The Sporadic Beaver

Because They Can

September 2, 2015

Tags: book piracy, Reddit

From The Wake Forest Journal of Business and Intellectual Property Law.
"It's a terrible thing," photographer Terry Bisbee wrote to me after she read my post on the book-pirating pandemic. "I find it hard to wrap my head around someone who would forsake the pleasure of ordering, buying & receiving a real book with its nice new book smell, cover art, and most important the author's CONTENT that they can curl up & read."

Previously unaware of the extent of the problem, she wondered what could be done.

Novelist Thomas Kennedy had been unaware of the pandemic, as well. After searching for his name and “free download,” he was surprised to find pirated copies of his books available online. He, too, wondered what could be done.

“Not much,” I told them. The Authors Guild, numerous high-profile authors, and publishers both corporate and independent have been wrestling with piracy for years. But the problem just keeps getting worse.

Meanwhile, the conglomerates that make money off piracy—the search engine companies with their ads and the monopolistic Internet providers with their breathtaking monthly bills (not to mention the major advertisers, like Citibank, Sprint, and Office Depot, that support sites like Mobilism)—have done nothing to stop it. They say that piracy is beyond their control, even though search engines are able to bury, and IPs are able to block, certain “adult” sites when they choose to.

We live in an age when anything available in a digital format—books, movies, music, video games—can be downloaded for free, and millions of people do so every day. It’s gotten to the point that the 32-million illegal downloads of Game of Thrones Season Five are looked upon as a measure of the show’s success.

Yes, occasionally someone on the Internet mentions a legitimate or quasi-legitimate reason for pirating books, such as: paperbacks are too expensive and college textbooks are grotesquely overpriced; you can only rent and not actually buy e-books from the major vendors, and they can repossess them if they want to; it only hurts the “evil” publishers if you pirate from dead authors; you buy more books than you steal, or download books that you wouldn’t normally buy; e-books are unavailable in your country; or you live on disability, cannot hold a physical book, and can barely afford to pay for medical care.

But for the most part, the Internet is full of absurd excuses and rationalizations for why people pirate books. Below is a compilation of those reasons, followed in most cases by my own comments, in italics. (Interestingly, people seem to have stopped posting this kind of stuff about two years ago. Maybe it’s all been said. Or maybe, in 2015, piracy has become so culturally ingrained, the need to justify it has become as unnecessary as the need to justify breathing.)

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“Books have always been free to those who don’t want to pay for them. Since as far back as the 17th century, people too poor, or too cheap, to buy a book could walk into a public library and borrow it…. Pirate ebooks are just the 21st century equivalent of the lending library or of real-world book sharing, and—in all but the most egregious cases—can be safely ignored.” —Techcrunch.com

Libraries pay for books and replace them when they’re worn out. Authors, myself included, are thrilled to have their books in libraries. Maybe piracy could be ignored in 2011, when this piece was posted, but it can’t be ignored any longer. Piracy is one of the primary culprits among a multitude of perpetrators that are driving authors out of business.

“If your books are being pirated, then they’ve got something good going for them. Nobody shares stuff they don’t like. Don’t forget that the users doing the sharing are usually your biggest fans, too…. It’s not theft…. Most piracy is a minor civil crime… and it’s counted as infringement…. Everyone commits some level of piracy every day…. These days, copyright is so narrowly defined that just about anything a person does with a media file is infringement.” —Raynfall.com

Are you suggesting that passing a photocopied Dilbert cartoon around the office is comparable to downloading pirated editions of every book you want to read but don’t want to pay for?

“For some, it’s the only practical way they can access content, either because the item is not available any other way, or it costs far more than they can afford. And for others, it’s a protest against the evil hegemony of the film, music and book industries.” —Forbes.com

I’m sadly aware that the unavailability of an e-book edition of Nowhere Man has contributed to its piracy. But I was shocked (shocked!) to learn that the book’s California-based indie publisher, Quick American Archives, and Beaver Street’s London-based indie publisher, Headpress, are members of an evil hegemony.

“Publishing houses are greedy…. Sharing a book is great publicity for the author…. People who travel a lot like the convenience of ebooks, and if they already own the book in physical form they feel justified in getting a free copy…. Free sharing allows people to sample books.” —The Guardian

Book pirates are greedy. Pirating is not “great publicity for the author.” The exact opposite is true. Publicity leads to piracy. I do agree, however, that if you buy a new print edition of a book, you should, under most circumstances, be allowed to download the e-book edition for free or for a minimal price. Amazon already does this, offering $1.99 e-books to people who buy the print edition of certain books. Is it really necessary to point out that Amazon, Google, and many other “legitimate” sites allow people to sample books before they buy them?

“A lot of the reasons for book piracy amount to: ‘Because I want it.’… Obscurity is a fate worse than piracy.” —Terribleminds.com

Obscurity might be a fate worse than piracy for the tens of thousands of authors who give away their self-published e-books on Amazon and elsewhere, thereby negating the need for piracy. But the most-pirated authors are well known to begin with.

“I like to collect stuff…. I’ll never pay for an e-book.” —Teleread.com

The following series of comments were culled from a discussion on Reddit:

“I’m poor and I like to read, but I can’t pirate food, so I pirate everything else.”

Apparently you’re not too poor to pay for Internet access, a computer, and probably a smartphone, too. Have you considered the library?

“I don’t justify it. It’s wrong and I will keep doing it. If I really like a book though I will buy it.”

The percentage of people who buy books that they’ve already pirated is miniscule. You are the exception that proves the rule.

“I pirate stuff because I’m cheap.”

Which explains most piracy.

“The free flow of information, especially when it relates to books and other forms of learning, is a necessary step in the history of mankind. The future is here motherfuckers, knowledge is free on the internet, TAKE IT.”

Knowledge is not free. Authors pay for the knowledge you gain with the time they spend making it accessible and understandable. And entertainment isn’t free, either. I doubt anybody reads two of the most pirated authors—J. K. Rowling and Stephen King—for “knowledge.”

Bottom line: Downloading pirated books is a crime of opportunity. The opportunities to do so are limitless and the chances of being punished are nil. People download pirated books because they can.