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?