P is for Piracy

P is for Piracy.

Pirate. The word sounds sort of sexy. Pirates sail around in cool-looking boats, talking with funny, growling accents, and defying pompous prigs. They laugh a lot (yo, ho, ho), and they really know how to throw a party (that bottle of rum), and they’re portrayed in major motion pictures by big name actors. (Hello, Johnny Depp!)

But in the writing world, pirates are scum. They’re thieves. They take authors’ work without paying, sometimes without attribution.

The typical pirate website hosts thousands of electronic books.  Some are files copied from legitimate ebooks; they’re duplicated and posted without permission.  Others are scanned copies of printed books; pages are fed through a mechanical scanner that churns out poor-quality electronic files, often rife with typographic errors.  Yet others are PDF files, the electronic equivalent of photocopies of book pages.

No matter the format, pirated copies all have one thing in common: the author didn’t get paid for her work.

Different book pirates have different models for distributing their illegal books.  Some make copyrighted material available for free, often invoking the misunderstood statement, “Information wants to be free.”  (Information—facts—might want to be free, but creative works are not mere information.)  Other pirates charge a fee for their booty; they’re in the business to make money.  Still others never actually have a book file to offer; rather, they use an author’s name and the name of his books to seduce unwary people to divulge credit card numbers, expiration dates, and security codes.

People who acquire pirated books also have a variety of motivations. Some have no intention of reading the books they steal; rather, they merely want to own the largest number of books possible. Others find themselves too poor to purchase books, so they download them from pirate sites in the mistaken belief that authors have no legitimate financial interest in their work. Still others could afford to buy books, but they choose not to, because they place their own interests above those of creators.

Just as there are different types of pirated books, different types of pirates, and different types of readers, there are different types of authors: those who have been pirated, and those who have not been pirated yet.  Virtually every book that is available electronically will eventually be pirated.

So, what’s an author to do?

The United States Copyright Act allows authors to sue people or businesses that infringe their copyrighted work.  That litigation, though, is costly and time-consuming. If the author did not previously have her work registered with the United States Copyright Office, her maximum damages will be limited to the actual financial harm she has suffered, a number that can be difficult, if not impossible to prove. Even if she did register her work before the pirates distributed it, copyright infringement litigation is expensive. Any individual case may take years to conclude.

Nevertheless, a 1998 amendment to the Copyright Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) provides a more immediate form of relief. The DMCA states that an Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) is not liable for hosting an infringing work.  However, when an ISP is put on notice that a work infringes, the ISP must remove that work from its site.  ISPs are put on notice when they receive a takedown notice.

A takedown notice is a legal notification with specific requirements.  It must:

•    Be in writing,
•    Be signed (physically or electronically) by the copyright owner or her designated agent,
•    Identify the copyrighted work that has been infringed,
•    Identify the material that infringes that copyrighted work,
•    Include the owner’s contact information,
•    State that the owner is acting in good faith,
•    State that “under penalty of perjury, the information contained in the notification is accurate”, and
•    State that the signatory has the right to proceed because he or she is the copyright owner or the owner’s designated agent.

Traditional publishers typically set up large-scale operations to detect and combat piracy.  They hire services to track down pirated copies of their authors’ work, and they routinely send takedown notices to offenders. Most traditional publishers provide their authors with a contact person or email address, so that authors can forward notices of infringement that they discover.

Some self-published authors follow the same protocol.  They use alert services to track appearances of their own name and/or the names of their books, and they regularly prepare and send takedown notices. Some authors delegate that work to a third-party service such as Muso.  For a fee, the service monitors piracy and dispatches takedown notices.

Authors can spend substantial amounts of time policing their works, attempting to remove it from all possible pirate sites.  Some writers, though, limit their monitoring.  They might, for example, only send takedown notices to pirates who are charging for infringing works, ignoring the numerous pirates who merely make books available for free.

Some authors believe that they must police all of their works against all possible infringement, or they will lose their copyrights. This, though, is not an accurate understanding of United States copyright law.  (It is a summary of United States trademark law, which requires trademark owners to enforce their rights against all infringers.) Each author will need to determine how much time and money she is willing to invest in protecting her work from pirates.

Where do (or will) you draw the line with regard to defeating pirates? How much time are you willing to devote each week to enforcing your copyrights? Will you send takedown notices to all offenders, or only to some? How will you make that determination?




P is for Piracy — 5 Comments

  1. Don’t forget that many of these pirate sites are loaded with malware. A reader may think they are downloading a book for free. What they get is an infected computer that will cost them hundreds of dollars to fix. Best to spend a few dollars on a book from a legitimate site. They’ll save money in the long run.

  2. A computer security expert of my acquaintance confirms that many pirate sites exist only to steal users’ credit card numbers and/or infect their computers with malware. Oftentimes they don’t even have the books (or movies) they claim to be “giving” away. By the time the user realizes this, it’s too late.

    When I used to take the risk of checking out whether a site actually had my books on offer, I found that if they had anything of mine at all, it was the same ratty scan of an old paperback of Dreamsnake, over and over and over again. If they offered “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” it was always the same error-ridden copy that included an editorial introduction formatted as if it were part of the story.

    It’s interesting that nobody has ever contacted me and asked for a free copy of anything on the grounds of poverty. I don’t know what I’d do or how I’d feel about this, but I don’t have to decide because *nobody has ever asked.*

    You see lots of people complaining that they are forced to use pirate sites because they can’t afford to buy books so they have to steal them. Yeah, and I’d like a Jaguar and a pony.

    I spend more time warning people of malware and credit-card thievery, and suggesting that they check ebooks they actually want to read out of the public library, than I do sending out whack-a-mole DMCA notices.


    PS 98% of what you see on the Internet about copyright is wrong. Mindy is among the 2% who actually knows what she’s talking about.

    • ::grin:: Thanks for the vote of confidence!

      (And I’ve never been asked to donate a book to a reader who directly claims poverty either…)

  3. Regarding the poverty argument: this is something I have heard from a number of readers in developing countries, where books may not be available at all or cost disproportionate amounts. (I cannot in good faith argue that any novel is worth 1/10th of anyone’s monthly income). There’s a whole slew of issues caught up in this, but the long and short of it is that if anyone truly cannot afford to buy a book of mine, and feel their only access is a pirated copy, I’m good with that.

    People who make money from books without giving the publisher a pre-negotiated share of the profit are a completely different issue. On those, I’d like to come down like a ton of bricks, with one important caveat:

    [DMCA notices must]
    Include the owner’s contact information

    I do not know how much information needs to be sent to fulfil this legal requirement, but third party services have been on record to send the copyright owner’s full personal details to third parties. When you’re a person who has been stalked or threatened on the internet and you want to keep yourself and your family safe, you need to look very carefully into this issue _before_ you send your takedown notice.

  4. Absolutely – if you are being stalked or threatened, you need to take steps to protect yourself.

    (DMCA notice and personal privacy requires authors to strike a balance. Same thing with sending out a newsletter — that requires contact information too.)