Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Thursday Throwdown: Piracy for Dummies

Or maybe that should read “Piracy is for dummies.”

If you haven’t been around the Twitterverse or Dear Author lately, you may have missed the flare-up over an article in the New York Times yesterday, wherein a reader told a reported that she shares her Kindle account with several friends, does not always pay for the ebooks she reads, and was pretty sure what they were doing by sharing this Kindle account was exploiting a “loophole” in Kindle’s Terms of Service. Turns out, upon review, that there was nothing shady or dubious, let alone piractical, about what she and her friends were doing, but that didn’t stop some folks from castigating her and calling her a thief. It also let to a pretty lively discussion on Twitter about whether there was a difference between sharing ebooks within a household/among family members versus among friends who don’t live together.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time regurgitating my thoughts about this particular case of booksharing (which I have no issues with whatever and which others have already more than adequately explained1), but instead try to coalesce my thoughts about the issue underlying the outrage: ebook piracy.

There’s no doubt that true ebook piracy is rampant and poses a significant threat to authors. It’s simply far to easy (even with DRM) for a person to buy one copy of an ebook, then upload the file to a torrent site for thousands of passersby to download on a whim. Not only that, there are folks out there who take pride in never paying for books (or music) because they know how to suss out the free copies. They know they are stealing, and not only do they not care, they’re actually willing to brag about it.

A little harder to quantify is how many innocent folks stumble on a book or song they want on a torrent site and don’t realize it’s not legal to download it for free. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. No one could be that stupid/Internet illiterate. Alas, I think they can be. And it doesn’t help, IMO, that Amazon has started offering some of its Kindle books for the whopping sum of $0.00. That may be a win for classic literature, but it does instill the notion that books can be downloaded for free and still be legal. (A lot of authors also offer free reads from their websites, and I think it’s a great strategy for attracting new readers. Buuuuut, it does have a downside, which is again to reinforce the idea that readers shouldn’t/don’t have to pay for content.)

All in all, I don’t think there is a topic out there that can touch off more moral outrage in the author community than piracy. Authors see pirates taking money out of their pockets, and they don’t like it.

I’m not about to say authors should like it, but I do think it wouldn’t hurt to get less exercised about it. Because in all honesty, I don’t think piracy by itself is near as big a threat to authors as (are you ready?) the fact that most publishers seem to have little or no interest in stopping it.

As angry as authors are about piracy, you would think publishers would be absolutely foaming at the mouth over it. You’d think they’d be threatening lawsuits against every illegal downloader the way the music industry publishers back in the days of Napster. You’d think they’d be hiring attorney to bring suit against ISPs for allowing torrent sites that regularly violate copyright. (Most of these sites are hosted in countries with questionable legal systems or enforcement of copyright laws, so going after the SITES is pretty tough.) And you’d think they’d be working way harder to get strong, consistent, coherent definitions of fair use and ownership of digital media so that people would be absolutely clear on what constitutes legal sharing and what constitutes thievery.

Instead, publishers seem to me to be doing little more than sticking their fingers in the dyke by putting DRM on their ebook files and/or otherwise dragging their feet to join the digital age. And frankly, DRMing or holding up ebook production is a little like sticking your fingers in your ears and going “neener, neener, neener” at piraters, because all it takes for someone to pirate your print is a scanner and a few too many hours of spare time. Bottom line: If someone wants to pirate your book, they will, because a) they can and b) there are no real consequences for doing so.

Why aren’t publishers as worked up about this as authors are? I have no idea. Maybe they are and I’m just not seeing the evidence of it. But will say this–authors can’t do much about stopping/reducing piracy without the help of the deep pockets in the game.

So, the next time you, the author, find your book on a torrent site for download, in addition to railing about the injustice of it all and emailing the site to get them to take it down, send the information to your editor or the sales department at your publishing house, along with the number of downloads. Maybe if publishers saw each and every instance of piracy in literally hundreds of emails from their authors, they’d take the threat a little more seriously.

1For great discussions of the situation, see:


  • Anon October 22, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I just sent a list to my employer’s agent. A long list. Including her brand new book from late summer. They forward them on to the publisher to take care of. It’s SO prevalent though that I don’t know how publisher’s can police every site. I’m not saying they shouldn’t; I’m just saying there’s no easy solution at this point–like you mentioned, many of the file hosting companies are in countries with questionable laws. And whether they’re trying to actually find one or not I don’t know.

    But I think the solution is tied to the big question of price, and availability of ebooks in other countries, and I know they NEED to take a page from the music industry and do something—sooner rather than later. I just wish I knew what that something was.

  • Kris Eton October 24, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I am of the notion that most books pirated never would’ve been purchased by the offenders, so I’m not all that up in arms about it.

    It stinks, sure, but most people *want* to pay for the books they read and would feel badly doing otherwise.

    I really think this issue only impacts larger authors in a significant way. I don’t see some smaller, epubbed author who sells a fraction of what Stephen King might sell as threatened by these illegal download sites.

    Most of the time, the people who download them are just looking for *any* free content, regardless if they’ve heard of the author or book.

    Maybe that is naive, but I am one that is VERY cheap about purchasing music on iTunes. I have a long list of songs I will eventually buy, but until then it’s too bad for me if I want to listen. I’ve never considered downloading illegally and would never do so. No matter how easy it is to find the content online pirated somewhere.

  • Amie Stuart October 28, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I do wonder if a part of the problem is geographic restrictions on ebooks–and if most illegal downloads are from people overseas?


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