Book Piracy: A Non-Issue

Earlier today, for reasons too egotistical to go in to, I found myself looking back at the columns I wrote for the Guardian back in 2003.

Inevitably, with industries as fast moving as media and technology, my 23-year-old self made a whole load of terrible predictions. I dismissed the fad of “cameraphones”, for example, but was bullish on red-button Interactive TV.

One prediction I’m happy to stand by, though, is that the way to solve media piracy would not be through legislation but through making it easier and cheaper for customers to buy legitimate versions of movies, music and books. Yeah, I know, today that sounds obvious. But back then it remained a “theory” in the way that evolution still does to Ron Paul.

Of course, it took music and film companies slightly too long to figure out the whole “easier and cheaper” thing. Before Netflix and Spotify, the labels and studios were repeatedly and embarrassingly blindsided by illegal download services as they made it harder and harder to legitimately download music. Pirates enjoyed a first mover advantage which has been hard for the copyright owners to reverse, even today.

Book publishing, on the other hand, fared batter. Perhaps it was because “the kids” care less about stealing books than they do about cracking the DRM on movies (which is why bookshops remained unscathed during the London riots, while the DVD stores down the street were looted), or maybe because the book industry learned from what happened to their audio and visual cousins. Either way, devices like the Kindle, Nook and iPad — and publishers willingness to embrace them — allowed a legitimate, and lucrative, electronic publishing industry to grow up before the pirates seized the initiative.

And yet, and yet — if we’re to believe Karen Dionne over on our – uhm – sister site, Daily Finance, e-piracy remains a huge, and growing problem.

“Lost book sales can’t be quantified, making it impossible to calculate the full cost of e-piracy, but the sheer number of illegal copies available for download gives an idea of the scope of the problem. At one file-sharing website, users have uploaded 1,830 copies of three books by a popular young adult author. Just one of those copies has had 4,208 downloads. On the same site, 7,130 copies of the late Michael Crichton’s novels have been uploaded, and the first 10 copies have been downloaded 15,174 times.

Even if only a fraction of the downloads from this and dozens of other file-sharing websites represent actual lost sales, they still translate into a staggering amount of royalties that have been stolen from authors.”

Speaking as one of the authors who is allegedly being robbed by these evil pirates, I should be furious. I’m being robbed! The truth is, though, I couldn’t give less of a damn about book piracy. Not least because it’s a non-issue.

I should emphasize at this point that, generally speaking, I’m not inclined to be soft on pirates. There’s probably no-one at TechCrunch who has argued more consistently against the notion that copyright laws need to soften in the digital age. People who illegally copy books on a large scale, for personal profit, should be buried up to their necks in sand until ants eat their lungs from the inside. On that I’m sure we can all agree.

When it comes to peer-to-peer file sharing, however, I’m calm to the point of apathy. The reason: books have always been free to those who don’t want to pay for them. Since as far back as the 17th century, people too poor, or too cheap, to buy a book could walk into a public library and borrow it. In most civilized countries, a fund was established to pay authors a royalty on those loans — but the amount per author was so vanishingly small as to be meaningless.

To all intents and purposes, books borrowed from libraries mean authors receive no compensation. Meanwhile, every day, millions of people around the world loan books to their friends, or donate books to charities, or leave them on public transport or otherwise share them in ways that negate the need for the recipient to buy their own copy. None of this constitutes stealing from authors, and you won’t hear a peep of objection from the publishing industry or authors.

Now here’s the kicker — none of that free sharing of books (with limited exceptions around Kindle lending) is possible with most of today’s ebook readers. Ebook lovers don’t have the luxury of joining public libraries or scooping up handfuls of paperbacks in Goodwill. Therefore, before we can measure the real impact to the publishing industry of books being “stolen” online, we really should subtract the millions of physical books that are shared every day. And, of course, we should also consider the hundreds of millions (billions?) of physical books (100 million in the UK alone) that are stolen from the world’s bookstores annually. Suddenly online sharing seems less of a terrifying innovation and more of a digital continuation of a centuries-old reality.

“But wait!” the pedants might legitimately cry, “with physical sharing someone still had to buy the book in the first place.” Digital piracy – whether it involves books or music or films — allows millions of copies to be made without anyone ever getting paid. Sure — but even with a billion free digital copies floating around, and unlike with a pirate album or DVD, a pirated book remains a pain in the ass to read. Serious readers use dedicated devices — Kindles, iPads, whatever — to read books; and for most of those people the hassle of finding/converting/uploading a pirated book to read on their device represents an unacceptable amount of friction, versus simply downloading it from an official store. Per the point I made back in 2003, the friction-free experience of buying a book on most ereaders is worth far more to most grown-ups than the $9.99 a legitimate copy of an ebook will set them back.

Some people might be “stealing” books online, but it’s unlikely that more than a tiny percentage of those downloads represent a real lost sale to the publishing industry. In an interview with Forbes this week, Tim O’Reilly explains why his eponymous publishing house doesn’t use DRM…

“Let’s say my goal is to sell 10,000 copies of something. And let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome?

I think having 100,000 [books] in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits. People who don’t pay you generally wouldn’t have paid you anyway. We’re delighted when people who can’t afford our books don’t pay us for them, if they go out and do something useful with that information.”

O’Reilly’s words might sound revolutionary, especially when compared to the lock-it-down-and-sue-the-bastards attitude of the music and film industry. But when it comes to publishing, the notion that a rising tide of reading raises all publishing ships has been the reality for centuries. Pirate ebooks are just the 21st century equivalent of the lending library or of real-world book sharing, and — in all but the most egregious cases — can be safely ignored.