Regarding Internet Piracy

I’ve been contemplating this topic for a while, but put off blogging about it because . . . well, I suspected it would be a difficult and depressing experience. However, I’ve decided that writing this post as a discussion question, rather than a one-sided rant, might end up being very informative for me. At the very least, it might make me feel less frustrated about the issue.

First, that term ‘piracy’. Perhaps that’s part of the problem? Pirates – either the traditional cutlass-wielding, skull-and-crossbones-flag-waving ones, or the modern, machine-gun-wielding, hostage-taking ones – are violent, murderous thugs. Using the same word for people who illegally download music, movies and books is hyperbole, and it makes illegal downloaders far less likely to take their own crimes seriously. But the thing is, internet piracy IS a crime, and it’s a crime that has victims. It’s just that illegal downloaders (or the people who upload the files in the first place) don’t seem to regard it as a crime, not even a minor crime.

This is where I, a Generation X technophobe with an extremely slow dial-up internet connection, confess my ignorance. I’ve never downloaded a movie, a song or a copyrighted book from the internet – not just because I lack the technological ability, but also because I believe that if I take someone’s creative work, I should pay them for it (assuming they’re asking for payment). To me, ‘don’t steal from other people’ is a basic moral principle, along the same lines as ‘don’t hit other people’. But the recent SOPA* proposal generated lots of online discussion that made me realise that there are many internet users who regard downloading copyrighted material for free as either ‘not really stealing’ or ‘justifiable stealing’. Here are some of the justifications I read:

I’m not hurting anyone if I illegally download movies/music/books. Okay, maybe a few huge multi-national companies will earn a bit less money, but they’re ripping us consumers off, anyway, so they deserve it.

I’ll concentrate on book piracy here, rather than movie and music piracy, because I’m an author. Yes, you are hurting someone when you choose to download a pirated book, instead of buying it. You’re hurting the author. If you’d bought the book, the author would receive some royalties from the sale. This would allow the author to pay her electricity bill and buy some more printer cartridges, so that she could write another book. The publisher would also note that the author had sold some books, so would be more likely to publish the author’s next book. If the author sold lots of books, the publisher might actually sign up the author’s next book before it was even written, and pay the author an advance, which would allow the author to pay both her electricity and her gas bills. This would make her so happy that she might even be able to give up her part-time job(s) and become a full-time writer, so her next book would be written much faster.

Books are too expensive. If they were cheaper, I’d buy them. As it is, I’m forced to download them illegally.

As an avid reader, I have some sympathy for the ‘books are expensive’ viewpoint, but if you can afford a computer and a high-speed internet connection, you can probably afford to buy a paperback every now and again. Most online booksellers sell books at discounted prices, particularly when a new book in a series comes out – for example, the e-book edition of A Brief History of Montmaray was on sale for less than five dollars during April. You can often find bargains in second-hand book shops (yes, I know authors don’t receive royalties when the book is sold a second time, but they did when the book was sold the first time). You can also borrow the book from a library – the library bought the book, so the author gets royalties from that initial sale. (In Australia, there’s also a government scheme that pays authors a small amount of money each year, proportionate to the number of their books in libraries.) There are lots of cheap options for book lovers. And if you truly value books, don’t you expect to pay something for them?

There’s also a reason that books are expensive. A lot of work goes into creating them – not just the author’s work, but the labour of editors, proof-readers, designers and typesetters (even legal advisors, in the case of my books, because I don’t want to be sued for defamation by a real person I’ve put into my novels). Each of these people deserves some compensation for their work. If no-one pays for the book, how will these workers earn any money?

Sometimes I wonder if readers think all writers are as rich as J. K. Rowling. I’m certainly not, and neither are any of the writers I know. That’s okay for me – if the aim of my life was to earn loads of money, I’d do something other than writing. I don’t live a luxurious life. I don’t need a car, or a TV, or a mobile phone, or an iPod, and I don’t need to go on overseas holidays. But I still have to pay my bills and buy food, so I do need some money.

Books should be for everyone to share. The people who run file-sharing websites are doing society a favour, out of the goodness of their hearts.

No, the people who run file-sharing websites are making a fortune from advertising on those sites. They’re doing it to make money, and none of that money goes to the artists, musicians and writers who created that content. There’s plenty of free, legal creative content on the internet, uploaded by creators who want to share their work, and that’s great. For instance, anyone can read my blog posts for free, either here or at blogs where I’ve done guest posts. But when I spend two years writing a novel, I’d really like to get paid some money for it when it’s finally published.

Creators should be flattered that people are illegally downloading their work. It shows how popular the work is and creates a bigger market for the creator’s next work.

Illegal copies of The FitzOsbornes at War were all over the internet a few hours after the book went on sale in Australia. I didn’t feel flattered. I felt depressed that my hard work was being stolen.

I’m flattered if readers write nice comments about my books on their blogs. I’m flattered if readers care enough about my characters that they’re inspired to write Montmaray fanfiction**. I’m flattered if people say they’ll buy my next book because they liked the last one. But I’m never going to feel flattered by people who illegally download my books instead of buying them.

The book/movie/music I want isn’t available where I live. I shouldn’t have to wait six months for it to reach my country. I’m forced to download it illegally.

I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint, too. In a global fandom, it seems unfair that some people get instant access to creative work and are able to discuss it, while others have to wait. But in the case of books, publishers often have good reasons for releasing a book when they do. For example, they might think a book will sell best if it’s released at the start of the school year, or the start of the summer holidays, so the release dates will differ for the United States and Australia. (I know I don’t need to explain this to Australians and New Zealanders, but I’m amazed at the number of Americans who’ll ask how my summer vacation’s going in the middle of July.) Anyway, in the case of books, you don’t have to wait. You can order a (paper) book online and get it within days of the original release date, no matter where you are in the world. If you order from sites like The Book Depository, you won’t even have to pay postage. It’s true that if you want the e-book, you will have to wait till it reaches your territory, due to territorial copyright laws. But don’t penalise the author or the publisher for this – they’re just following the law. (Author Seanan McGuire wrote a post about this recently.)

I wouldn’t upload my favourite e-book to one of those big file-sharing sites, but what’s wrong with me sharing it with my friends? It’s no different to lending them a paperback that I’ve bought.

I don’t have an e-reader, so I’m not sure of the technical details, but some e-books can be legally shared (in a limited way) with friends, and that’s fine, just as some libraries have e-books available to borrow. The problem is when one person sends an illegal copy of an e-book to a friend, and that friend shares the copy with several others, and one of them posts a link to the file on Twitter, so that in the end, several hundred people have read the book for free. That’s quite different to lending a paperback to a friend – in that case, only one person at a time can read it, and probably only half a dozen people, at most, will read the same copy of the book. I think the people involved in this sort of file-sharing are genuinely keen to spread their love of the book, and don’t see it as a large-scale problem. But when illegal downloads of the Montmaray books outnumber sales of the Australian editions, then I have a big problem, and so do my Australian publishers. There is no motivation for them to publish my next book, because they know it won’t sell enough to make them any money.

This whole issue reminds me of an article I read a few weeks ago in the Business section of The Sydney Morning Herald. Marcus Padley wrote about how the stock market depends on ‘integrity’ and he reflected on some conversations about life that he’d had with his teenage children:

“My kids are making some glorious backward steps of their own. There is a new code they have got from someone other than me, and God forbid it should become part of the financial markets. I am referring to the culture of taking things because you can, of exploiting any loophole. This culture says if people are dumb enough to let you take it, it’s not criminal, it’s smart. I blame the internet […] Knowing how to get away with things and getting away with them has become their philosophy and the consequences (lost industries) are too long term to be of concern to them.”

Leaving aside the obvious retort that the “taking things because you can” culture already IS a “part of the financial markets” (hence the Global Financial Crisis), I wondered if there really has been a generational shift in ethics due to the internet. However, I’m reluctant to buy into that ‘young people these days, they’ve got no morals’ attitude, which is why I’d like this blog post to be a question, rather than a statement.

If you have any insights into the issue of illegal book downloading, I would love it if you left a comment below. You can do it anonymously. (I know the comment form asks for your e-mail address, but you can always use a fake one. The only time I ask for valid e-mail addresses is if I’m doing a book giveaway, so that I can contact you if you win.) I’m genuinely interested in understanding more about this issue, because it has significant implications for my life as a professional writer.

Oh, and if you’ve ever bought one of my books – I’m very, very grateful to you.

*I’m not going to discuss SOPA, other than to say that the proposed legislation seemed to take a heavy-handed and probably ineffective approach to the very real problem of internet piracy.

**I think fanfiction is a wonderful and creative thing, but it’s probably best not to tell me about it if you’ve written Montmaray fanfiction. And please don’t try to make money from selling your Montmaray fanfiction, otherwise my publishers could get very cross at you.

6 thoughts on “Regarding Internet Piracy”

  1. I’m very interested to read all your thoughts on internet piracy, and I agree with them. I would never illegally download a book or music or a film or a video game. Even when it’s made by a big company – there’s still people working hard to produce it who need to be paid. A big company has lots of employees.

    There are a couple of things that I think are harder though. One of them is about copyright for old books – I will often use Project Gutenberg to download books written many years ago and are out of copyright, but it’s a long time before that happens and the government has made it even longer. Surely if the author’s been dead for fifty years we can read the book without having to pay their descendants (or whoever’s inherited the copyright, which often isn’t the author’s descendants)? And often if the book is rare it isn’t available to buy new anyway, just for lots of money for a second hand copy on ebay or from a bookshop somewhere else in the world.

    There is a similar problem with films or television series from years ago that are available to watch on youtube but not on dvd – though some tv companies are putting them up on youtube anyway, which I think is a really good idea.

    1. Hi, Kitty, and thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that retaining copyright for seventy years after an author’s death is ridiculous – it should be much shorter. I think ten to twenty years is reasonable, given an author might have young dependent children, but beyond that, the current laws only benefit individuals (or large companies) who have had little to do with creating the work.

  2. I just don’t understand people who love reading and love books who DON’T BUY BOOKS.

    It is like sitting around waiting for tomatoes to grow when you didn’t water the garden or even plant any seeds.

    And to take it a little further … I understand that books are expensive. I’m a former bookseller and current publishing minion. And I get that Amazon offers such lovely cheap rates and BD offers the free postage … but I would love it if Australian readers and book lovers would get out there and support our own little book industry. If the sales figures accurately represented what we were reading, more books would be published.

    But then again, I’m the lady who spends all her money on four or five new books a month and whose winter coat is ten years old…

    1. Yes, you’re right, Kate. Of course, not every book lover can afford to buy a new book each week (I certainly can’t), but most people in Australia have access to a library, and borrowing books helps the book industry, as well.

      (And three cheers for booksellers and publishing minions, for helping get books out there!)

  3. Just bought The Fitzosbornes At War in ebook, very much looking forward to reading it. I really meant to read it a while back. I agree with all you say here. I’ve seen illegal downloads of some of my own books offered online.:-( I remember a few years ago, when the whole Napster thing was going, one of our students complained,”But I BUY CDs!” When I asked if he bought CDs he’d downloaded, he admitted he didn’t. Those, of course, were the days when CDs were the main way of buying music.

    1. Hi, Sue. That is awful about your books being illegally downloaded – did you let your publishers know? I’ve found that if I report the site, the file usually gets taken down (of course, it just gets uploaded somewhere else, but it’s a start). And thank you so much for buying The FitzOsbornes at War – I hope you like it.

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