Shortly after authors achieve their first successful publication, they have the unsettling realization that people are pirating it: passing digital copies around for free. Usually, their reaction is, understandably, indignation. “After all the blood, sweat, and tears I put into this, people are cheating me out of $2.99?!?”
Shortly after this, they head to a writers forum and ask how they can put an end to piracy and punish the evildoers who have wronged them.
Software vendors, music publishers, and movie studios have been dealing with pirates for years. As ebooks and audiobooks have become increasingly popular, pirating them has grown in lockstep.
As deeply unsatisfying as it may be to writers, there are really only two reasonable reactions to people pirating your book: 1) write books no one wants to read, then no one will bother pirating it, or 2) try your best to ignore it.
Why Pirates Pirate
There are a number of reasons why people decide to pirate.
- Sometimes they simply can’t afford the digital good, and would rather pirate it than do without. This is common in developing countries or with young people. While authors will express skepticism about someone being unable to afford a, typically inexpensive, ebook, a thirteen-year-old who reads 5 books a week may not be able to afford her habit.
- Sometimes content creators control the distribution of their products and pirates want access before they are allowed. Often British entertainment is released in the UK before it’s available elsewhere. Rather than wait, some people will download episodes of “The Great British Bake Off” or “All Creatures Great And Small”.
- Some piracy is products that are no longer available for sale. This happens with obsolete computer games, but there are many books which are still under copyright protection, that can’t be purchased any more or can only be purchased at hugely inflated collectible prices.
- Other pirates have become digital hoarders and they collect content that they will never consume. It’s almost like a collection to them. These people may have hundreds of e-books, sometimes acting as a repository for others, rather than reading themselves. Writers who give out advanced review copies have usually had this experience with “reviewers” who want free copies but never write reviews. In many cases, these people don’t read the book.
- Some people enjoy the technical challenge of finding a pirated version of something or defeating the technological protections. Years ago, a friend of mine wanted to play a computer game that had been written for Windows under Linux (another operating system). He spent hours figuring out how to make it work, then finally started it, played for a few seconds, and shut it off. He joked that the real game for him was getting it to work, not playing it.
Protecting Digital Properties
It’s POSSIBLE, but extremely difficult, to control how software is run by consumers. The ultimate control is software that partially runs on the users’ computers and partial runs on the company’s computer. World of Warcraft is an example of this. Even in this situation, pirates have written their own version of the company’s code and created knock-offs.
With entertainment media, the consumer has to be able to see or hear the product. It’s easy to record things that people see or hear. Cameras work the same way the human eye does, so if someone can see it, then can take a picture of it.
With books, it’s even easier. If there was some imaginary, completely controlled environment where an ebook could be read but somehow not copied, a pirate could type out the book, as they read it, on another computer then distribute this unprotected version. Stephen King used to sell written stories based on movies he’d seen on the playground at school.
It’s LITERALLY, PHYSICALLY impossible to prevent a book from being copied. This makes any attempt at digitally protecting ebooks doomed to failure before it’s ever deployed.
Annoying Your Customers
Rather than stopping pirates, protections often annoy people who have paid to read your book – leading to a worse experience as they’re constrained in how they can consume something they paid for. Many bands, such as Metallica, have had fans turn against them after they got overly aggressively protecting their digital products.
Understanding Your Real Loss
Any time they discuss piracy, content creators like to talk about how many copies were pirated, multiply that by the sale price and come up with an astronomical figure that they feel was “stolen” from them. Many pirates steal content because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for it. In such as case, it isn’t correct to view this as a lost sale.
Bill Gates was once asked whether he would prefer people pirate Windows or use another operating system. After making clear that he wanted people to pay for it, he acknowledge he’d rather they pirate Windows than use something else.
I think many writers, given the choice between someone reading their book and not paying for it, or not reading it at all, would rather have the reader. If nothing else, they might recommend your book to someone who actually will pay for it.