Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A rant, a PSA, and unsexy pirates

As you know, I have Google Alerts set up for my name and the titles of my books. These let me know when someone has kindly (or not-so-kindly) reviewed my book or mentioned me on a blog. I like to go check them out, and when appropriate, leave a comment to let them know I appreciate the plug for me or my books.

Unfortunately, like many authors, many of the Google Alerts I get are for illegal downloads of my books.

Pirate sites: the bane of anyone who has intellectual property they’d like to remain control of.

Some folks have objected to the use of the word “pirate,” as it brings up romanticized notions of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, but “pirate” really refers more to the mangy, unwashed thieves of olden days. No offense to my fellow romance authors who write lovely books about sexy pirates, but outside of Romancelandia, pirates aren’t in the least bit sexy or exciting.

Now, I’m not accusing any of our Honorary Playfriends of participating in piracy and theft of intellectual property. I assume that if you’re here, hanging out on author blogs, you appreciate that authors – like everyone else – like to be paid for the work they do. After all, they, too, have mortgages, kids who need braces, power bills… and the books they write are how they pay for those things.

Consider this more of a rant and a helpful argument you can use the next time you hear someone talking about how great it is that so much stuff is available for free out there on the internet.

Many pirates are proud of what they’re doing. They ignore take-down notices and brag about their thievery. Some will argue that they’re doing the authors a favor – suggesting that they’re advertising for the authors. Very few are repentant when the law is pointed out to them. Some assume that authors are rich and therefore aren’t hurt by the loss of sales (but some pirates do get a kick out of the possibility that the author might be!). I’ve seen some stunning – yet tragically flawed – arguments that intellectual property doesn’t have the right to protection.

The cold fact is that piracy does hurt authors. It hurts their bottom line as they aren’t getting a royalty off a pirated book. It also hurts them when the pirates cut so deeply into sales that the publisher decides not to invest money in the author’s next book. This hurts readers, too – if publishers don’t offer new contracts to authors or authors can’t pay their bills off their writing, then that’s fewer books from that author for the reader to enjoy.

Some ISPs are very responsive – shutting down the site entirely. Some legitimate file-sharing sites will quickly pull down illegally uploaded material. Others don’t care. I could spend days doing nothing but sending take-down notices, but that’s time taken away from my writing and is often as productive as banging my head against a wall.

(And yes, I dream of uploading some kind of horrible virus to every pirate site, but did you know creating viruses and setting them loose is illegal too? ~sigh~)

But one thing I have learned is that some readers don’t *know* that they’re not getting a legitimate copy. After all, publishers do give away free books and there are many sources for buying ebooks online. And with everyone’s pocketbook feeling the pinch these days, a cheap copy of a favorite author’s book is tempting. But how do you know if you’re unwittingly supporting pirates? A quick checklist:

1) Yes, publishers do often give away free downloads. 99.9 percent of the time, this will happen on one of their websites. And it will not be every author and every book they publish.

2) A big or very popular blog may also have the occasional giveaway. The author herself may have free copies to give away. The chances of some random blogger being the portal for publisher-approved free downloads are very, very slim. If they do have free copies provided by the publisher, those copies will be limited in number. The file won’t just be on their site available for download by anyone who comes along, and they won’t just randomly send it to you because you ask. Any site that has hundreds of titles from multiple publishers listed for free, immediate, and unlimited download is an illegal site.

3) * Anyone who says they’ll send you the book on a disk is a pirate. All legitimate e-book retailers do business through downloads. Period.

4) * Anyone who is selling ebooks through eBay is a pirate. Unlike paperbacks, there is no “used” market for ebooks.

*This only applies to titles that were published through your standard publishers (like Harlequin, Pocket, etc). Yes, there are some authors out there who have written and self-published their own titles and are selling them in various ways – including on disk. But trust me when I tell you Harlequin has not moved to letting just anyone on eBay be an official retailer of their books.

One eBay seller claimed to have purchased the rights to resell the books they’d listed. Either the seller was lying or they’d been had. Publishers still get their cut from the ebooks sold on legit sites, and there are multiple hoops and contracts and such that those online retailers deal with to be a distributor of the books. The right to sell copyrighted material on behalf of the publisher is not a quick-and-easy one-time form. Legit online retailers still have to pay the publisher and report sales – otherwise, how does the author get paid?

And here’s the kicker: It’s not only illegal to upload copyrighted materials to the internet for free distribution, it’s illegal to download them as well. Remember when the RIAA went after grandmothers and high school students and slapped them with fines for downloading illegal content? The pirates are guilty, but those who download from pirate sites are just as guilty – even if they didn’t know the site was a pirate site. It’s the digital equivalent of receiving stolen goods.

There are some things you – as a lover of books – can do to help the piracy problem.

If you find an author’s books available for free (or really impossibly cheap) downloading, email the link to the author or the publisher. They’ll thank you for it. If it’s a pirate site, the author and the publisher can file the appropriate paperwork with the ISP, the site owner, and the FBI. If the site’s legit, no harm has been – or will be – done. On sites like eBay or blogs run through Blogspot, you can report them yourself. (Be a crusader!! But still send us the link.)

Don’t let your kids download copyrighted material. If your friends/relatives/coworkers brag about how they found this great site with all kinds of free books and movies and software, call them on it. Remind them that online theft of intellectual property is no different than shoving a book or a CD down your pants and sneaking out of the store. (Since files are such intangible things, people don’t necessarily make that connection for some reason.)

Piracy isn’t a victimless crime, nor is it one that never gets prosecuted. And while the uploaders can get fined and/or jail time, and the downloaders normally get fined, I’d really like to see us put the Pirate attitude back in piracy. Keel-hauling sounds pretty good, doncha think?

(And yes, I do know that there are scant few people out there who can say they’ve never participated in any kind of piracy. Who hasn’t burned a CD for a friend? Or made a mix tape for a boyfriend back in 1985? It’s all illegal, but it’s the scope and frequency that the internet allows that really chaps my butt.)

So, putting any past sins (like that mix tape) aside, who do you think is more guilty: the pirates who upload or the folks who download? Does it come down to supply vs. demand?


~Don't forget that debut author Melanie Dickerson will be here tomorrow!~


Maven Linda said...

The pirates are the most guilty, philosophically speaking, because they KNOW they're breaking the law. Under the law, though, guilty is guilty.

If you're a jewelry maker who mass-produces a line of good costume jewelry, and someone steals some of your jewelry and begins selling it on-line, it's pure and simple theft. Same deal if it's a book.

Most writers don't make much at all. Something like 94% don't make a living at it. So, yeah, it matters. It matters a lot.

Linda Winstead Jones said...

I once spent *days* chasing down illegal downloads of my books, writing the appropriate letters, trying to make a dent in the number of offerings out there. Sadly, very few sites were cooperative and I finally realized I was basically banging my head against he wall and getting nowhere. I do think eventually something will be done on a massive scale, but when? It's maddening. Yes, sales numbers matter. Yes, royalties matter.


Angel said...

Its very scary to think that I can go to all the time and effort of writing a book, then selling a book (which is no small amount of time and effort either--like YEARS of my life) only to have someone download it for FREE. If I wanted it to be free, I'd offer it myself and save myself the emotional roller coaster of trying to find a publisher.

I understand that books cost money, and we don't all have $8 for a mass paperback (believe me, I'm there). But there are lots of wonderful, reputable used bookstores with discounted paperbacks or this thing called a library (they even have audio books). Both wonderful institutions for those of us going through hard times.


Playground Monitor said...

Linda, Linda and Angel have said it so well I can't offer anything more. I just don't understand people who deliberately break the law. How can you know something is illegal and still do it? And then be angry when you're caught and have to suffer the consequences?

Jean Hovey said...

Oh, how I agree. And it's the same with music. I will put my CD on my computer and my iPod. I will even make a copy to put in my car. But don't ask me to copy my CD for you. When my godchild (who I never tell no) asked if I'd copy a Jimmy Buffett CD, I told him no, but I would buy him one. I have a friend who knows one of the Rolling Stone. (Yeah, I'm impressed.) The RS told my friend they couldn't afford to stop touring--not for themselves but for the 150 people who work for them. Stephen King may be rich but everybody who works for him isn't. Besides, that's not the point. It's still stealing. I just don't admire Robin Hood all that much.

Anonymous said...

What about borrowing a CD from a friend and putting that CD on your iPod? Where does that fall on the purchase/pirate continuum?

catslady said...

I don't read ebooks - just can't stop myself from buying print books but this makes me think - when I buy a used book is that cheating the author? I assume it's legal since there are stores that do it. Just wondering.

Problem Child said...

Anon~ The law is pretty clear. You can buy a CD and load it onto your iPod. However, if you copy a friend's CD, that's illegal.

catslady~ Authors only get paid the first time the book is sold. But you can legally resell the book because it's only one physical copy.

Crystal said...

Yes, there's nothing sexy about pirates ripping off authors (or anyone else, for that matter) via illegal uploads/downloads. Nothing sexy at all. I understand that not everyone can afford to buy what they desire, but people need to be far more mindful of their actions and the subsequent ramifications. One day, I would like to earn a living from the sale of my books.

Cheryl said...

I agree - both parties are guilty. I guess I am, as usual, behind the times, because I have never seen a site where you can download copyrighted books for free (Guess I don't surf the net enough). To be honest, I am like Jean - I don't copy things for others even if they ask. I have been on the giving end of prosecuting people and I do not every want to be on the receiving end. I even worry about clip-art and will print out the page on the site that says it's free and can be used (just in case anyone ever says anything - paranoid anyone?)

Sorry you are having a bad time PC. Having your work stolen is like being personally violated - it hurts.

Angel said...

I realize that the author doesn't get paid if their book is sold by a used book store, but I consider it good publicity for them. If I sell books back to the store, that is giving someone else a chance to try that author. And having been places in my life when I couldn't afford to purchase a book at full price, I consider it a great service. As an author, while it won't count toward my numbers, the reader is still invested enough to pay something for my book.

There are new authors I've tried at a used book store, then bought their new books when they were released, but might not have bought them full price at all, because of the risk that I wouldn't like their writing. And our local used bookstores are awesome people who support our local authors and our Readers Luncheon every year.


Katherine Bone said...

I wouldn't even know how to download a CD. ;) But I wouldn't do it because it's wrong even if I did. You won't believe how many items I have to log into the computer at the store during the week because a thieving patron has stolen something. And yes, they will go to the trouble of cutting themselves and bleeding all over the floor in order to do it.

Indeed, these are curious times...

Problem Child said...

The "used bookstore" argument is one the pirates like to make. Getting a book from the used bookstore is a good way to try out a new author, and the hope is that they'll buy the next one. Pirates claim they're doing the same thing, but it's not. A physical copy changing hands is much different than a file being downloaded a thousand times...