Avast, Ye Lubbers

A ripple ran through the otherwise serene waters of the Book View Café last week when a pirate site–or rather, a directory site with links to all sorts of pirated material, including vast quantities of members’ fiction, some of it very likely published here at BVC–came to our collective attention.  There was a flurry of activity as we all contacted our publishers, or started writing Takedown Letters, or reported the site to the FBI.  It is, at very least, time sink and an annoyance.

And then I got into an electronic conversation with an acquaintance who wondered why we bothered.  “It’s not like many people are going to find the site, is it?  So you lose half a dozen sales–you’re still getting royalties on books you sell elsewhere.  Wouldn’t you do better to spend all that time writing?”

Oy. Where to start?

I have heard, more times than I  want to count, the mantra “information wants to be free.”  You want free information, try Wikipedia*.  Or the library.  If you want a story which has been labored over, researched, edited, revised, and finally offered to the public, throw a little something into the kitty.  Unless the author or publisher have decided for whatever reason to offer it for free.  But that is the author/publisher’s decision, not yours or the pirate-site’s managers.  One of the things I like about BVC is that each of us is free to set her own price for a given work.  Cause we’re selling access to our intellectual property.  Someone takes that intellectual property without paying for it? Well, the term I learned at my mother’s knee is theft.

Aside from the loss of income that comes with piracy, there are larger legal issues.  I am not (unlike several of my BVC colleagues) a lawyer, but one of my responsibilities at my soon-to-be late job was to act as Permissions Editor, the person who gives, or licenses, or denies, the right to quote or otherwise use material from one of my employer’s books.  I am the one who writes to kids who want to use an illustration from one of our books in a report on juggling or paper craft (permission is granted), or the director of an overseas language program that wants to use our Juggling book as a tool for teaching English (granted, with conditions attached) , and to the manager of a summer camp that wants to run off 150 copies of a crafting book to use with his camp groups (permission denied), and to people who want to use the designs for paper fashions for their own craft businesses (denied).  It’s not capricious, the reasoning behind these permissions, nor is it particularly sentimental (“awww, let the kid have permission, he’s just a kid”).  Regarding the denials: in the case of the camp manager, it’s about loss of income.  In the case of the crafter, it’s about protecting our intellectual property.

That “IP” thing again.  Well, yes.

If you hold the copyright (or trademark) to something, one of your responsibilities is to protect it.  This is why big copyright/trademark holders like Disney, to use the classic example, has so little sense of humor about their various trademarks and intellectual properties.  First, there’s the issue of loss of income (if someone is making Spider-Man jammies without licensing the image, that could mean substantial chunk of lost income opportunity).  But second, and more importantly, if Disney/Marvel have to go to court to defend, Spider-Man, they need to be able to point to all the times when they stopped someone from using Spidey, to show that they continue to take a vital interest in the mark.

So when someone produces an electronic edition of my sorta-vampire story “Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight,” I’m not only losing the opportunity to make some money on the story, I’m endangering my right to say “I came up with those characters, that situation, that plot, and no one else did.”  Some of the big guns–J.K. Rowling, for example, has stated publicly that she’s not opposed to fiction using the characters and situations of a little-known series she wrote about Wizardry school for fan fiction–and there’s a thriving, vast community of people who play in that world.  But I am pretty certain that the minute someone tried to publish Harry Potter at Cambridge, Ms Rowling’s solicitors, and her publishers’s solicitors, will put an end to it.  Because at that point it’s no longer homage and appreciation: its wholesale appropriation for commercial purposes.

No one in their right mind becomes a writer because they’re going to make a fortune at it.  It does happen on rare occasions, but not often.  I became a writer because I liked the process, because I liked the people I could invent and blow life into, because I liked putting them into troublesome situations and seeing them get out of it.  I have worked hard on every damned thing I’ve written, because it doesn’t come easily.  And when I see some cyber-types attempting to appropriate my property with cutlasses in their teeth and larceny in their hearts, well: yes, I will deploy takedown letters and call the FBI and make public their infamy.

Buy from licit sources.  Throw a little money into the tip jar.


*although I annually make a donation to Wikipedia, in the spirit of “if you use it, you really ought to.”  Because, in fact, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and taking bits of other people’s lunches gets old after a while.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Avast, Ye Lubbers — 19 Comments

  1. While I’m not a copyright lawyer, I believe that what you say here is incorrect. Trademarks and copyrights are not the same. Trademarks can be weakened or lost in certain circumstances if they are not defended; copyrights cannot. There could be 100,000 sites sharing one of your works illegally, and your right to sue the 100,001st such site would not be weakened. While you of course have the right to issue takedown notices, you have no obligation to do so.

    • You’re right–I was lumping them together for the convenience of the thing. But I have heard people (including the IP folk at my current company) justify going after content thieves in much the same way as trademark infringers.

  2. Well, the people managing Robert E. Howard’s estate did nothing about Conan’s pizza here in Austin, when it was one location with Frazetta prints hanging everywhere. When there were four locations, the estate tried to stop it. And the person who warned them about the very first pizza parlor was forced to say under oath that he’d told the estate about the first pizza parlor years before.

    So–no case, no damages. Because the estate had not defended their claim earlier. If you know, you send a takedown notice….

    • I remember when Godzilla Sushi, down the street from my old workplace at the Flatiron Building, was forced to change their name. At the time I thought “Toho has no sense of humor. Feh.” I now know differently. I must admit, I had a flinch response when I saw a Godzilla Sushi here in San Francisco…

  3. “Half a dozen”–if only! One of my books (if their site count was even correct) had had just under 500 downloads. And they had stolen all my books.

    The royalties from just the one could have got me the new glasses I can’t afford.

    • That’s the thing. You’re not being petty: this is how you make your living, or some part of it. And I know how hard you work: you deserve to be paid for it.

      • Yes, we work so hard for such small reward! I try to educate my students that the concept of “everything free on the internet” isn’t sustainable, if you actually want good writing to read.

  4. I have mixed views on piracy. (Hear me out, please. I have mixed views as a content creator and after long and detailed discussions with people in a number of industries, as well people who make illegal copies of things).

    I think it’s a complex topic, and more complex than I can easily fit into a comment here.

    1) My own behavior regarding bundles and freebies – software, music, and books – suggest that 80% of the stuff I have on my hard drive, I ignore completely. Eyes bigger than stomach, and all that. They’re not ‘lost sales’, and for many of them, if I had to *buy* an item and couldn’t get it for free, I would have bought ‘item in category, whatever was cheap/available/visible’, not necessarily _this one_. I don’t frequent pirate sites, but I have no reason to believe that most users on them are much different: someone, somewhere, _might_ lose a sale, but it’s not a 1:1 conversion rate.
    2) There’s a strong colonial element to book pricing and book availability. I’ve talked to people for whom a Big Five published book represents a considerable proportion of their monthly salary, *if* they are allowed to buy them, but who would like to read and be part of the global discussion nonetheless. And given that current pricing levels *are* linked to exploitation, I can grok why they say ‘screw Western intellectual property laws, they got rich on our backs’. Also not ‘lost sales’: those readers cannot afford most books.
    3) Making money off other people’s content? Not excusable, ever. Not something one should support, *even* when one is cool with illegal copies in general. The people who upload content don’t do it for the community, or to share cool stuff, they do it so people join their sites and pay monthly fees and people look at their ads.

    • Presumably (and maybe this is an unfair and inaccurate presumption on my part), if these people are living in places where those books are available for sale, they are also living in places that have libraries.

      The point that “they got rich on our backs,” while a legitimate grievance which needs to be rectified, does not justify infringing on the content creators’ right and ability to make a livelihood. That’s directing retaliation at the wrong target. Two wrongs, and all that.

      And neither of those points addresses the pervasive attitude that’s crept into our collective thinking that everything should be free because I want it NOW but can’t afford it NOW; and everyone else should work for nothing just so I can have cheap stuff (but I, myself, shouldn’t have to work for nothing, because that’s not fair).

      Instead of working to alleviate exploitation, we’ve just taken it to the next level, where everyone is subject to it, and from every direction.

      • Some of the people I’ve spoken to live in places where ebooks aren’t sold, so if they want to buy a book, it’s a long and costly process, and libraries are thin on the ground. (And even from my experience in Germany I can say that the chance of borrowing English-language books sucks completely; I’d not guess what the situation is in countries with lesser library budgets).
        And all I can say is that I’ve found it a pervasive argument; I don’t know what percentage they make in comparison to people who are just too cheap or too lazy to seek out other, legitimate channels, but it changed my fundamental attitude to ‘well, there are cases when it’s not black and white’.

        everything should be free because I want it NOW but can’t afford it NOW

        Buy now! Pay later!

        I fully agree that this is a problem. And I think that changing people’s attitude to ‘creators deserve to be paid/if I want more of this, I should pay the creator and encourage them’ is – while difficult – tremendously important. I don’t know what percentage of downloads comes from the entitled set (personally, I’ve been using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ and Google Books searches in much the same way: to get to read parts of books I don’t want to or can’t pay for right now, and I’ve been reading many a book in bookstores or libraries in the past, so I can’t talk). But I think that making people want to pay will, overall, work better than pretending everybody who downloaded a book would have bought it and that they owe you money for it. (See also KDP only paying for people who read 10%: surprise, lots of people download a lot of content they never even touch just because it’s there.)

        I also think the horse of ‘free or very cheap content’ is out of the barn and has well and truly bolted. There are just *so many* books available free or cheap that price has become a sticking point for consumers. (Which makes me extra annoyed at people pirating BVC stuff: good quality, sensible pricing, treating customers well, and IIRC, no regional restrictions: this removes most of the pro-piracy arguments right out of the box; I think the most likely motivation is greed. Bah.)

        I don’t have a solution for how to best structure the conversation so that more people volunteer to pay for books; I don’t think we have found it yet, but the ‘support an artist’ model seems to be gaining traction between Kickstarters and Patreons and people simply laying out ‘this is what it takes to keep me producing good stuff’.

  5. The basic problem arises because all those who want to justify their stealing persist in using the second part of the quote while disingenuously ignoring the second half.

    What Mr. Brand said, in full, is: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

    And just because information “wants to be free” doesn’t mean it should be. Convicted felons want to be free, too, but that doesn’t mean anyone has the right to go unlock their cell doors.

  6. There is one point which isn’t really addressed here, and although it pertains more to self-published authors, it is still relevant – particularly because it is the single most common and most vital argument *for* allowing piracy to continue.
    For many authors on both sides of the fence, especially those starting out, the key barrier to their success is ‘discoverability’. To overcome this barrier, many of us adopt aggressive pricing strategies, with frequent sales at 99c or less, and regular giveaways and freebies. The theory behind these strategies is that a reader is more likely to take a chance on an author who is new to them if they don’t have to pay for the privilege. Then, assuming they enjoy the book, they will potentially buy more works from the same author, or – even better – tell their friends! The same is true with pirate downloads. If a young lad downloads a book illegally from a pirate site, the chances are he would never have paid for it, so it doesn’t constitute a lost sale. Then, when he tells his mates, his sister, and eventually even his parents, there are potentially a great many sales to be made – and more, when they pass on the word of mouth recommendation to their friends. So from someone who would never have bought the book at full price, could spring up a succession of sales. Multiplied by the number of illegal downloads, this could be a major contributor to an author’s income – whilst also enhancing the ‘buzz’ about their books. Personally I have never bothered investing the time to issue take-down notices when I find my book available on pirate sites. I don’t think the effort is cost-effective, and I personally believe that what little money I may be leaving on the table by not combatting piracy, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what I stand to make if one of my books becomes a cult or ‘underground’ hit. Imagine if the right person pirates and enjoys your book! It could go viral, with the equivalent repercussions as when a major celebrity discovers and promotes it legitimately!

    • Unfortunately ‘whack a mole’ is a necessity for publishers – you’re most likely seeing only the tip of the iceberg – and particularly if other people _are_ making money from their books. But here’s an interesting thing that happened in the software industry:
      First, everybody was copying apps. This was a perceived problem. Then CDs came out, and people would still copy apps – but usually only the app, not all the extras, so you’d have to buy the whole thing to get the goodies, and people did.
      Then DRM got more effective and it became hard to copy apps… and the cover CD became A Thing: get an older/downgraded/brandnew version of the app free with the magazine, get hooked, buy the next version.
      Then magazines stopped doing CDs because of cost, so everybody wanting an app had to buy it again… but lo and behold, the bundle model gained traction, where you get older/downgraded/brandnew apps so you can get hooked and upgrade to the next version.

      Notice a pattern? For all the SW companies try to implement DRM, they also need a mechanism for hooking new users.

      Now books are somewhat different, because they’re used differently, but there are lessons to be learnt, and ‘downloads != lost sales’ is one of them. A significant number of people I’ve spoken to who’ve pirated stuff because they couldn’t afford to buy went and bought things – often the same albums/books/apps – when they *could*, so I think there *is* a hook here, something we can build on, maybe not to stop people from downloading books, but to encourage them to pay authors anyway.

      I would like to see more industry data on people’s actual use of pirate sites: how much they download, how much they read, what percentage of that are ‘lost sales’, what would make them pay for items they’ve used, because to the best of my knowledge we don’t have that data yet. Well, Amazon has some of it, but Amazon isn’t sharing.

    • But if even if it can be shown that people are “hooked” into buying in this way, if they’re buying from sites that are selling pirated material, the original author will never benefit from the sales.

      It seems to me, that most people will not take the time and effort to find the places that are selling the work legitimately (especially if the cost there is higher), they will simply stick with, and refer others to, the venues they were introduced to initially, because a) that’s how inertia works; and b) they aren’t thinking about the interests of the author, but their own benefit.

  7. When I was a young and more innocent soul, and poor as the proverbial mouse without cheese (new proverb. I just made it up), I used to haunt used book stores and buy bunches of second- or third-hand paperbacks, including the ones that had no covers. I did not realize that the books without covers were “stripped”: that the covers had been torn off and returned to the publisher, who would not be paid for the book (hardcovers are returned if they don’t sell; with paperbacks it was cheaper to just send the covers back). The thing is, the publishers made no money on stripped books, and therefore the author makes no money. Once I understood this, I didn’t buy stripped books any more.

    And somehow, in my mind, pirated ebooks and stripped books are the same.

  8. I make all my books intentionally DRM-free. I’m happy if someone pirates a copy and I get a new reader – even if they then pirate the rest of my books instead of buying them, there’s still a chance they’ll spread the word to someone else who’ll buy them. Either way, it’s a potentially gained sale, as neither person would likely have discovered and bought the books if they weren’t available on their favourite pirate site.
    I honestly think the vast majority of the ebook consuming public buy from the official stores, particularly Amazon, because of the ease of delivery. Demographics show the majority of Kindle owners, for example, aren’t the same group likely to be frequenting pirate sites. Obviously it happens, but cost is a factor here too – if a book is reasonably priced, I think a reader is very unlikely to find in on Amazon, decide not to buy it, and then go and scour pirate sites to find an illegal copy which they’ll then have to side-load onto their devices individually. I read on my phone and Kindle similtaneously, which wouldn’t work with pirated books; I impulse buy whilst browsing on Amazon. These sorts of behaviours are what will keep the majority of book buyers buying, even when a fringe minority downloads illegally. The only time I can imagine a legitimate buyer ever searching instead for a pirate copy, is when the ebook they want is priced unrealistically – which unfortunately a lot of the top-selling books are. Perhaps that’s why piracy concerns the larger publishing houses much more than it concerns me – it’s hardly worth pirating my books, which cost $2.99, and if someone does I don’t stand to lose much – the potential gain of a new fan outweighs the loss. But for Harper-Collins, who could stand to lose $12 on a drastically overpriced ebook, I guess the balance sheet looks a little different – especially as those high-demand, over-priced books are the most likely target for large-scale piracy. Interestingly enough though, the actual author stands to lose even less per illegal download than I do – it’s the publisher that is getting screwed, by and large, and I struggle to find much pity for them!

  9. You know what one of the safest, easiest ways to get an e-book free illicitly is?

    The library. No risk of malware or possible lawsuits down the road from some torrent monitoring bot ratting you out. You just check the book out from their web site same as usual, and then…

    You see, the DRM that expires those e-books after their checkout period ends is the exact same DRM that’s on the books that people buy rent from e-book stores for their own uses. It can be removed with the exact same tool.

    Anyone who buys e-books and cracks the DRM to preserve and back up their purchase could also check out library e-books and crack the DRM to keep them forever. And anyone tech-savvy enough to seek down the back alleys of the Internet for peer-to-peer is probably also tech-savvy enough to install that software.

    (I have no idea why publishers and authors don’t seem to be more worried about this. Whenever I see their plaints against library e-book lending, they seem to be expressing the concern that someone might not want to buy the book after having read it once, not that they might crack the DRM and keep it.)