Piracy, borrowing, theft

Yesterday, a discussion about illegal e-book downloads exploded on Twitter. Some of the comments were illuminating, others sanctimonious, still others plain illogical. It makes for frustrating reading. (You can find the unedited discussion here.)

In brief, though, lots of readers appear to believe that illegal downloads are “like a library card on the Internet”. There are lots of problems with this assumption and today I’m just going to pick at the 3 most basic:

1. Libraries buy books and lend them as a community service (paid for with your taxes). “Free ebook” sites steal books for personal profit.

2. When you borrow a library book, you agree to return it after a short period. You are under no obligation to return a stolen ebook.

3. Authors are paid for their work when libraries buy their books. Authors earn nothing from pirated ebooks.

Basically, downloading illegal copies of ebooks is theft. Authors who can’t get paid for their work may soon be out of work. Publishers who can’t earn back the cost of producing books may reduce the number of books they publish.

This is extremely simplistic, of course, and I hope you don’t feel personally patronized. But for much of yesterday’s Twitter discussion, this was the level of discourse and so I started with the basics.

And now I’m tired, and jaded, and these specious comparisons of book-thieves to librarians make me want to soothe my spirit at a real library: one with ebooks and traditional books, one staffed by smart, bookish people with plenty of great recommendations, one that’s a vibrant part of my community. I hope you’ll join me.

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6 Responses to “Piracy, borrowing, theft”

  1. Sarah says:

    The topic of illegal downloading has been on the blog of almost every author that I read this week! But I totally agree that you guys should put this up though and spread awareness! A lot of people say that they love the authors books and that’s why they download them illegally and to that I say, Then do you not realize that by doing that you are seriously making it impossible for the author to publish his/her next book?! Publishers don’t look at the rates of illegal books, nope, they follow the rates of bought books. It’s so sad that authors have to waste their time writing about this subject because people keep downloading books! But, I’m glad you wrote this to help spread the awareness :).
    p.s. I absolutely love your books and I can’t wait for the next one to come out!!!

  2. Ying says:

    Thanks for your support, Sarah, and for the insight you show. You’re right – I’d much rather write about other things, but while so many people seem genuinely unaware of downloading as a problem, I think authors will always focus on trying to educate readers. And I’m so glad you’re enjoying the Agency! I’ll try to write about something MQ-related next week. 😀

  3. Dave says:

    Ebooks have been around for as long or longer than mp3s. The problem now is that the soaring popularity of products such as the kindle, kobo and iPad have made downloading ebooks accessible to the masses much like the iPod did with mp3s.

    The music industry has been trying to lock down on music pirating for years with no victory in site. In fact I’ve seen authors argue much like you have yourself however they download music without paying their dues.

    My only problem with ebooks is the pricing scheme. Much like libraries only one copy is made and used over and over again however the price is almost on par with a physical copy of the same book even though minimal production costs are associated with it.

    For instance a copy of one of your own paperback novels is $7.99 yet the kindle edition is $9.99. Once pricing makes sense piracy may drop but it will never disappear.

  4. Ying says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Dave. I agree that authors who steal music while complaining about book piracy are hypocrites. As someone who pays for recorded music and goes to live shows, I do envy musicians’ ability to generate a second income stream from the same product.

    Your point about pricing is interesting, since I’ve tended to see ebooks in competition with hardcovers, where the pricing makes a great deal more sense. But using a $7.99 paperback to justify downloading a $9.99 ebook – that strikes me as an excuse, rather than a reason. What price do you consider reasonable for an ebook? Same as the paperback?

  5. Dave says:

    ebooks are a funny thing. There is no actual product. In fact with Amazon I don’t even think you OWN the book but simply license it as was seen a year or so ago when they started to remotely remove ebooks from readers such as 1984 – ironically. DRM is a whole other topic! :)

    I think the price of a book – or any material item – should be a certain percentage over what it cost to develop said item. An ebook is one item that is copied over and over again to purchasers. No materials, minimal labour is needed.

    Material books pay the wages of those that produce them as well as the parts that go into it. When it is a digital item it makes no sense for books to be on par with a paperback or hard cover.

    Was is a good price point? Well how much do authors make per book sale? Add $0.50 as a distribution fee for the publisher and we’re golden.

    The reason iTunes was so successful when it first launched is that it rightly undercut the brick and mortar pricing of CDs and rightly so. Why? Because it simply doesn’t make sense to charge the same or more for something when there is nothing tangible or tactile to what you’re selling.

    A loose analogy would be the postal service. You pay something like $0.52 to mail a letter. This fee goes to Canada Post to pay for the service which they provide. I don’t pay any extra money to my ISP to send email out because you would then be literally paying for thin air.

  6. Ying says:

    I like the postal service analogy, Dave. But if we’re trying to determine the true cost of an ebook, we should include editorial & production costs – editing, cover art, etc – since we’re talking about them as alternatives to paper books. And authors would need a higher royalty because the labour of writing the book represents a higher percentage of production costs. I’ve no idea what these numbers should be but thank you for raising interesting points.

    Becky and Brigi, I definitely understand the work/research value of ebooks – and, I guess, eReaders by extension. But they still have a long way to go before they’re truly indispensable, let alone a better environmental choice than paper, esp because so much research happens in libraries, where books are… wait for it… SHARED! Genius!.

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