Stop right now and open up your Downloads folder. Take a look at what’s there. Apps, obviously. Probably some memes and .gif files – my favorite .gif at the moment is Tommen jumping out of the window, thereby proving how King’s Landing got its name. And then most likely you have music, movie, and eBook files you’ve purchased.
But that’s not what untold thousands of people see. Many Downloads folders are full of music, movie, and eBook files that were not purchased. They were downloaded for free, from pirating sites that stole those files from the copyright holders. I chose the word “stole” deliberately. I realize that most people who download from torrent sites justify their theft by thinking, “It’s a big company. They’ll not miss my money. They’ve taken my money for years. It’s not stealing; it’s sharing.”
Well, no. It’s not. It’s theft, both legally and morally. And if you don’t think the copyright holder is missing the money, let me tell you a story.
I am in the process of self-publishing my backlist, starting with my first fantasy series. This is a reissue – the series was originally published in the late 2000s. However, I decided to get the books back on the market and to do it correctly. I paid to get each book (of the four-book series) re-edited – that was $250 per book. I paid for cover art and design ($140). I paid for formatting ($80). I paid for promotional art and advertising ($300-$500). Each book has cost me a lot of money – almost $800 per book – money I didn’t begrudge spending because I wanted to make sure the quality of my product was as high as possible. I listed each 600-page book at $3.99, which I think anyone would agree is an extremely fair price.
The third book of that fantasy series was released on Friday afternoon. When I woke up this morning, one e-piracy site had over a thousand free downloads of it. Let’s put that into monetary terms on a personal level. As I am publishing these books myself, I make 70% royalties on each book sale. So those one thousand thefts of my intellectual property literally took $2,800 out of my pocket.
What makes this so sad is that they don’t think of this as theft. For example, from the Huffington Post article E-Piracy: The High Cost of Stolen Books by Karen Dionne:
But most file-sharers see themselves as a community. They believe they offer a useful service, and their hackles go up when authors and publishers take steps to shut their websites down. After one site bowed to pressure and removed their e-books section entirely, hundreds of users bemoaned the loss. One posted a warning: “One word to the Publishers and Authors who created original trouble — Do whatever you want you cannot Stop readers from getting free Ebooks. You people don’t stand a chance against [the] entire Internet. As Long as [the] Internet is alive, we readers will continue to share Ebooks.
Or perhaps this comment, from the article “Is Downloading Really Stealing? The Ethics of Digital Piracy” on The Conversation:
The same is not true when I download a digital file of your copyrighted property. In downloading your film, I have not excluded you from its use, or your ability to benefit from it. I have simply circumvented your ability to exclude me from its use. To draw an analogy, this seems more like trespassing on your land than taking your land away from you.
Criminal sanctions seem warranted in thefts where one person’s gain is very clearly another person’s loss. But things are not so clear when the relationship between gain and loss are [sic] more complex.
And of course there are ways that owners of intellectual property can gain, overall, from infringements of their rights. The more accessible their products become, the more people may want to consume them.
And therein lies the problem. Entitlement. Believe me when I tell you that I do not gain one single benefit if someone steals my intellectual property. A book thief isn’t trespassing on my land. He’s building a house on it and driving over my daffodils. He may enjoy my property and think it’s awesome, but that doesn’t give him the right to be a squatter – to think he is entitled to enjoy my work without somehow compensating me for it in some way. Because trust me – a book thief feels perfectly comfortable emailing me to whine about how a book ended, but will not take the trouble to rate or review that stolen book and thus provide me with some tangible benefit from his theft.
And even that would be like picking daffodils from my yard and giving them to me in a bouquet. Thanks so much.
E-pirates think they are entitled to enjoy an author’s books – books that represent hundreds or thousands of hours of work – for free. I’ve personally had people email me and ask me where they can download my books for free! I’ve had emails from readers who stole my book and then wanted to complain because the next book wasn’t out yet or because I killed their favorite character. God forbid I reply with what I’m really thinking, because then the Twitter outrage begins in 140 characters or less.
“She was so mean to me b/c I torrented her book. Never read her books again.”
The IP Watchdog site is full of great material regarding copyright theft and piracy, as evidenced by this March 13, 2016 article by bestselling author Rhonda Rees called “An Awareness Crusade Against the Online Piracy of Books”:
According to the Association of American Publishers, the publishing industry as a whole has lost $80 to $100 million dollars to online piracy annually. From 2009 to 2013, the number of e-book Internet piracy alerts that the Authors Guild of America has received from their membership had increased by 300%. During 2014, that number doubled. I’m certain that in 2016, the statistics will go even higher.
I am too. All that being said:
There is a fly in the book thief’s proverbial ointment. Many of the free download links you find when you’re searching for your favorite author’s books to steal have all sorts of nasty little surprises in store for you instead of the actual book – malware, for example, or spam. A nice expensive ransomware like CryptoLocker might cure a book thief’s criminal habits. At that point it’s either pay the hacker hundreds of bucks or lose all the files on your computer permanently. Some authors might consider that to be poetic justice, and I have to admit, looking at all the stolen copies of my book 36 hours after its release makes that CryptoLocker curse look like a nice little slice of karma.
Might make you wish you’d spent the four bucks instead.
But even if that happens, it’s not vindication for the author. Writers spend hundreds of hours working on their books, typing away in dark little rooms. We create worlds that enable our readers to escape their own for a while. But in the end, we are creating a product for sale, and rely upon those sales to keep working – to create those new worlds.
Think of it this way. What would happen if payday rolled around and your boss said, “We are a community, sharing our work with the world. So instead of paying you for your work, we’re going to give it away for free because the target market for our product is entitled to reap the benefits of what you do without paying for it.”
I can hear the riot beginning from here.
In the end, eBook piracy is a misnomer. The word “pirate” invokes imagery of courageous rebels who sail the seven seas online stealing from the rich. A Robin Hood with sails. That’s not what’s happening here. The proper term is intellectual property theft. Copyright infringement. And yes, it is a crime internationally, thanks to the Berne Convention, of which the U.S. is a signatory nation.
The author’s side of eBook theft doesn’t seem to bother intellectual property thieves, who are busily making money off clicks, malware removal, and ransomware because of illegal book downloads. But that’s not what you should be concerned with. What you should be concerned with is that intellectual property theft, if it continues unchecked, will drive your favorite authors away from continuing to write. And that would be a shame for all of us.
So many stories would remain untold.