Piracy on the E-Book Ocean - Debbie Bennett

Have I ranted about free books before? I promise I won't again. I know that offering your books free works for a lot of people, so who am I to argue? What do you mean I always argue - with anybody, about anything? But the free I want to talk about now is the unintentionally free. The rip-off free. The pirating free. The illegal free.

If I buy a paperback book, I own that book as a physical entity - the paper it's printed on and the physical copy of the story on its pages. I don't own the content of the book. The story itself remains the property of the author and I've just bought the right to read it as often as I like. And lend it to other people too.

But ebooks don't have a physical presence. An ebook is a digital file stored on a server somewhere. When I buy an ebook, I buy the right to download it to a reading device and read it as often as I like. The fact that Amazon apparently has the right to remove it from my device without warning or compensation is a whole new ballgame ...

So why do people think it's OK to copy ebooks? 

I'm sitting in a pub recently and I see somebody with a few DVD/CD cases. The top one has a homemade cover that says something like Best Ebooks of 2012. I'm horrified and I explain to the person that it's ripping off other people's hard work, that I'm an author and I expect to be paid for my books, that it's called pirating and it's illegal. Blank look follows.... 

To be fair, it may be that the books on these CDs are all public domain, or have now been deleted from all other devices. But even so, you can't just lend a kindle ebook to somebody else. Amazon specifically says so: Kindle content cannot be shared like a physical book ...

Now I'm not whiter-than-white. As I child I recorded the Top 40 onto cassettes on a Sunday evening. And as a student I bought cassettes from suitcases on street corners in Liverpool city centre. And I genuinely never realised they were pirated copies and that was why the cardboard inserts were a bit blurry. Remember back then, all we had were cheap cassette recorders - there were no CDS, no cables to connect things up and get perfect sound quality. This was the early 1980s and there was no public internet or i-tunes. Music rip-offs were done by 'professional' outfits who had access to the technology. So it wasn't unreasonable for the more naïve among us to not know what was genuine and what wasn't. I don't rip-off music any more, I should add. I buy CDs or tracks from i-tunes, amazon (or even a local shop!), and I pay for them.

I pay for my books too. Print and ebooks. I'm lucky in that so far I've not had issues with websites pirating my ebooks, although it's all too common these days and there appears to be little to be done to control it when the 'companies' are based abroad in Russia or China and apparently outside of any legal systems. Maybe the current media attention focused on certain social network sites and the internet in general will force some kind of worldwide 'law' onto the internet, but frankly I doubt it. It's impossible to police - and that's just the web we know and see. Given that a lot of the criminal online dealing takes place in the deep web, where even the search engines fear to swim and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

But websites will only sell pirated goods so long as there is a market for them. Given that the majority of people I know these days don't pirate music (not that they tell me, anyway), why do they think it's OK to rip-off ebooks? Is it just that digital literature hasn't been around as long as digital music? How long will it be before polite society considers it wrong to steal books? Or at least wrong enough not to be so blatant about it in public?



Jan Needle said…
I don't know if I'm one of the army of guilty ones, or an innocent abroad. My ebook thriller about the Rudolf Hess mystery went up for free on Weds until the weekend, and yesterday, I'm told, was at No26 in the Amazon list, and No1 in the historical fiction section. Should I be pleased/delighted/bemused? I'm not absolutely sure.

But one thing I have worked out over the years is that visibility is all, and that so far ebooks are invisible until something happens and the press get interested, as in 50 Shades Of. So I figure that being on a list that people look at is a start. And if a book up on the freebies is any good, it'll probably start digging itself an awareness slot. Even piracy (and I'm not in favour!) probably has some benefice. 'Most pirated book of the century' might have its worth.

We're working in the dark, which is quite exciting in itself. My real publishers, almost to a man, kept me in the dark, which was not a bit exciting. Which do you prefer?

Death Order is still free, incidentally, till Saty, I think. Have it for free, and more than welcome. Give it a quick Amazon review - whether you like it or not - and visibility increases. What more can we hope for? ‪http://amzn.to/16FZ1GU
Debbie Bennett said…
But that's intentionally free, Jan. And I have one, thanks!
JO said…
I was at a Show of Hands concert recently, and the singer said he was quite happy about people copying his work, as it meant people listened to it, and maybe they'd be more likely to buy their own copy next time.

It's all right for him - he's made his fortune. But for those of us looking to make a crust or two, it's a different issue. I'm in your camp, Debbie - we all know books are borrowed, but ebooks are different - they're our precious words and not for throwing around.
Lee said…
Considering the information we've all learned about surveillance in recent months, I'm not about to tell you whether I'm a pirate or not. But what I will say is that I spend a great deal of my income on books and that piracy indeed has its benefits. See Jan's comment about visibility, for a start.

Of course, I'm one of those who'd rather give my fiction away in one form or another. And I always will. It's empowering.
Lee said…
JO, in all honesty, what's so very precious about our words anyway? Perhaps our understanding of and ownership - particularly the ownership of culture - needs rethinking. What about mashups, for example?

Also, I see a certain parallel to the so-called war on drugs. It's pointless to waste time and energy on a war you're never going to win. Make it free - or a controlled sort of free - and see where that takes us.
Nick Green said…
I'd probably be more flattered than annoyed if people pirated my ebook, since I only make pennies from it anyway. But I recognise it could be a big problem if it became the norm to do so. The assumption that digital content must always be free is a slippery slope. I don't buy nearly so much music these days, because of Spotify, and I do wonder how the more obscure artists that I listen to can possibly make a living.

On a related point, I too offer my book free from time to time. But I've noticed something interesting. I'm sure that most of those people who download the book free never actually read it. There is too much imbalance between the number of downloads and the number of reviews.

I read an article about a man who installs 'plastic water bottle light bulbs' in houses in developing nations. They use no electricity and cost next to nothing, but he charges a small fee to install them. 'I would do it for free,' he says, 'but if I did, people would not take care of them. People do not value the thing that they get for nothing.'
Lee said…
Also, Jo, if you think most fiction writers are going to make a decent crust from their writing, and should expect to, I'd call that delusional. In a friendly sort of way, of course!

Over to someone else: I've got a lot of translating to, the sort of writing which does pay for a crust or two.

(And for those who are interested, Mortal Ghost is free for the time being at Amazon UK. I wish they'd made it Corvus, but who knows how Amazon's algorithms work. At least there's always free via my website.)
Lee said…
Nick,that slippery slope for music has resulted in Spotify. Or?

Maybe it works for lightbulbs, but there's plenty of stuff I value even though it's free. Or free in a certain sense, since not much is genuinely free. I don't trust such commonplaces like the one you quoted. And after having lived in a developing nation for a long time, I really don't trust it! Look behind what people say...
Dan Holloway said…
I have to say I'm with Lee on this. I had a fascinating chat with Suzanne Aigrain during this year's Oxford Literary Festival. Her father was chairing a panel on open source fiction and is the author of a fascinating book on the subject http://www.sharing-thebook.com/ that gives plenty to think about.
I do think the kneejerk link we so often make between value and monetary value needs looking at very seriously. If it *IS* true (and like Lee, I'm not convinced, it's certainly not for anyone I know, that the two are deeply connected in people's minds, then the answer isn't to play into that by insisting on propping up the monetary worth of products but to work on dismantling the connection.
Lydia Bennet said…
Ah pirates, always with us in one form or another. Epiracy is just one of the consequences of new technology - it's so easy to remove the DRM from ebooks now apparently, so the only people restricted by that are genuine buyers who might have liked to put their purchase on more than one of their ereaders. But free downloading didn't destroy the music industry, that industry has changed so much instead, and the same I hope will happen with ebooks. Just listening to Hardwell Live at Tomorrowland, House (my favourite music) in particular is thriving and it's virtually all electronic.
Dennis Hamley said…
In two minds here. I know how vulnerable we are. I've not got over the shock of my first book, copyright 1962, appearing in a pirated edition in the USA purporting to have been published before 1923. And yet I bought two copies and am glad to have them. And I'll be glad if others read them even if I don't get another penny. Actually, I didn't do too badly first time round. Well, is being read the writer's greatest reward? Of course not. But it's great to get and, as things stand, it seems the only way I (I can't speak for others) can be sure of getting significant numbers of copies in people's hands. And are they read if they're free? Possibly, in the end. I've got hundreds of books on my Kindle from all you lot! And I bought them too. And they will all be read IN THE END. I promise. And very likely reviewed as well. Perhaps the freeloaders will do the same. Perhaps, perhaps.
Lee said…
Here's a link to a piece about a system I've been hoping would eventually develop - a reasonably priced ebook subscription service similar to Netflix:


I'd certainly join! And something like this might just help offset so-called piracy.

Nick, though you're probably right that a lot more people download free books than read them, I suspect that the Amazon picture is a bit more complex than you suggest. Over at Barnes & Noble, for example, my two novels have always been free, but there are heaps more reviews and starrings for my first novel than my second (close to 900 vs. 15!). The second novel has been on offer for less time, of course, than the first, but the discrepancy in number of reviews is so great that this alone can't account for it. Myself, I put it down to cover image, but who knows? And B&N isn't Amazon, so I may be comparing apples & oranges.

Lee said…
Dan, thanks for the link. I've already downloaded the Aigrain book & will certainly have a look at it, since it's a topic of much interest. (OAPEN could have made the PDF download symbol a bit larger & easier to find, though!)
Lee said…
Dan, I'd like to add a small example about the relationship between value and monetary value, which you put so much better than I. A few years back, my younger daughter's violin teacher, who is a highly skilled, highly regarded, and highly placed musician with the Beethoven Orchestra here in Bonn, decided that she wouldn't charge us for weekly lessons. She said that she earned enough money through her permanent position, and she carried through on her offer for several years, more or less till my daughter finished high school and moved away. My husband, my daughter, and I all valued this arrangement exceedingly - and it put us in what I consider to be an interesting position of moral obligation. If we had simply paid for lessons, we'd have been able to feel we 'owned' those lessons in some way - the basis of monetary exchange. In this way, however, we were of course dependents, in a sense, but this situation taught me that paying for something can actually cheapen it. In a market economy, especially one in which most everything has become commodified, items - and people too - are essentially fungible. If you don't like your latest T-shirt, toss it away and simply buy another: that's what paying for something can teach you. You don't owe any loyalty to the producer.
glitter noir said…
Fine post, Debbie. Thank you.
Charlie Electra said…
Piracy is one of the major issue world wide specially for the electronic market.Even the Microsoft is unable to deal with the piracy.
Is there any solution you can suggest?

Charlie Electra

Buy Electronic Products

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