Saturday, May 22, 2010

Piracy... Again

In the past 24 hours, four separate writers have emailed me to tell me my books are being stolen online.

Well... no duh.

The internet was created to share and distribute data. It's the whole reason the world wide web exists.

Of course some of that data is going to be copyright-protected work. If it can be digitized, it can, and will, be shared.

What continues to amaze me is how freaked-out authors are by this. The thought that someone is sharing their work--without paying for it--seems to evoke the same reaction as having someone hack your bank account and drain your life savings.

As you see by the recent picture, I'm being pirated. Google pointed to 8880 different sites where my work is being illegally shared. And these are just torrent sites. This doesn't count file lockers, which I believe account for many more downloads than torrents.

And yet, I'm not worried. I'm currently selling 220 ebooks per day, and that rate shows no signs of slowing down.

So everyone needs to take a big, collective breath, let it out slow, and stop worrying about illegal file sharing. Here are some reasons why.

1. Copyright is unenforceable in a digital world. Period. Exclamation point. At no time in history has any individual, company, or industry been able to stop file sharing. No country or law has been able to stop it. No technology has been able to stop it. Which brings us to...

2. People want to share files. There is this much file sharing going on for a reason. It's what people want. Fighting piracy is fighting human nature. This is a battle no one can win. Getting your undies in a bunch at the thought of someone copying your ebook is a waste of a good ulcer. Worry about some problem that eventually will be solved. Like world hunger. Or cancer. Or war. Those will be conquered before file sharing is.

3. There is ZERO reliable evidence that file-sharing hurts sales. A shared file does not equal a lost sale, any more than someone reading a library book is a lost sale.

My ebooks that I'm selling on Amazon and Smashwords are available for FREE on my website. As in "they cost zero dollars." And yet the ebooks keep selling. Clearly, being able to get something for free doesn't inhibit sales.

4. The more people who know who you are, the better. File sharing certainly helps spread brand awareness and name recognition, and it does so without any effort on your part.

Now we'll take some questions.

Q: But Joe, if everyone steals your ebooks, how will you make money?

A: Show me an artist bankrupted by piracy, and we'll revisit this question.

Q: No, seriously, in a future where everything is free, how will...

A: We're not in a future where everything is free. But I'll play the "let's pretend" game. Let's pretend that all ebooks are free. How will writers make money? The same way all media makes money. Advertising, merchandising, and licensing.

Q: But I don't want ads in ebooks.

A: I don't want ads in anything. But that's how capitalism works. Deal with it.

Q: Piracy is immoral, and illegal. We need to spread awareness, then people will stop doing it.

A: Sure... that's how religion was able to successfully put a halt to masturbation, pre-marital and extra-marital sex. And why the US successfully won the war on drugs.

Illegal doesn't matter. People do what they want to do. Immoral is subjective. And teaching people to behave in a way contrary to human nature DOES NOT WORK.

Q: If I create something, I should have the right to do what I want with it, and make money from it. Piracy takes that right away from me.

A: No it doesn't. The vast majority of piracy doesn't monetarily benefit the pirate. It's simply sharing, where no one makes a profit.

Q: That's not true. The sites that host piracy make a lot of money.

A: So does Google. So does any popular website. But those sites aren't making money off the illegal sales of your material. They simply facilitate sharing.

Q: Why doesn't anyone close those sites?

A: They try. Then new sites come up. It is unstoppable.

Q: But I don't want my writing to be shared.

A: Then don't write. Simple as that. JK Rowling has lost millions of dollars, because she refused to let Harry Potter come out in ebook form. Newsflash: you can get ebooks of all the Potter books from pirate sites. She didn't cater to her fans, so her fans catered to themselves. And if Rowling can't stop it, with her billions and armies of layers, you can't either.

Q: Piracy is theft, pure and simple.

A: That's not actually a question. And that's not actually true. First of all, the stealing of a physical object deprives the owner of that object, which is a monetary loss. Copying a file does not deprive the owner of that file--the owner still has it.

Q: It's the theft of intellectual property.

A: Okay, even though I think this point is pretty much useless, I'll play.

Have you ever read a library book? Recorded a song off the radio? Tivo'ed a show and zipped through the commercials? Lent a CD to a friend? Rented a movie or videogame? Bought a used book?

Guess what--you just experienced someone else's intellectual property without compensating the artist.

We could play "gray areas" and "where to draw the line" all day. It ultimately comes down to what constitutes ownership of intellectual property--actually owning a tangible object, or experiencing it sensually?

If the IP argument is that every time you sensually experience a work of art you should compensate the artist, then we're all thieves. But if stealing isn't about the experience, it's about the tangible object, then sharing intangible objects, such as data files, is not stealing.

Q: Look, it's stealing, no matter how you try to justify it. We need to create better technology to make sure that pirates can't steal.

A: There's a reason iTunes no longer uses DRM (digital rights management, the industry standard for copy protection.) Because PEOPLE DON'T WANT DRM.

Do you know who wants DRM? Artists and companies who don't know what the hell they're doing because they have knee jerk reactions to the word "piracy."

If you really fear piracy, educate yourself. Read about it. Learn how it's done. Hear both sides defend their positions.

If you have an ounce of brains in your head, you will quickly realize that piracy is always going to be here, that nothing can be done to stop it, that artists can still make money, and that you'd be much better off worrying about something you have control over, like writing more and better books.

And next time you see your ebook on a file sharing site, don't say, "Oh no! I'm being stolen!" Instead say, "Cool, I'm being read." That's what I do.


There are some dissenting opinions in the comments thread, so I just wanted to clarify and distill some of my thoughts. I'm not sure how I went from "don't worry about piracy" to being a full advocate for piracy, but I'd like to make it clear that I believe piracy is stealing. I simply do not equate it with stealing something tangible.

I'd also like to offer my final (for the moment) thoughts:

1. You CANNOT assume that a downloaded free book is a lost sale. It isn't 1 for 1.

In some cases, the pirate would have never bought the book in the first place.
In some cases, the pirate does buy the book, and other books by the author.
In some cases, the book languishes on a hard drive, never read at all.
In some cases, the pirate would have never even been aware of the book or the author without finding it on the file sharing site.

And so on.

2. It is impossible to prove the effect of file sharing on sales without actually interviewing every single pirate and having them answer truthfully about their sharing and buying habits.

3. Industries can lose money for many reasons. There is no study that clearly shows piracy is the only cause, or even proves it is part of the cause.

4. Piracy is big business for groups that make money studying and combating piracy. Fair, unbiased reports are hard to come by, especially when capitalism and politics are involved.

5. I have shown significant growth in the face of freebies and piracy. So have many others.
While it is impossible to prove a direct link between piracy and sales, showing rising sales in the face of piracy is a damn good indicator that piracy isn't harmful. Or if it is harmful, it isn't enough to impact growth.

This isn't opinion. It is fact. And it is repeatable.

You cannot prove piracy has harmed you. But I can prove it hasn't harmed me. Ergo, my argument is sound.

6. Don't worry about what you can't control. You'll sleep better.

7. The only way to combat piracy is with cost and convenience, which I have blogged about before.