P is for Piracy

No, I’m not doing the totally-hip-and-cool A-Z Blogging Challenge (which I would link to, but I have no idea where it started). I just couldn’t think of a better title.

This post is going to be fairly short, and it’s going to be big on assertions and assumptions, cause that’s the way I’m feeling today. I’m channeling a lot of energy into my new job (Linux!), and into finishing the final, tricky scenes in To the Boundaries of Heaven.

That said, I’d like to talk a little about piracy, specifically book (though I may touch on piracy in other media as well). The topic has come up recently in several forums and blogs, as well as in my local writing group.

I think the most salient point I can make about piracy is the difference between an emotional response and an economic response. Most people who focus a lot of energy on fighting piracy have an emotional response: “These people are stealing my hard work!” That is a completely legitimate response, because it’s true. While “stealing” is not quite the right word, it certainly feels like the same thing. These people are enjoying the fruits of your labor (years of writing and editing!), and contributing nothing for it. Hell, I’m a big believer that piracy is free marketing, and even I get a little bit pissed off.

But emotional damage is not economic damage. Where I think a lot of parties, both individual artists and publishing/distribution companies, are getting off mark is the idea that their emotional interests and economic interests are 100% aligned. “My book is downloaded 1000 times a month from ThePirateBay, so if I stop those dirty pirates, I’ll see 1000 extra sales monthly!” Anyone with a smattering of common sense (and I absolutely hate the concept of common sense) can tell that this is a faulty argument. This makes as much sense as saying an author pricing an eBook at $.99 could multiply his profit by six figures simply by charging $1,000,000 for it. Many, if not most, illegal downloaders are downloading the material not because they’re highly interested in it, but because they’re highly interested in it at the price of $0. Raise the price to $.99, and they no longer care.

But let’s assume that perhaps 10% of pirates would buy your book if an illegitimate option were not available (I think that’s more than generous). Is spending a good chunk of your time and frustration chasing down 10% of a market that’s not all that interested in being your customer really a great business decision? Wouldn’t a better business decision be to just ignore this sector, and write another book for the people who ARE your customers? This is where emotional and economic decisions diverge. The author focusing on the emotional will track down every torrent, send out DMCA notices and nasty emails, try to seed the web with fake torrents, etc. The author focusing on the economic will say “screw it” and spend that time writing.

I don’t have the space to address the multitude of topics on this matter, but here’s some food for thought:

  • Piracy is publicity. Even if it takes a bite out of your profits (which I disagree with), it’s still publicity. A pirate is just as likely as a buyer to tell his friends that a book rocked (or sucked!)
  • Not all illegitimate downloads are a lost sale. In fact, very few are.
  • DRM (Digital Rights Management, obtrusive software that makes it more difficult to pirate) does not work. At all. Pirates can get into the most locked-down DRM in a matter of weeks, usually a matter of hours, and disseminate a clean, DRM-free version to the pirate community. This means the only people that DRM affects is legitimate users. In fact, if your DRM is so bad that it makes the product hard to use, or removes expected features, it will likely drive people who would have bought your book to pirate it.
  • You can not stop piracy. Ever. If a book can be read, if a song can be heard, it can be copied. At best, you can try to delay it, but that hardly ever works. Like death, piracy is inevitable. So why spend your time worrying about it?

3 Replies to “P is for Piracy”

  1. Interesting points. Piracy came to a head years ago with Metallica vs. Napster, and I still side with Metallica. The courts obviously agreed. While your point about any publicity is good publicity, that theory falls apart if everyone gets it for free. While the pirate might talk up your work, there's a good chance that he'll only be talking to people who can/will get it for free as well. A creator's creation must be protected, no matter the medium. Just because pirates can steal stuff, doesn't make it right. It's always wrong. And while it may not be economical to go after pirates, in the end, it will mean less pirating. That's why we have laws. Every law works the same way. The way to keep most people on the up and up is for them to understand the consequences of getting caught. And the only way to do that is to bust as many thieves as possible. This is a great blog. I think I'll steal it, put my name on it and sell it. You OK with that?

  2. A few points:
    * No one is arguing that piracy is legal. Metallica won their court battle, but I would argue that it didn't really help their career.

    * I disagree strongly that pirates only talk up your stuff to only pirates. We don't live in little polarized communities where illegal downloaders only ever talk with other illegal downloaders. But if we assume that is true, then why worry about it? That group is never going to buy your stuff anyway.

    * Piracy is totally different from plagiarism. I don't support plagiarism in any way, and authors who see someone taking their words and slapping their name on it (and yes, this does happen sometimes on Amazon, mainly with nonfiction stuff) should certainly go after those people with extreme prejudice.

    Now, if you want to print off this blog and pass it around to your friends (which technically is copyright infringement under the letter of the law, and technically denies me ad revenue)? Be my guest!

  3. I think that any attempt to inhibit piracy encourages piracy – the world is full of people to whom DRM in all its annoying incarnations is a challenge. They're not being dissuaded, they're being given a neat, new puzzle to solve! Likewise, the harder you try to protect it, the more certain they are that it must be worth, on some level, pirating. This seems to me to be a losing battle that, realistically, cannot be won. Instead, I'm seeing a lot of (admittedly anecdotal) evidence that pricing your product 'affordably' is the best way to combat piracy. Example – if your new e-book is the same price as the paperback, I'm going to wait until the price is lower… others will pirate it. Hell, I own all three of the Star Wars prequels pretty much solely because Lucas (may he rot in hell) priced them so affordably, with so many extras, that I couldn't pass them up. Add in what I call the Kindle Impulse Buy response (What? It's only $2.99? Hell yeah…), the middle ground of people who might want your product but don't have a lot of money is covered.
    Pirates are going to pirate, people with the money are going to buy, and if you make it affordable, the in-between are going to buy as well.
    Just my opinion, assholes & opinions, you know the rest.

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