Friday, January 14, 2011

Don't Steal Books

Rene Sears has a very good and thoughtful post about illegal downloads on her blog, as well as a followup post about all the legal ways to read for free.

The first post deals with her exchange with someone on Twitter that claimed that by pirating a copy of a book in a region where the book is not being sold they were somehow "sending a message" to a publisher on the author's behalf. Rene makes several interesting points. She writes:

1) Book piracy is theft. My exchange with the other tweeter ended with him/her conceding that illegal downloading was wrong, but that "it's understandable since publishers are behind the times." Well, no. Wanting something doesn't give you the right to it. My four-year-old son is beginning to get the hang of this idea; surely an adult can. when you steal these books, you are not sending a message to the publisher. The publisher does not owe you books. The people in publishing are there because they love books, but it's still a business. A publisher tanking means they can't bring you more books. Furthermore, you are stealing money from the author and affecting that author's sales. Espcially for debut authors, this can seriously hurt their careers. You are not striking a blow to the man, you are hurting people who have worked very hard to get published and mostly don't make all that much money.

2) The global market isn't. There may be a global audience, but distribution and rights are still regional. And if sales in a region are siphoned away by piracy, publishers will assume there's no market in that region, because there are no sales. You can blithely wave your hands and say ebooks should be available everywhere, but the facts are more complicated and involve lawyers and contracts.

3)If you really want to convince a publisher that there's a market for a particular book or ebook in your region, the way to do that is not by stealing from them. That tells them exactly nothing. The way to communicate with a publisher is to communicate with a publisher. Not with the authors- as much as they wish they could, this isn't something they have control over: the publisher. Most publisher's websites will have some kind of contact page; write the publisher and tell them you want to see this book in your region in your preferred format. That will have far more impact than illegally downloading a book. Publishers want to connect with readers, both because they are readers and because they want to sell you books. They are not rubbing their hands together going "mwah ha ha" thinking of ways to screw any given region out of a book. They want to get the book out to as many readers as they can.

4)The other way to convince a publisher that there's a market is to buy books in your region. You may have to wait longer- there are books that came out in the UK last year that I'd quite like to read, but I'm waiting until they show up in US bookstores so that US publishers will know that there's a market for British books here. If you really can't wait, buy the book off Book Depository- they ship internationally free of charge. Just know that you're not helping your region get that book (or books like it.) (And I note Book Depository offers some free ebooks, too.)

5)If cost is an issue, there's always the library. Libraries are awesome. If they don't have the book you want, they can order it for you, and the author will see both money and sales figures from that sale.

6)If, at this point, you are still going to say that you prefer to read ebooks, and the ebook isn't available for your region, I'm not sure what to say. I prefer to eat caviar off the hood of a brand new Bentley, but that's not going to happen. Wanting something doesn't make you entitled to it. If you still go out and download something illegally, at least don't try and justify it by saying you're making a statement to a publisher. You aren't. You're just stealing books.
Her second post is about the wealth of legal free online reading already available. She writes:
After reading the twitter tag #ebookdownloads yesterday, some interesting things got repeated a lot by those who admitted to torrenting ebooks for whatever reason. A lot of people said things along the lines of "I'll illegally download a book, and if I like it, I'll go buy it," or, "I can't afford a book right now, but I'll pay for it later," or, "I live somewhere where books (or English language books) are scarce/ hard to come by." The thing that gets me about these statements is this: there is an assload of free fiction available on the internets. 

Rene then lists sources of plenty of free online content, including (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange, authors and publishers' websites, web-based fiction sites like the excellent Shadow Unit, and all the free books on Kindle and Nook etc. (with a site called Books on the Knob that keeps you up to date on what's free.) None of these outlets are stealing - all these sites are giving you free fiction. Given this wealth of options, Rene concludes:
These are the ones I thought of immediately. I'm sure there are other legal ways to get free fiction. There's no reason to illegally download books unless you are possessed of a vast sense of entitlement and a lack of giving a shit about who you're hurting when you steal from them.


Caz said...

OK, that second point is really weird. It seems to imply that people just want SOMETHING to read, and don't care what, so they should be happy with whatever free stuff's available. In real life, most people want to read specific books, not just to read SOMETHING. That's generally seen as a good thing by authors - if readers were happy to just read anything, we'd never buy another book again.

justinistired said...

As always, there's a West Wing quote that's appropriate:

The commerce department wants us to back an amendment to a Bill that would help small businesses with fraud prevention and employee theft. We want to recommend it.

You have numbers?


Sam gets out a folder and opens it for Leo.

This is from an independent study that I have faith in. 30% of workers plan to steal from their employers, 30% give in to occasional temptation, 5% will commit fraud regardless of circumstances, 85% will commit fraud given the circumstances.

Just out of curiosity, what are the right circumstances?

Need, opportunity and the ability to rationalize their behavior, it's called the fraud triangle.


Rene Sears said...

Justin, thanks for that quote. Very appropriate.

Caz, do you mean the links to free fiction? I made that list because a lot of the arguments that I saw were that downloaders were torrenting books because they were broke. Of course readers want a specific author. However, they should pay for that author's books or get them from the library, otherwise that author will cease to publish due to poor sales. I was merely trying to point out that if you;re broke, there are legal ways to read fiction. And of course, there's the library if you want a specific author. I love libraries.

If I'm misunderstanding you and you were talking about regional distribution, let me know.

Lou Anders said...


Rene Sears said...

Legal ways to read free fiction, I meant to say.

Lou Anders said...

OK, that second point is really weird. It seems to imply that people just want SOMETHING to read, and don't care what, so they should be happy with whatever free stuff's available. In real life, most people want to read specific books, not just to read SOMETHING.

Yes. And in REAL life, I'd like to drive a Ferrari. As I cannot afford a Ferrari, I drive a car I can afford. The fact that a specific book has not been made available to me at the price I approve of or in the country I live does not justify me taking matters into my own hands. I believe there is a real problem on the part of ebook pirates in distinguishing between want and need. Just because I want something does not entitle me to take it at terms other than those its manufacturer sets.

Lou Anders said...

Also, it's not like there is just one book that a reader wants to read and that's it. Nobody reads only one book. In the sea of free and cheap ebooks available, you choose the ones you want. And if something you want isn't free, then YOU PAY FOR IT LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.

Caz said...

@Rene and @Lou, yes, but if the book they want isn't available, then the free fiction that IS available isn't that much help. I do appreciate the difference between "want" and "need", but you seem to be saying that "read free book B" is a solution to "book A is not available to me", and it's not, assuming that one wants to read book A. The only legal solution if it's not available in your country is to not read it, which I wouldn't think did authors much good. If you can't afford it, going and reading something else is not really a solution. Libraries are great, but are being shut down all over the place! (At least here, I'm in the UK.)

Lou Anders said...

Caz, Rene raised the further point that reading something not in your territory doesn't help encourage the publisher to release that or similar books into that territory in future. Again, I understand what you are saying perfectly. What I am saying is, want doesn't justify theft. Period. Where is this sense of entitlement coming from? None of us are entitled to be constantly entertained all the time exactly as we want to be? Christ, are we that spoiled that we steal when we can't have our way?

Rene Sears said...

@Caz There are studio Ghibli films that I've never seen, that I want to see. I'm waiting and hoping they get released where I can buy them, but if they don't there are other movies I can watch. I'm not going to steal; I'm going to buy the movies they made that are available here, so that Studio Ghibli & Disney (or whoever) know that there's a demand. If I never get to see them, that sucks, but I know I didn't rip them off.

Rene Sears said...

@Lou, those torrent streams would indicate yes. Yes, we are.

Caz said...

@Lou I agree it doesn't justify "theft", I'm just saying that what was proposed as a solution (not reading the book you want) isn't actually a helpful solution for either the reader or the author.

I can't speak for books, I don't pirate them, but for things like TV series, the "sense of entitlement" is coming from the fact that the industry is way behind the technology and is imposing arbitrary restrictions. Media companies seem to be realising this; quite a few films and TV shows now get a worldwide release on the same day or in the same week. I expect books will be the same, eventually.

Caz said...

@Rene Whereas I can watch all the Ghibli movies because Japan's in the same "region" as the UK. I know the law doesn't have to be fair, but you can see why the arbitrary unfairness irritates people to the extent where they might think watching them online isn't exactly a capital crime.

Lou Anders said...

It's not a synonymous situation. When Pyr publishes a book in N. America only, for instance, we aren't holding off on publishing it in Australia. We don't have those rights - they are held by an Australian publisher or they are held by the author/agent who would very much like to get paid again by licensing those rights. There's a crazy assumption that we are somehow sitting on a territory, simply choosing not to release the work there out of spite or greed (?). What Rene said - if you can't have it legally, then you suck it up and do without.

Lou Anders said...

Also, no one is forcing these people to buy the ebook edition. Yes, there might not be an ebook they can get in their territory without hacking. But you can always ask a friend in another territory to buy the physical book and gift it to you. I don't buy outside my region at all now, but a few years back, I really wanted specifically the UK edition of a book, so I asked a friend in London to buy it for me and I bought a US book for him and we traded. That way, we both made a sale for a book in the region that that book was legally sold. Yes, there were shipping costs added to that, but as Matt Staggs just commented on my Facebook page: "The thing I constantly come back to is that if you don't have ten or twenty bucks to support your favorite author and the people who get his or her work to you, then you probably have bigger things to worry about than finding something to read."

Anonymous said...

Good post, but alas the people in my life who pirate (damn near everything *sigh*) do so because "the copyright law is broken" and it's "selfish for an author to not share their stories with the world under creative commons" and "if people like it they'll pay for it".

I had someone actually say to me "I'll pirate stuff that I'd never EVER spend money on." So that artist should be happy - they're still getting exposure, I just don't think it's good enough to pay for.

That's the problem with knowing a bunch of programmers who were part of the Napster generation... they spent seven or eight years getting everything for free and seeing the internet as the Wild West. The idea that it's not anymore pisses them off more than anything.

Rene Sears said...

@Caz and @Lou, I started to reply, and it was getting long, so I turned it into a blog post, which is here:

Short version is: When you steal a book, you're depriving yourself of that author's future work, because their sales will suffer.

Lou Anders said...

Great post!

justinistired said...

LOU: as Matt Staggs just commented on my Facebook page: "The thing I constantly come back to is that if you don't have ten or twenty bucks to support your favorite author and the people who get his or her work to you, then you probably have bigger things to worry about than finding something to read."

This is far too close to the mark.

RE: works unavailable in a region - Man, it sucks when all you want is one specific book / film / show and it's not available because of rights issues. I think the harsh words against the downloaders are warranted morally, and also because the impact they're making on the future of all media...but honestly, I don't know how you put the genie back in the bottle. Not at all. I find myself looking for ways to innovate and survive in the landscape we've got, and I don't have any answers.

Lou Anders said...

I agree with people who say that the record industry's heavy pursuit of prosecution drove people to view them as "the man" and may have hurt (which does not excuse the theft, just explain it). I like Paul Cornell's recent approach, which is to appeal to his fanbase to care, and to let it be known that if you download his work you do NOT have his approval and are no friend to him. Yes, there will always be assholes and criminals, but a combination of education and shame may help individuals see the dangers and costs of piracy.

justinistired said...

That Paul Cornell is a gentleman and a scholar. It seems to me that's the right tone to strike. Seems to me the next thing is finding ways to get that message to the right set of ears. Which is The Good Fight.

Douglas Hulick said...

aboutjake said:

'I had someone actually say to me "I'll pirate stuff that I'd never EVER spend money on." So that artist should be happy - they're still getting exposure, I just don't think it's good enough to pay for.'

The "exposure" argument you cite really gets to me--as if being read by someone (or, as is implies, someone as "special" as the person doing the pirating) ought to be reward enough in itself.

If I wanted my book to be read solely for exposure, I'd post it on a web/FTP site; I'd serialize it on a blog; I'd do just about anything except what I do, which is sign a contract with a publisher and then, heaven forbid, try to make a semblance of a living from my work. "Exposure" doesn't pay my bills or feed my kids or keep power flowing to my computer, allowing me to write; sales do that.

Which works better for me as a *working* writer? A person saying:

1) "Hey, I just bought this guy's book and I loved it--you should pick up a copy."


2) "Hey, I just torrented this guy's book and I loved it--want me to send you a copy?"

I think the answer's pretty clear.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

FYI and to supplement the list of (legally) free SF & related, there is

There is also a (somewhat) dated index of links to SF on Gutenberg, along with (somewhat) dated aggregation of radio, tv shows and movies at

Seems like the "information wants to be free" argument is leaking out a bit in some of the other comments and I wanted to point out that those justifications, when made by the author/owner of the material are different from the same arguments made by consumers and finally, my question:

Copyright laws make special exception(s) for academic usage. So - how does the panel feel about obtaining copies of works that are NOT AVAILABLE other than in (pirated) torrents when the works are being used solely for research purposes? Does it change your opinion if the results of the research could lead to renewed interest/sales of the author's work in the legal market?

Blue Tyson said...

The support your region thing is only really feasible USA-UK.

And 'a few years ago' the cost of postage for a book wasn't more than the book.

To make things worse, your paranoid region has imposed a 9 dollars *additional* security tax on parcels to stuff being sent there 500g or more, so no-one will do that much anymore. Given the love for trade paperbacks and hardbacks by publishers these days, that means most books will be close to $30 to mail and of course 30-60 to buy, so hardly a sensible suggestion.

And of course if you are in Finland or Argentina the range of English books will be miniscule compared to what we have, so there'd be nothing to swap...