quite same thing as shoplifting, but these are the sort of people who would go into a store and steal things off the shelves if they knew they'd get away with it.

Incidentally, these are also the sort of people who enrage writers so much that they are swayed in favor of stupid measures like the DMCA and DRM and other harmful efforts to prevent piracy. I have actually seen kids come into writers' forums and say outright: "But, why should I not be able to enjoy something just because I can't afford it?" "But file-sharing is just what my generation does! Why do you expect us to pay for things when they're available for free?" Entitled dumbassery like that is exactly the sort of attitude that turns normally reasonable people incoherent with rage.

And as for libraries and used books, which always come up in these discussions ("How is pirating a book worse than borrowing it from the library? The author doesn't get paid either way?") I really wonder how many people making those arguments are genuinely unable to see the logical fallacies there. Used/library copies are finite in number, can only be read by one person at a time, and most importantly, were purchased at one time.

I often do buy books new even if I could get a cheaper used copy, just to do my little bit to support authors. But I'm privileged enough to have the money to do that. I have nothing against used books or libraries, and I don't know of any authors who do.

What it boils down to, for me, is that if you pirate somebody's work, it's not just illegal (which bothers me very little) or immoral (which also doesn't bother me much on principle -- there are much more immoral things for me to get worked up about), but disrespectful. You're telling the author, "You don't deserve to be paid for your work. I deserve to enjoy it for free." I think most authors are probably happy if the truly impoverished are able to obtain their work and enjoy by whatever means they can, but if you don't fall into that category, spare me the techno-anarchist bullshit justifications for the fact that you're a cheap-ass.
Tags: ebooks, piracy, soapbox

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