On piracy and sharing

Piracy seems to be a hot-button issue especially among creative types – musicians, authors, artists. I regularly see authors posting on Twitter about (lamenting) acts of piracy. There have been big musicians who have spoken up about (against) it. It’s easy to see their point of view – they received no payment for that copy of their work.

I had a discussion with my sister about this yesterday, in which several interesting points were made. I should first point out, though, that yes, piracy is illegal. It is considered theft to download something for free that has not been expressly shared as free – applies to not just books but also music and software, etc. I agree with this.

However. I have a really hard time getting my back up over piracy. Here’s why:

First, I suspect that most of the people who pirate a book (or whatever) are very unlikely to have bought it. If the only options that existed were to pay money for it or not have it at all, they would choose to not have it. This might be because of limited interest, or limited funds. Only a small percentage of people who pirate would bite the bullet and pay out if that was the only way to get it.

Second, some people who pirate would probably just borrow from the library if pirating wasn’t an option. Now true, the library paid for their copy – so the author did receive money for one copy. But after the book is checked out once, every subsequent check-out has the same net result to the author as pirating, as far as profits go – that is, no additional payment.

Third, the book is now in the hands of many people who would not have otherwise read it. Some of them will read it and love it and recommend it to their friends (who themselves may not have otherwise read it). Some of those friends will also pirate the book… but some of them will obtain it through legal means, such as purchase. So, that act of piracy ends up leading to sales.

Fourth, sometimes if the person who pirated the book read it and loved it, they will go out and buy a paper copy to put on their bookshelf. I am a dedicated library user because of a tight budget, but when I borrow a book I love, I will later go out and buy a copy for myself. So again, that act of piracy may lead to a sale.

All in all, I feel that, in general, there is a net gain from piracy. Yes, some sales are lost, but overall more sales are gained. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to accurately quantify this, particularly as it would require survey-takers to admit they were breaking the law and many would lie. So this is my gut feeling, but one I feel can be backed up by anecdotal evidence such as my own experience.

Some other points to consider, as well…

Ignoring for the moment the illegality of it (we all do illegal things every day – few of us think twice about speeding, for instance), the biggest concern with piracy seems to be the lost sales. The author doesn’t see payment for those copies.

But the author also doesn’t see payment for second, third, etc, library loans. Nor does the author get any money when you lend your copy of the book to a friend. In both cases the reader may not own the book, but they’ve read the story, and the story remains in their memory even after the physical book is returned. Unless the reader loved the book and wants to own a copy just because, there’s no further reason for them to buy it.

Also, when a book is resold, at a used book store or elsewhere, the author receives no money from that transaction. The reader may actually legally own the book, but there’s no benefit to the author; as far as the author’s concerned it’s no different from if the book was loaned to the reader, borrowed from the library… or pirated.

And yet libraries, loaning and used book stores are all approved ways to obtain a book to read, while pirating is vehemently ranted about (given that actual fighting against has very little effect in this internet age). The only difference is that three ways of swindling the author are legal, while one way is not.

Bottom line: If/when I get published, I’d obviously prefer that you bought my book, brand new, because it’s the only way I’ll really feel your support. But if it came down to it I’d rather you pirated it than not read it at all.


2 responses to “On piracy and sharing

  1. Yeah. Whenever I see people equating numbers of books illegally downloaded with direct lost sales, I always think that is a bit ridiculous.

    • I have to wonder if it’s a knee-jerk reaction, if they’ve really thought this through… or if they’re really one of the probably small portion of the population who have never pirated anything.

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