Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Engaging Pirates on the High Seas

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in many intense but mostly civil discussions in a couple of pirate forums.  It has been at times frustrating, at other times enlightening, and certainly quite challenging to engage them on their own turf.  I wanted to share my thoughts on some of these discussions because although my opinion of the legality and morality of these sites has not changed, I have gained some understanding of the people who frequent and support these sites.

First, I found that people seemed to fall into three general categories.

(1)   People who profess to use pirate sites to sample authors and then go support those that they like.  Sometimes, even to the point of legally purchasing the book that they downloaded.  Taking them at face value, they would be on the high end of the moral spectrum.  They are often frustrated with the restrictive e-book lending practices of a lot of e-book retailers, and by Digital Rights Management (DRM) which prevents the transfer of books from one reader to another.  They typically feel e-books are very overpriced.  Sometimes they are frustrated due to lack of availability of popular e-books in their part of the world.  These people will listen and perhaps offer alternative ideas to both current models of e-book distribution/lending and free file share (pirate) sites, but still plan to use pirate sites until such an alternative exists and is viable.

(2)   People who genuinely don’t know what they are doing is wrong and the potential impact to the individual author.  They have often just stumbled upon one of these sites and use it because it is free and convenient.  I believe these are the silent majority.  When presented with both sides of the argument, I feel these people will fall on the side of using the legal distribution methods (yes I am an optimist).  And most of them will do so very quietly.  I received an e-mail from someone who appreciated hearing both sides and made the decision to stop using pirate sites; I’m hoping for every one of those there are many more who simply made that decision and went on their way.

(3)   People who truly seem to feel that all authors are greedy and unwilling to empathize with the readers.  These are often the people that run the sites and are their most vocal supporters.  They believe they have the right to provide this service, to share the products for free with no input from or compensation to the work’s creators.  They truly don’t seem to see the rights that they are infringing upon.  They often seem snarky, condescending, and resistant to even hearing the other side.  They will sometimes say things like “I hear what you are saying but it’s not going to change my mind”. 

I’ve run into several from all three of these groups and learned some things.  For example, talking to people from the first group, if both sides can get past the initial frustration, some good ideas can be generated.  Unfortunately, often neither person involved in the discussion has the connections and resources to actually implement some of the ideas that are raised, but at least it gets the discussion moving.

The interesting things for me to find out from all of these conversations, though, are the reasons why people pirate in the first place.  Sometimes the reasons actually do have some merit.  Now I do not feel that I have heard a single reason provided that is a justification for the practices of these sites, but perhaps one thing to focus on is removing these reasons and justifications from the equation to the maximum extent possible.  Take away the reasons people in the first two groups pirate, and then perhaps progress can be made towards reducing it.  The third group, they are going to do what they do, and the only way to combat them appears to be through legal channels.

Why do people pirate?

These are three of the reasons I heard multiple times in these discussions.

(1)   E-books are too expensive.  Sometimes they are even more than the print book. 

(2)   E-book distributors do not give me the freedom to lend the book to who I want.

(3)   File share sites like this help areas that are economically or politically denied access to books.

How does the community fix this problem?

First let me say … I don’t know for sure.  This problem has existed since the internet started up, and has probably gone in cycles.  I do truly feel though, that if we change copyright law, severely weakening it or doing away with it altogether, then it becomes open season on created works and quite frankly, I think that the creative industry will collapse.  This is because a system that favors only the consumers (or on the other side, only the producers) will fall apart.  If everything is free, then there is no monetary incentive to create.  This is not speaking out of greed, this is reality.  People have bills to pay, and if the author is not at least making something out of their work, then they will have to, in most cases, move on to some other line of work.  You don’t believe that piracy impacts individual authors?  Read this and see what you think then.  (And you need to read this, it discusses the deaths of two popular book series because they were well-read, but sold poorly.  They were downloaded many more times than they were sold.)

Demolishing copyright law is something that people in the third group I mentioned want to see happen.  Is it altruistic, or is it just a way to legalize their desire to get something for nothing?  Only they know for sure, but as I said in one discussion, for a group that claims to love writing they do seem to have a great contempt for writers.

So what else can be done?  Well here are some ideas that different groups of people, depending on their position in the chain (author/publisher/reader) can do.

(1)   Educate the public on the issue of piracy and the potential impacts of it.  I’m not talking about impacts on the industries as a whole – I mean the impact to real people, the writers that have had to quit because of poor sales only to find out that their work has been downloaded for free many times.

(2)   Change the model of distributing and lending e-books.  This would seem to a big winner with the first and second group of people.  It may be time for some kind of paid subscription service like Rhapsody or Netflix for e-books.  This could potentially fix the affordability issue and eliminate or greatly mitigate the lendability and accessibility issues.  Amazon Prime may be a start, but they are still proprietary to Kindle.  I’m talking about a service that serves multiple platforms, either directly or with apps.  A service that allows sharing of “recommended reading lists” among members, that provides recommendations of lesser known books that fit with a user’s reading pattern, and still provides income to the creators of the works that are on the service.

(3)   Support legitimate lending and distribution services like LendInk and Lendle.  All these sites do is match up lenders and borrowers using the lending systems already in place and agreed to between publishers and distributors.  The takedown of LendInk was unjustified, and I for one am glad they are back up and will be letting people know about it.  Plus, lending CAN  lead to additional sales.  My own mom, bless her soul, borrowed a book, couldn’t finish it in the fourteen-day period, and liked it so much that she bought it so she could finish it.  That’s how these services CAN and SHOULD work.

(4)   STOP USING PIRATE SITES.  Instead, petition publishers and distributors.  Fight to get the accessibility and lendability you want.  Use your power as consumers to drive the market rather than circumvent it.

(5)   Fight the pirate sites legally, using DMCA requests and if that doesn’t work, then the law must be brought to bear.  As I stated, the reality is that the people that actually run these sites will continue to run them.  And it’s unfortunate that authors and publishers have to spend time and money fighting them.  That’s time and money that could be put into more and potentially cheaper books.  But there need to be consequences for this harmful behavior.

Final Thoughts

This is the fifth blog post I’ve devoted to this subject, so you can tell it means something to me.  Not at the moment to me personally … I haven’t been published enough to be directly affected and this is not a primary source of income for me, yet.  If I were ever to want it to be, I would become just as discouraged and depressed about this issue as many other authors have been, I have no doubt.  Right now, I am on the frustrated level.

The bottom line is … piracy is ILLEGAL, IMMORAL, HARMFUL behavior, no matter what excuses any of the pirates use.  PIRATES HURT AUTHORS AND COST BOOKS.  That’s the truth.  Will the industry survive?  Probably so, at some level.  But the cost will be to the individual authors who are working hard JUST LIKE YOU to make a living.  The number of professional musicians in the United States has dropped by nearly 25% since 1999 when piracy became really rampant (Source: United States Bureau of Labor Statistics).  Coincidence?  Will it happen with authors?  Is it already?  Some things to think about whenever you consider hitting that "free download" button.

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