As some readers know, various online “pirate” sites electronically duplicate thousands of popular ebooks from legitimate sales sites, then make them available to readers — either free or at a nominal charge — without paying their authors for each downloaded copy.
Now, there is considerable debate among authors and publishers about whether ebook piracy is really harmful. A number of prominent indie authors argue that ebook pirates are actually beneficial: They increase the audience for an author’s work, providing him or her with readers who wouldn’t have bought the book otherwise. Some even come close to glorifying and encouraging piracy of their works. They draw the analogy to the popular practice of running “free” ebook promotions: If free downloads are beneficial for an author, they argue, then why object to a pirate doing essentially the same thing?
Well, there is an essential difference. An author chooses if, when, and how to run a “free” promotion, and with what title; a pirate deprives the author of any of those choices about his own work, forcing him to participate in a free distribution scheme, whether he wants to or not, and whether he benefits or not.
As an author who has had both of his books pirated, I have a dog in this race. Here is what I think:
All property, including even what we tend to think of as mere “physical property,” is in reality rooted in the concept ofintellectual property. Someone had to apply a level of intelligence to transform those physical things for human benefit, or else they would have remained just worthless “stuff.”
It’s that intellectual element — the value added by somebody’s creative human intelligence — that creators expect to be paid for when they offer products of their intellectual efforts for sale in the marketplace. The moral-legal principle of property rights, including “intellectual property” (IP) rights, is intended to benefit those who take the initiative to create and market products that benefit others. Property rights recognize, protect, and reward creative causal responsibility, in the form of ownership rights. And our laws codify property ownership regarding creative works in the form of patents (for inventions) and copyrights (for literary and other intellectual works).
Now, whenever we sell something that we’ve created to a willing buyer, that relationship is trade. And trade is “win/win.” A reader benefits from what he gains from an author’s creative efforts; the author gains from the reader’s payment for the work.
By contrast, pirates are thieves — period. Instead of trading for the benefits that creators have to offer, they simply take them. Instead of “win/win” relationships, in which readers and authors mutually benefit, they impose “win/lose” relationships on authors, in which pirates and their reading clientele simply appropriate the benefits provided by authors without compensating them. They win — authors lose. That is especially of concern to authors like me, who aren’t simply seeking readers, but who are trying to make a living by publishing and selling our intellectual property.
Book piracy is analogous to counterfeiting. Pirates, by flooding the marketplace with free, “counterfeit” copies of a book, undermine the paying market for the book. And if book piracy becomes rampant, it can threaten an author’s livelihood every bit as much as rampant shoplifting threatens a store owner. The argument that “A pirated author hasn’t lost a paying customer, because that reader wouldn’t have bought your book, anyway” is akin to saying, “Don’t fret about the guy who stole the merchandise in your store, because he wouldn’t have bought it, anyway.” And while it is true that the loss of an ebook is unlike the loss of physical merchandise, since the ebook can be instantly duplicated and replaced, the loss of financial compensation is real.
All that said, what to do about piracy is a trickier question.
In principle, I believe that enforcing serious legal penalties against the hackers/sellers of pirated works can help somewhat. But of course that becomes problematic when the pirates are located in other countries and are using the internet to distribute across borders. DRM (digital rights management protection) and similar software measures against piracy are usually counterproductive, because they impose inconveniences on paying customers while failing to stop determined hackers.
For now, as long as piracy theft remains at the margins of the book marketplace, authors and publishers probably have to resign ourselves to accepting it as an unavoidable business loss — just as store owners and their insurers have to “write off” a certain percentage of losses due to pilfering and shoplifting.
But morally condoning piracy is another matter.
If you as an author wish to give away your books, that’s fine, as long as it’s your voluntary choice. And if you don’t mind having pirates simply take your work without compensating you, that’s your choice, too.
But for those of us struggling to make a living from our work, having the products of our long, grueling hours of creative effort stolen from us without compensation is no cause for celebration. No, we don’t have to like piracy — let alone rationalize or even glorify it.
I hope readers tempted to download from a pirate site will pause to realize what will happen if your favorite writers finally give up, because piracy no longer makes it possible for them to write for a living. Ebooks aren’t expensive; in fact, they provide more value for their price tags than any other form of entertainment and information. Please remember that, and honor the authors who work so hard to provide you those values by purchasing their works only from authorized sites.