This article in today’s Publisher’s Weekly, Attributor Study Finds Pervasive Book Piracy is garnering lots of attention in the Twittersphere author community, receiving lots of retweets from many different sources, most of them citing the story’s claim that ebook piracy is “costing” the publishing industry “as much as $3 billion.” Setting aside the fact that the “study” upon which this astronomical figure is based isn’t even methodologically sound (see Courtney Milan’s post for details), I have a big issue with the underlying assumption. Namely, that a pirated copy of an ebook is a book the publisher/author otherwise would have/could have sold.
To say that a theft represents a loss of income to the seller of the product assumes two facts not in evidence in this case:
1) The thief, deprived of the opportunity to steal the product, would have purchased it instead.
2) The object, having been stolen, cannot be sold to another customer who would have purchased it.
Assumption #1 drives me crazy because I would be willing to bet a very large sum of money (assuming I had it) that the vast majority of ebook pirates either never pay for books or do so only under extreme circumstances. They consider it beneath them and their mad skilz to actually pay for books. That’s why they’re out trolling torrent sites in the first place. People who don’t have any intention of pirating books don’t go looking for them on known pirate sites.1
In other words, these people are thieves, plain and simple. And just like a thief won’t buy the diamond bracelet because he can’t knock over the jewelry store, the ebook pirate won’t go and buy a legitimate copy if she can’t get it for free. (Special thanks to Courtney Milan for the analogy.)
That said, I saw a few folks on Twitter comment that they hate DRM and because they want DRM-free books, they think piracy is justifiable. I’ve also seen some people claim that it’s okay to download a pirate copy because the publisher hasn’t made the ebook available yet or that because they’re “trying out new authors” without financial risk, it makes them more likely to buy another book from that author down the road.
These are all, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, lame rationalizations for doing something you know is wrong–e.g., stealing. If you’ve ever knowingly downloaded a pirated ebook, I don’t care what your reason for doing so is: you’re still a thief. (The DRM rationalization is extra lame, by the way, because of my books that have turned up on torrent sites, the vast majority have been DRM-free from the publisher. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve yet seen my NY-published book–the ebook version of which presumably has DRM–turn up on a torrent site yet, although that may say more about the popularity of my book than it does about piracy and DRM, but the point is, no one has to resort to pirating to get the vast majority of my catalog without DRM.)
So, I think whatever that actual dollar value that can be assigned to pirated ebooks may be, it doesn’t tell us anything about how much money the publishing industry is losing from it because there’s no way of knowing what percentage of those downloads might have been sales if the opportunity to get pirated copies didn’t exist. I’m sure that the amount lost to piracy is far from zero. But it’s also far, far from 100% of the retail value of the pirated copies.
But Assumption #2 above is also interesting to me, because it points to one of the inherent problems with treating digital files as “inventory” in the first place. If the retail value of a pair of socks is $6 and someone steals that pair of socks from the store, it’s quite clear that the retailer is out those $6. The store can’t recoup that sale because the ITEM is gone.
But a digital file (whether it’s a book, music, software, etc.) isn’t a THING in the way a pair of socks is. The retail value of my digital book may be $6, but the fact that someone downloads the file for free from a torrent site does not in any way impair my publisher from selling an infinite number of copies of my book for that $6. The publisher didn’t make $6 on the copy of my book that was pirated (and yes, I’m simplifying, cutting out wholesale vs retail, etc.), but the pirated copy doesn’t somehow reduce the available stock of my book. There will still be just as many of my ebooks available for honest people to buy as before.
For these reasons, I have to admit that I don’t get all that bent out of shape when one of my books shows up on a pirate site. That’s not to say I like it or think it’s okay for people to steal my work, but I don’t see those illegally downloaded copies as lost sales or money out of my pocket because I don’t think those people would have bought my book in the first place.
I do, however, see the people who make pirated copies of book available as the worst sort of slime, because they absolutely KNOW they are doing something immoral and illegal. Book piracy is largely a crime of opportunity, and the people who provide the opportunity are the prime offenders.
Now, tell me what you think.
1In a very limited number of cases, I think people stumble across books on a torrent site without realizing it’s a pirated copy. The reason I believe people do occasionally download pirated books in all innocence is that a CP of mine got a fan letter from someone who could only have gotten the book in question from a pirate site since it was no longer available for sale from the original publisher. I doubt the reader would have written a gushing email to the author begging to know when the next book in the series would be available if she’d realized she’d stolen it.