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February 2011
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Kindle Piracy Thoughts

The Kindle platform, along with several other similar pushes into the emerging eBook industry, has improved availability of books significantly.  If nothing else, there’s no longer even the possibility of a book going “out of print” and being unavailable to an interested reader.  Even when publishers attempt to create an artificial scarcity, it’s just not going to happen in the face of a truly interested audience.  Of course, not every effect of going digital will be so positive.

The situation I referenced there is an extreme case where most people would find little fault finding your book through alternate channels.  After all, the publisher has chosen to deny you the opportunity to hand over money for the product.  For the most part, when piracy comes up, this isn’t the case at all.  There are two major camps in the dispute, from what I have experienced.  On the side of the piracy objectors, there tends to be an equating of illegal downloads with lost sales.  On the piracy supporting side, people often speak encouragingly about the free press and word of mouth that open distribution can bring.  Both arguments have merit, as far as they go.

Research into music piracy has often tended to consider each download a lost sale.  I’ve heard of similar arguments in eBooks.  I hope we can all see the flaw in this.  While there will be lost sales, the numbers aren’t precisely directly correlated to the number of illegal downloads.  For many people, the entire motivation for piracy seems to be a limited budget that would have prevented the sale anyway, or a limited amount of initial interest in the title that would have made expenditure less than appealing.

That said, excusing piracy based on “I wasn’t going to buy it anyway, so I’m entitled to it for free” is just ridiculous.  I would like to be generous and say that most people who do grab books without paying for them are probably aware of this. While I don’t, however, believe that the college student who downloaded the equivalent of a small lending library to his Kindle would have paid face value for each of the books he read, no matter how interesting or appreciated they were, it’s fairly safe to say that the two or three top picks of the year at least would have been sales under other circumstances.

The main complication in dealing with this situation involves striking the proper balance.  No matter how much effort you put into protecting the items you sell, the internet is a big place full of very crafty people, many of whom will go out of their way to break protection on things even when they have no need of what is being protected, just on principal. There’s always the Baen solution, which involves releasing all sorts of eBooks for free from time to time for the Kindle and any other device you might have handy and hoping that the sample encourages purchases.  Most publishers might find that a little too much of a gamble though.

As much as I’d like to come down squarely on one side of this debate, I can’t.  Piracy is a problem if it gets too big, there’s no denying that.  It can sharply reduce the incentive to produce quality work.  But at what point do the measures taken to protect something make it more of a pain for the legitimate buyer than the illegal downloader?  Already we have some pretty ridiculously restricted platforms to deal with, especially when you don’t want to be locked to one seller.  All I can really hope for is that this doesn’t end up escalating and causing the sort of drama the music industry has had over MP3s.

16 comments to Kindle Piracy Thoughts

  • EFudd

    The vast majority of “pirated” works I have on my Kindle are books that I have paper copies of as well. I don’t actually feel badly about that. I’m not selling my paper copies…I’d just like to travel and not lug them around. If I bought them again *I’d* feel like I was being ripped off. Sort of the way I felt when I was replacing vinyl with CDs.

    Ethically, I’m not seeing a massive amount of difference between piracy and buying “legally” from a second-hand bookstore, or buying a used book on Amazon Marketplace. Writer gets nothing. Publisher gets nothing. It may be legal, but it feels just as wrong as a download.

  • Craig

    I think the pricing of e-books isn’t helping the publishers much either. When the publisher sets a price of $14.99 for the new Patrick Rothfuss book in Kindle format, that’s only $0.77 cheaper than I could buy it as a hardcover. I think many people (myself included) view that as simple greed on the publisher’s part. I’d love to see a profit scale of what publishers make on e-books considering the costs to produce are so much lower than hard copies.

  • Speaking about BAEN, I have read the whole Honor Harrington saga from their CD-ROM, which you can find (legally) for free on the Internet. And then I went and bought it ALL from Amazon in paper form. Why? It’s worth it. If I hadn’t been able to find it on the Internet, there’s no way I would have known of this saga (it’s not available here in Italy, neither in English nor in Italian).

  • I agree, piracy can be a problem, but I don’t belive DRM is the way forward, as “EFudd” says, the vast majority of “pirated” works are not really pirated as such but copys in a different format. DRM forces people to get ilegal copy of stuff just so they can read it in the format they choose.
    The Epub format (used by both Amazon and soon ourselves) allows you to “Tag” the files, allowing the end user to move the file where they want (and use whatever reader they like) but if they stick the file on a ware’s site (or charge others for it) it can pe traced to the orginal buyer.
    Their are some overheads on the server side (you have to make the ebook on demand) and it’s not fool proof (someone knowing what they are doing can remove the tag, but they could also remove the DRM so…) but I belive it’s a much better option for everyone then DRM.

  • reluctant pirate

    I call myself a reluctant pirate – I don’t visit torrent sites, or download illegal copies… don’t know how. But I did download the calibre plugins that allow me to strip drm, because sometimes the only way I can find a book that I want is in a format that my reader doesn’t read: the only way I can read the book is to strip the drm. I buy the file legally, then just format-shift. And yet, this is considered piracy. If publishers would make books available in all formats, or make them available DRM-free, I think they’d find that piracy would go way down.

  • Manuel

    The thing is that if the book was posted by somebody on the internet to download, you own a kindle and you know it. What are you going to do ? Is that illegal ? In addition there are excellent text converting programs into kindle format.

    There also books I would love to have in ebook format and will be willing to buy in Amazon but what you get on the website is just only the hardcover edition.

    Who is the crook ?, the reader who downloads the item for free or who that puts it up on the internet for downloading in a kind of usenet database charging for it ?

  • Robert

    I too download pirated copies of ebooks for works I already own as a physical book. It would be nice to get a free ebook download, perhaps for a small distribution fee, when buying the physical book. But, yeah, I don’t feel bad about downloading pirated ebooks when I’ve purchased the physical book already.

    Pirating ebooks is very different from buying used books. The comparison doesn’t work because the problem doesn’t exist for physical books. The problem being that digital content can be copied very easily. This changes the nature of what you buy from the publisher. With a physical book, you are buying a thing. That thing, the physically existing singular book, is yours to do with as you please. With an ebook, what you’re buying is more like rights. The rights to have possession of the content. Amazon’s service is to give you access to that content. That’s because there isn’t really a thing, an object, and because it’s not really singular with it being so easy to copy.
    So the only way a comparison with physical books works is to compare piracy to photocopying all the pages of a book and giving/selling those photocopied pages to someone.

  • mark

    Digital piracy is stealing and is as shameful as robbing your neighbor’s house. People justify it because they don’t perceive the lost revenue to the owner of the IP as a real cost to them, but it is. Lost revenue is an economic cost. Most people don’t study economics though, so they don’t understand this. The digital thief doesn’t believe she inflicts harm because what she is stealing is not physical. This is really just a psychological bias and is irrational. Also, with IP theft it is also harder to get caught and is socially accepted.

    It’s very sad.

  • reluctant pirate

    mark: how is what I’m doing (format shifting) stealing?

    yes, I know other people do download books from torrent sites, and yes, I agree that’s theft of IP… although I wonder how much the dedicated pirate actually *reads* their torrented books, and how much they merely hoard them.

  • EFudd

    Agree with reluctant pirate on format shifting. My library has EPUB ebooks, so I put a hold out there and 6-12 weeks later the book shows up for checkout. I download it, I use Calibre to convert to mobi (first removing the DRM, since it won’t convert with it), and put it on my Kindle. I read it when I get to it, then delete it.

    So, there’s two “crimes” for you: Removing the DRM, and conversion to a different format. But what I’ve “stolen” is nothing more than the ability to read on one device, rather than another. To me, it’s like the library saying “you can read on your couch…but NOT in that armchair over there (no, not that one, that one’s OK, it’s that brown recliner that’s off limits).”

    “If the law supposes that, then the law is a ass, a idiot!” (Dickens, Oliver Twist)

  • mark

    “mark: how is what I’m doing (format shifting) stealing?”

    I’m not sure about the format shifting argument. I wasn’t addressing that. Although, it is probably illegal also.

    Just remember that every time you download an mp3 or book off of piratebay that you are enriching yourself at the expense of someone else who used a beautiful amazing talent to earn a living in this harsh world. There is no honor in that. They are the best of us and should be rewarded. You mock intelligence and creativity…everything that raises humanity up from the void, the darkness.

  • mark

    The typical argument is that downloading mp3 or books is not hurting anyone since the downloader wasn’t going to buy them anyway (barf, they sometimes say it increases sales. barf). First, this is a lie. They would have bought some of them if they were not able to steal them. Perhaps not all…but some. Second, this doesn’t change the fact that the person stole the works. Stealing something that you give little value to just because it is extremely easy and you have no way of getting caught doesn’t make it morally justifiable or legal.

  • EFudd

    Mark, suggest you check on the web and see what musicians think about piracy…I’d specifically direct you to Courtney Love’s speech excoriating the RIAA (and the creation of the “law” that changed artistry to work-for-hire and enabled the legal ripping off of musicians…but only by the corporations that hire them) that she gave back around 2000. See also Janis Ian, and Jonathan Coulton for a few more examples.

    I also think you’re attacking straw men here. No one has said that putting works up on torrent sites is a good thing. Matthew’s original posting was exploring what seem like gray areas around piracy, and format shifting is an example: where something is technically illegal, but there’s no loss incurred, and the only effect of the law would be to impose an inconvenience. Well, sorry, to me that’s not a law deserving of respect.

  • J. J. Markin

    I’m reminded of the early days of anime in the U.S., when the supply was limited by what distributers and U.S. studios thought would sell, and even then the films were all too often ruined by dubbing and alteration for U.S. markets. The only way you could get a good many of these films in their original form, or even in any form, was through illegally made copies subtitled by fans. I felt no qualms of conscience at all when I bought these; I would have been happy to buy legal copies, but they were not made available. (Once the legal copies came out, my illegal copies were tossed, just for the record.)

    Publishers, whatever their media, need to make their wares available at reasonable prices (what a “reasonable price” is, is another conversation) instead of holding back due to country-by-country or region-by-region coding, copyright issues, distribution issues, DRM issues, or whatever the heck the problem is. I believe most people are honest enough to go the legal route if possible, and publishers really should be made to understand that. This won’t stop the problem of piracy in its tracks, but it sure would cut down on it.

  • Saying that format-switching equates to theft is bull and I certainly have no qualms about reading on my Kindle a paper book I bought, regardless of whether I have to strip the DRM or not. OTOH, if I download a book that I have not purchased in any format, that’s another cup of tea. Personally, I know I would buy *a lot more* books if there were no DRM (actually I ONLY buy non-DRM books, in case there is a DRM I look for the paper version). See the BAEN example above.

  • Allen MacDiarmid

    The Harry Potter books are a good example of not having a legal way to buy the book in e-book format. The author has lost many sales that would have been legitimately purchased if she had merely supplied the demand. I personally stopped reading them because I refuse to buy a pirated copy, even if a legal copy is not available. I can’t even begin to imagine what a large print copy of a hard cover Harry Potter book would weigh. I enjoy fantasy books and there are enough really good fantasy books in the e-book format to satisfy my thirst for this genre. Fortunately the Harry Potter books seem to be about to be released in e-book format, but of course they will be “crippled”, AKA DRM “protected”. I have personally published only one thing in e-book format and that is an article of 10 pages, DRM free, loanable, text to speech turned on and the cheapest price available, 99 cents. If you are interested you can search for my name in the Kindle store.

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