Columns > Published on April 29th, 2014

Digital Piracy Is the Best Thing to Ever Happen to Us, Said No Writer, Ever. 6 Reasons It's a Bigger Threat Than You Think

Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

― United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This continuation of my February article on eReaders is a look at the very real threat digital piracy holds for writers today. A recent study showed that 10% of downloaded reading material in the US is now pirated. 

1) Piracy Can Take Away Your Choices as a Consumer

Do you like Quentin Tarantino (or his movies, at least)? Well, digital pirates have stolen the opportunity for you to ever see his latest film project, The Hateful 8, at least in its original form. Tarantino vowed not to shoot Hateful after Gawker published a link to a piracy website where the script had been linked.  He then decided to take things one step further and get medieval on Gawker’s ass, suing the media blog for contributing to copyright infringement. Critics claim Tarantino is only suing Gawker as a publicity move, which makes sense. His last movie, Django Unchained, was only nominated for 5 Oscars and made a lousy 425 million in the theaters. Dude’s probably desperate for someone to notice him.

 Jokes aside, the Hateful 8 case has only served to highlight the rapidly growing problem of digital piracy. In the past, pirated books had to be manually scanned before being uploaded, a time consuming process for all but the most dedicated of book thieves. However with the rise of eReaders and digital bookstores, eBook files can be downloaded directly from a legitimate site. From there, it’s not difficult to strip the DRM protections or digital locks from the file, allowing pirates the ability to mass distribute.

How mass, you ask? In monetary terms, illegal book downloads cost the publishing industry 3 billion dollars a year.

But no worries! Publishers will probably just write this off as the cost of doing business. They wouldn’t think of passing this cost on to the consumers who legally purchase books, right?

And they wouldn’t dream of letting it affect authors, right?


You know, that’s really all this is. It’s people lending books.

— Neil Gaiman on Digital Piracy

2) Piracy Takes Away Your Choice as an Artist

Author Neil Gaiman admits to feeling “grumpy” upon finding out that his work was being pirated around the globe. However, after noticing that sales went up in countries where his work had been illegally distributed, he tried an experiment. With his publisher’s blessing, he made his novel American Gods available to read or download in its entirety on their website for a month. Sales proceeded to rise by 300%

Despite the constant assurances that piracy is a necessary evil or even free advertising, when it all boils down, it’s just one more hurdle for a writer to overcome.

This does sound like a success story, both in sales figures and of an author wresting back control of his work. But is it relevant to the average writer?

Gaiman admits he had a tricky time convincing his publishers to offer his novel free. Would he have had that clout as a beginning or even mid-list author, or one whose book wasn’t already selling well? Making his entire novel free was a way of beating the pirates at their own game. If his work had not been stolen, however, would he have instead opted for the first few chapters, or even half the book as a "hook" instead? What would the sales have been like then?

Despite the constant assurances that piracy is a necessary evil or even free advertising, when it all boils down, it’s just one more hurdle for a writer to overcome. We have to fight to get an agent, then hope that agent gets us a good deal with a good publisher. Once the book is released, it’s competing with the thousands of similar books that are released every year.

Now, thanks to digital piracy, writers will, on a global scale, have to compete with their own books.

3) Cybercrime Makes It Harder for Indie and Mid-List Writers to Make a Living

Though piracy is not entirely to blame, the relative ease with which books by top-selling authors can now be downloaded for either free or a bargain-basement price can’t help but make it harder for lesser-known writers to get their books noticed. Publishers, reeling from the profit losses mentioned above, are less willing to take a chance on backing a work that’s not a “guaranteed” sell. Even when a newer author is picked up, or publishes their work on their own, there’s a tremendous pressure to woo buyers by any means, from using a “name-your-price” method to offering their content for free for periods of time. It’s a nifty deal for the consumer, to be able to buy a new book for the price of a candy bar. Not so great for the writer of said book, who now probably has to save for months to be able to afford a candy bar.

4) Piracy Has the Potential to Hit Writers Harder Than Other Artists

The harmful effects on the music industry from file-sharing sites has been well-documented. However, musicians have the benefit of being able to command large ticket prices by performing live. The movie and TV industry have also been hit hard by piracy. However, the profit-margins engendered by these industries are far larger than those in publishing. Though the theater world is usually not as lucrative as the screen, actors and directors also have the option of putting their work before live audiences as a way of recouping profits. Writers can and should do readings, of course. But how many authors could give readings that would fill a football stadium?  How many open mikes have you been to where people are throwing their underwear onstage?

To be fair, Quentin Tarantino recently held a sold-out, standing room only reading of The Hateful 8 at $200 a ticket, to the only audience that will ever hear the original version of the screenplay.  No word if he got pelted with any thongs.

5) And Lastly…They’re Coming For You: A Quiz

When you purchase an eBook from a publisher:

  1. It’s just like purchasing a paper book, only in digital form.
  2. You’re really only purchasing a license to access the book’s digital file. You are therefore obligated to follow the terms of that license. Terms which typically exclude “sharing”.

New legislation is currently being hammered out that will require all eBooks to come with a digital watermark specifically linked to each buyer’s account. The reason for this:

  1. So the author can come to your house and personally thank you for buying their book. And ask if you have any spare candy bars.
  2. So any pirated book can be traced directly to its source. Bad news, if that “source” is the innocent owner of an eReader that’s been hacked.

Based on a Dutch law currently in place, this legislation allows the (Dutch) anti-piracy agency BREIN access to consumer data for up to two years. Data that used to be private. Should a similar law be passed in the States, a similar agency will in turn be given formerly private consumer data. This news is:

  1. No big deal. The US government never misuses the personal data of its citizens.
  2. Oh My God.

From Argh to Ahoy! What The Industry Needs to Do to Stem the Tide

I’ll admit, I think that illegally downloading the work of artists, thus depriving those artists of their just profits, is 50 shades of wrong, no grey areas about it. That being said, living in England, I had to wait 12 hours for each new episode of the last season of Breaking Bad to appear on Netflix’s UK site. That was bad enough. But what if I’d been living in a part of the world where the show wasn’t available at all? I mean, I wouldn’t have, but I’m pretty sure I would have been tempted to sell my husband and my dog to get my hands on that DVD. (Well, not the dog…)

One of the surest ways to curtail digital piracy is to make materials such as eBooks and movies legally available and accessible the world over. Neil Gaiman’s pirated books, for example, were largely found in Russia, where his books were difficult to obtain.

The publishing industry also needs to catch up and play fair. Sites like Spotify and Netflix allow fans to access music and movies while respecting the rights (and copyrights) of those whose work is involved. While it’s to be assumed that there are costs engendered with the manufacture of eBooks, it’s hard to believe that these costs could be anywhere near those of producing paper books. If this is the case, why are eBooks almost as expensive (and in some cases, more so) than physical copies of new releases? If they were priced more reasonably, consumers might be more likely to purchase them legally, and authors would see more of the profits.

If your conscience lets you pirate stuff, which you know damn well is theft, that's your business and nothing anyone says will stop you. Please spare me the excuses, I will never, ever agree with them and I don't want to think any less of you because of it.

— Gail Simone, DC Comics  

6) Oh...And One More Reason…From a Pirate Himself

On the blog, The Millions, C. Max Magee has an in-depth interview with a pirate who still manually scans books and makes them available for free. His painstaking methods and affection for the works he uploads are plainly evident. He’s not an artist, of course, but he seems to take his “work” as seriously as though it were something he created from his own mind. I almost started feeling sympathetic for the guy, until the very last line of the interview [Brackets mine]:

One thing that will definitely not change anyone’s mind or inspire them to stop [pirating or downloading illegally] are polemics from people like Mark Helprin and Harlan Ellison — attitudes like that ensure that all of their works are available online all of the time.

Say what? Both Helprin and Ellison have both written and spoken out vehemently against piracy and copyright infringement in the past.

Listen to what this thief is saying, and let’s not call them pirates—pirates summon images of swashbuckling and rum and Johnny Depp—these people are just petty thieves.

What this thief is saying is that, ‘We are committing an injustice. If we hear someone railing against, and trying to educate others about that injustice, they will be punished.”

Gosh, doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t that just déjà vu all over again? Now where did we last hear a sentiment like that? Oh yeah…

East Berlin.         

About the author

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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