Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Patriots or Pirates?

I know it’s been a while since I posted here … heck a long while.  Those who’ve read here before know that between a full-time job, three kids, and writing, it gets very busy in my world.  But, I felt the need to discuss something here that has really been brought into my spotlight over the past few days.

The issue is e-book piracy.  Of course there are many sites out there that still operate pirating sites for all kinds of things.  Some do it for money, some do it to “buck the system.”  Downloaders take things from these sites for various reasons as well – they may not be “able to afford” paying for the items through definitively legal means; they might think they are fighting the system much like the site operators; they may simply not understand the legal and financial ramifications of what they are doing.

The current target drawing the ire of many authors that I’ve become associated with is known as “The Ultimate E-Book Library” located at  They also have a Facebook page.  I have been watching the heated exchanges between authors who feel that their work is being distributed without their permission illegally, and the site owners and fans of the site who feel like they are not doing anything wrong.  There has been very emotional discussion from both sides.  I’d like to try and cut through that emotion and address some of the arguments that have been made in support of this site and others like it, and see whether they seem to be valid or not.  These are paraphrased comments from the site and its supporters.  I will give a disclaimer in that I am not by any means a legal scholar of any kind, I am simply applying my experiences, knowledge, and opinion to the issue at hand.

1)  “We are located in Canada and therefore not subject to copyright law.”  This is a central argument and to me is the crux of the matter.  First of all, what is copyright exactly?  Copyright is defined as “the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc.” Exclusive means that only the owner of the copyright can decide how it gets distributed.  Canada does indeed have a copyright law … here is some history on it …

Also, there is an international treaty regarding the protection of intellectual property.

Given these laws, it would indeed appear to be illegal to take a published work and distribute/copy it on the internet without the copyright holder’s permission.

2) “We are a charity and provide a valuable service to provide books to underdeveloped countries.”  I would actually applaud this effort.  However, there’s no way to know for sure where donations actually go.  And the particular organization in question cannot be found on Canada’s list of documented charitable organizations.  Even if this is true, it does not justify the illegal nature of the initial act of posting other people’s copyrighted work for download and distribution.

3)   “We are just like any other library.”  Let’s actually compare the attributes of a physical library to the attributes of such a file exchange site.  Libraries actually do either buy their books or get them voluntarily donated.  This means that at some point, the originator of the work has either been compensated, or has volunteered to donate the work for the library’s use.  They do not make copies of them.  They are checked out for a period of time.  If they are returned late or never returned, there is a fine system in place so they can, yes, buy more books.

Sites like TUEBL do not get books “donated”, or purchase them.  A copy is uploaded, and then COPIES of the book can be downloaded by multiple people who then have them in their possession.  Comparing these types of sites to physical libraries is like comparing apples and oranges.  The comparison does not hold water.

4)  “It doesn’t really hurt the authors financially.  In fact it helps the author by getting their name out to a wider audience.”  TUEBL, for example, claims that it will have over 20,000 books on their site by the end of July.  Let’s say that each one is downloaded just 10 times (just to make the math easy).  So that’s 200,000 books downloaded.  Let’s say that the books are, just for the sake of argument, averaging a cost of $3 through legal distribution.  That’s $600,000 taken out of the industry.  I would say 10 downloads is probably a very low number for a lot of books.

I’ve been searching for information that backs up the claim that e-book piracy actually helps the author.  I can’t find a study that shows that (if someone knows of one from a reputable source please let me know).  However, I did find this blog post from an author while googling that I thought did a pretty good job of illustrating the problem.

5) “Books are too expensive.”  There are plenty of e-books that are priced at incredibly reasonable prices.  The anthology I was a part of was priced at $5.99.  Many self-publishers put their books out for as little as 99 cents.  Some even put them on special for FREE downloads … and that is THEIR CHOICE to do so.

6) “I should be able to try out a book before I buy it.  I can test drive a car or listen to music on the radio before I decide to buy it.”  First, it is human nature that once you have something, you wouldn’t pay for it afterwards.  There are ways to “test drive” a book.  Many many authors I’m aware of post free segments of their books to read (samples).  Some have giveaways.  Many have blogs. There are so many ways to get to know an author before you actually decide to purchase their work, without getting the whole book for free without their permission.

7) “The industry is behind the times and needs to change.  We’re just part of that change.”  I can agree with the first part of this statement.  I think the e-book industry will have to change, to be more like the music and movie industry.  For example, I have accounts at Rhapsody and Netflix.  For $15 a month, I can put as much music as I want on any of my authorized devices.  For $8 a month, I can watch any movie that’s on Netflix’s servers that I want to using my login.  So you might say, what’s the difference?  There are two VERY key things that Rhapsody and Netflix and sites like them have that these e-book pirate sites do not:

First, they have business agreements with the musicians, record companies, and movie studios that have given their permission to share their work in this manner.

Second, their business plan includes compensation to those copyright holders for the distribution of their work.

“Pirate” e-book sites have neither of these.  Now, I do absolutely see a future of a “Netbooks” concept taking hold, paying a flat fee to get books available on your authorized devices.  These sites are certainly not part of that future.

8) “There’s nothing anyone can do about it anyway.”  Talk to the Napster folks about that one.  Yes, Napster still exists, but they are certainly no longer the free file-sharing site that they used to be.  Musicians and record companies brought legal pressure to bear and were successful because the law was on their side.  Books may be lagging behind, but the wave is building.

So where does all this leave us?  I guess it’s pretty obvious which side of the fence I am on.  What side are you on?  Given these arguments, do you feel it is still justifiable to download books from these “free” sites?  I’ve tried to take emotion out of this and present counterarguments to several points I’ve read from TUEBL supporters.  So I am perfectly fine with hearing the other side (although I don’t think you will change my mind).  Another author who has been very vocal about this issue is also blogging about it here …

I’m going to close with this … it’s been said that character can be measured by what you do when people aren’t watching.  Given what’s been written above, if people weren’t watching, would you download from these types of sites?


  1. Thanks Aaron. I've shared this on FB & twitter, adding my personal opinion on FB as well.

  2. No! It's wrong and it's bullshit, Gina! Anyone who thinks they're getting away with some crafty scheme is an absolute idiot. For chrissake, go out and buy the books. If authors wanted to write books just to give them away...they'd be standing on the street doing so. Or they'd be free on their own sites. This guy as TUEBL is beyond ridiculous and if any of my friends are fans of his...they will be deleted.

  3. The comment about "We are located in Canada and therefore not subject to the copyright law" infuriates me. That is every bit as ignorant as an author telling me that our contract does not apply to them because they are from outside Canada. I am coming at this from a publishers viewpoint. Those people are thieves and liars. Intellectual property is copyrighted and copyrights are global. My Canadian authors hold Canadian copyrights, so what is their position at that point?

  4. Bravo Aaron! Sadly, most people without ethics or appreciation of the arts (I myself a starving musician with a day job) would in fact use these sites to download the material provided there. I on the other hand have been a victim of this myself and know that it is an ugly business. It's like a band being asked to play in a club and only get paid for their several hours work, travel, set up and performing and getting paid with drinks only! I refused these gigs every time. I have two kids and grandchild I provide for Mr. bar/club owner. I don't work for free, do you? I do try samples or have been asked by fellow artists to sample their music or writing and if I like it I will buy it and give a review of it when I hear all of it. It is more rewarding to receive replies to these reviews sometimes as the artist knows you have purchased an item and appreciates the criticism whether it is good or bad. To me it makes them a better artist and humanizes them rather than idolizes them. I appreciate when people critique my work because it provides me with room for improvement. One of my favorite artists posted a remix of one of her songs just tonight via Rolling Stone Magazine. I always critique her music and she totally appreciates it. This is ten times more rewarding than stealing her music. I wait for her to offer it or to release it for sale so I can purchase it. That's because I want her to be able to continue with her art. This is what its all about for me. As a musician. So I totally understand Aaron why the authors are so up in they should be. Thanks for providing this wonderful blog for me to share my opinion.

  5. Wow! I bet it's the Indie authors who are the most affected by this. This site should be reported for investigation.

  6. Braine, yes indie authors are greatly affected by this. But the site does have works by some of the big names - Rowling, Kenyon, King, Rice, and many others.

  7. Another excellent blog post on the subject from Ben Reeder ...

  8. That was a very reasonable and sensibly written article. The FB discussion that spawned this wasn't. I'm pro file sharing so I want to bring a dissenting opinion (please don't just shout me down, i've had enough of that from they other discussion). Piracy isn't theft in the traditional sense, that being removing something from some ones possession, but I agree that it could still be wrong. I would find it immoral if it were actually causing artists to go out of business, but from as fart as I can tell there ifs no evidence that had happened. Here's a more lengthy piece I wrote on it: I know it's piratewho and therefor it's all evil and wrong, but try to read and analyze the the evidence. Thanks

    1. Tell that to the YA author whose publisher dropped her series because book 2 didn't sell through. The author actually gets emails from people who tell her they got her first 2 books off a free site (downloaded 6000 times as of Jan. 2011) and want to know when the 3rd will be out. Guess what? It won't, at least not from the publisher, because those pirate downloads didn't count toward her sales numbers and obviously didn't translate into paid sales either (As pirates tend to say they do. Riiigggght, got a bridge I'd like to sell ya.) Don't make enough paid sales, get dropped by your publisher. Don't tell me it doesn't cause artists to go out of business. It does.

    2. Great point, Lori. By doing this to "get the big guy", it's the little guy that gets hurt the most. Sure the big guns like Rowling, Kenyon, Ward will probably survive. This kills the indies and the small-time authors who do good work (as evidenced by the number of downloads quoted above and the desire for a new sequel), but get squeezed out because they don't have the sales, or the resources to fight this type of pirating.

    3. J F Weiss (previously anon)July 26, 2012 at 8:30 PM

      Those people are really dumb. If I have any urge to see more of a creators work I will buy their works (if I'm broke I wait until I'm not and then buy it). Contrary to what people may believe I buy tons of artistic creations (books, music, movies, video games, shows, etc, etc). Hell, I turned an entire wall of my house into a library to store all my books.

      I also pirate stuff. Most is TV shows which I can't purchase on DVD until the season is finished (and have their release delayed because I live in Canada). I've pirated some books, but not many, mostly because their cheap enough that I don't mind buying something disappointing. That's the real reason I pirate lots of stuff, because I can't afford to waste my money on well advertised crap. I've probably read about a dozen books that I didn't buy, all of which I had no intention of buying in the first place.

  9. I will certainly read your blog and do my best to keep an open mind. We can only work off of our own knowledge and experience. There are anecdotal stories of artists who have been driven to stop writing/producing. But to me the bottom line will always be - these artists have not given permission for their work to be reproduced in this manner. Therefore, it's copyright infringement.

  10. Dear Anonymous,

    I'd just like to point out that theft is theft, whether or not it causes the victim to "go out of business" -- by which I presume you mean, stop writing. It's not just the publishers you're victimizing by file-sharing, it's the writers themselves, who typically receive a much larger percentage of royalties from e-books than they do from traditional print publications -- and, in many cases, that's almost ALL the compensation they receive. If you aren't one of the top few names in your craft, there are no six- and seven-figure advances in your future, and if you're lucky enough to receive an advance at all, it's generally with the stipulation that it's an advance against royalties, which means that you won't receive any royalties at all until they exceed the amount of your advance. So any way you slice it, you're stealing.

    1. J F Weiss (previously anon)July 26, 2012 at 8:20 PM

      I never said that theft was defined as when someone is being 'put out of business'. My previous post was done on my phone, so I didn't articulate one of my points well. I don't think theft is a sensible word to use, because it's not theft in the proper definition of the word. Theft involves property, which is distinct from Intellectual Property. Theft is a simple concept that has existed since we've had society; I have something and if you take it without my permission then you are a thief. The fact that it is no longer in my possession is integral to the concept.

      IP is not the same, simple case. There are limitations on what can be considered IP and the length of time you can hold IP is variable depending on your country. Patents have a much shorter lifespan then copyright. The reason is that IP laws serve two specific purposes: to encourage innovation/creation and to ensure inventors/creators are fairly compensated for their work.

      Some people may think this is an argument of semantics, but I think it's important to recognize that IP is not equivalent to normal property. It has a purpose and if that purpose isn't being served by current IP laws then it needs to change.

      I saw Chuck Palahniuk do a reading from 'Damned' in which he did a Q&A section at the beginning. He talked about how little money he got from his first two books from his publisher (Fight Club and Invisible Monsters). These were definitely some of his best works and yet he was barely rewarded by the standard system. People literally stealing his books has helped his sales; this is according to him.

      This is all anecdotal, but I'd like to see a proper study that shows some connection between piracy rates and book sales rates. I doubt the correlation will be as obvious as people want it to be.

  11. Very good blog and I completely agree with you. I just wrote a blog on pricing items for sale based on it's value. The value of an item is it's relative worth, a fair return for services and goods. The key is fair return. When a book or short story is pirated, the fair return is lost. Keep up the good work!Continue to give your readers value, and if you have to, fight to get a fair return! Mom

  12. So glad you shared your links on my blog today! I've been rolling my eyes at the ridiculous justifications some people are giving on the PTS website. Here's that discussion thread:

    The last commenter used the "books are too expensive" excuse. Apparently, Australia has no libraries? Or used book stores? Or access to Google-->book giveaways?? :D

    1. Mysti, I am GobblerVT on that discussion thread :)

    2. You're missing the point entirely Mysti, books are indeed more expensive in Australia than in the rest of the world. I'm not sure why that is but it could be related to some sort of tax or import duties.

      When prices go up, volume of sales go down. It's just basic economics. When books cost nearly double what it does in the US, you obviously can't buy as many books as you'd like when you can get less bang for your buck.

      Sure, you can get your books elsewhere (used/library...if they exist) but the fact of the matter is the "market" demand is often for the "latest releases", just like in every other industry. It's often why people clamor after that new Apple product, or that movie that just came out and has millions in marketing behind it to hype up demand.

    3. I hear what you are saying Nouda ... but NONE of that is on the authors. I have no idea why books are more expensive in Australia either, but the point is, does that justify copyright infringement, any more than the fact that Ferrari's being expensive justify stealing a car off the lot? Libraries (lending of a copy that was paid for), used bookstores (transfer of a single copy), and giveaways and lending arrangements made between publishers and distributors (copyright holder authorizes this), are completely different than a free file share site. They just are. And that's where the infringement comes in.

      I'd be curious ... do self-published books in Australia see the same price increase that publishing house books are?