Home » Piracy, Seth Godin » Piracy? You wish.

Piracy? You wish.

27 April 2012

From Seth Godin:

Publishers are spending a lot of time debating DRM on ebooks. Many of the powers that be are worried about piracy, they say, and they are resolute in making sure that there are locks on the books they publish.

. . . .

For me, though, the interesting notion is of book piracy itself.

How many more people would prefer a hard drive full of 10,000 songs to one with 10,000 books on it? We’re hungry for one and sort of unaware altogether of the possibility of the other. What would you even do with 10,000 books?

Software is pirated because in just a few minutes, the user saves a hundred or a thousand dollars, and feels okay about it because software seems unreasonably expensive to some.

. . . .

Books are free at the library but there’s no line out the door. Books are free to read in comfortable couches at Barnes & Noble but there aren’t teeming crowds sitting around reading all day.

Books take a long time to read, require a significant commitment, and they’re relatively cheap. And most people don’t read for fun. Most of the inputs necessary for a vibrant piracy community are missing.

As Tim O’Reilly famously said, books don’t have a piracy problem. They have an obscurity problem.

. . . .

[I]n the long tail world, overcoming obscurity is the single biggest hurdle. If only piracy was a problem…

Link to the rest at The Domino Project

Piracy, Seth Godin

20 Comments to “Piracy? You wish.”

  1. As I’ve heard with any vague consensus — I think I’ve said this before, meh; this is the tabletop RPG publishing industry I’m talkin’ ’bout — there are two kinds of pirates of ebooks-available-legitimately.

    1: The kind of pirate who steals an ebook they actually want to read, because they’re too poor/entitled to get a legit copy.

    1a: The “entitled” ones are probably sales “lost” to piracy, because someone who’s feeling entitled but has the money… would’ve bought it.

    1b: The ones too poor may be lost sales then, but either they wouldn’t have the money later (and wouldn’t buy it later anyway) — or they’d eventually buy a legit copy because they feel guilty.

    2: Collectors. They don’t read the stuff. They don’t care about what they pirate. They just want it like a dragon wants gold to sleep on. They get “pirate cred” by uploading their vast collections for others who… probably just want to possess it. He Who Dies With The Fullest Hard Drives, Wins. These people are not lost sales, because they wouldn’t buy it anyway.

    Of the two types, 1 is noise, piracy wise. It’s 2 that are a nuisance — but they’re not lost-sales nuisances except insofar as they normalize piracy so the entitled people can justify torrenting something they know they should pay for. And collectors break DRM like spun sugar.

    So putting DRM on stuff doesn’t actually faze the collectors. The entitled people will seek out a collector’s torrent anyway, if they aren’t totally clueless. The can’t-afford-this-now people may seek out a torrent, or may “borrow” someone else’s copy. (Or they just won’t buy the book; no sale anyway, there.)

    So in the end, DRM really only affects people who bought the book legitly and want to move it into their own storage for safe-keeping or onto different ereaders. It’s a pointless cost.

    (Books not available in eformat — or any format — are subject to a different kind of pirating, often of the form, “I’d buy it if I could FIND a copy!” That’s a different critter. *beth is reminded that her options are better now, and buys a copy of a Certain Book, used, that doesn’t have an ebook version*)

    • Hah, we were posting at the same time!

      One of the funny things about the Collectors is that if you inspect their wares, you will find that a lot of it is not what was advertised. Since they don’t read them, they often have a ton of junk files which just have the title of a famous book. And they will pass them on, again and again, forever.

      I remember one case where they had been trading the book for a year and nobody noticed it was just scraped random text from the internet. I don’t know if anyone would have noticed but the author came along and checked it out in hopes of taking legal action, and discovered that wasn’t his book after all.

      (Edited to add: oh, and FYI, they were still trading that non-book book for at least a year after it was exposed, too.)

    • I think you covered all the types of pirates that I can think of. Honestly, I find that there’s a lot more threat in the 1b variety than in any other. There’s a few entitled people out there, but like the original article says, there isn’t a critical mass of readers like that.

      However, as the economy gets worse there’s a lot more of the 1b’s around, especially when the big publishers are pricing ebooks so high and libraries are starting to go extinct. Many likely intend to buy the books when they can afford to, but sometimes it takes so long before they are able to that they forget, or they just never are able to afford it. Worse, once they get used to it, they can turn into a 1a. (I’ve actually had friends this happened to.)

      That’s one (of many) reason why I’m so much against the big publisher’s price-fixing.

      • Oh, I don’t dispute that 1a and 1b have the potential to be serious problems instead of one-off “clone a copy from a friend” situations! I’m just beating the dead horse that DRM isn’t the solution to those; instead of one-off friend-sharing (which can hopefully be somewhat ameliorated by “hey, buy the book, ‘kay?” reminders and/or lowered prices), DRM kind of encourages going to the collectors (who break DRM so you don’t have to!), and normalizes… anonymous piracy, rather than friend-lending.

    • I’m going to be a Philistine and suggest that 1b does not exist. Anyone who claims, in this day and age in a first world country, that they CANNOT afford $5-15 for a book or ebook is full of it. They CHOOSE not to afford it, which is a matter of prioritization, not necessity. If it was important to them to buy the book, they’d pinch pennies for…a couple days? A week?…and buy it then. If they don’t, then claim they didn’t because they’re too poor… *snort*

      This is not to say that I approve of piracy. I don’t. But at the same time, I don’t really care about it, for the reasons you stated above (except for 1b).

      • Well crap. I just did a great edit, but ran out of time.

        Allow me to add to my point.

        Some will say, “Yes, but the e-reader is the barrier to entry and it’s SO expensive).


        E-readers cost less than $100. If you make $10k a year, that’s 1% of your annual salary at most. That’s significant…sort of…but not compared to what people routinely spend on, say, cell phone service.

        And really, no one makes only $10k a year except High School and College students who work part time, and illegal immigrants. Even working minimum wage at full time will gross you $14.5k in a year, not counting the handouts…sorry, tax credits…that Uncle Sam gives to low income people. So that makes the e-reader even less of a percentage of that person’s annual income.

        Given that, again it’s a matter of prioritization.

        Being too poor is never a legitimate justification for theft, but especially not in the opulent society we live in, where such wonders a e-readers, cell phones, ebooks, TVs, et al are available so easily, and so cheaply.

        The Lords and Rulers of just a couple hundred years ago would lie, cheat, steal, and kill to have the lifestyle that the poorest among us (in the first world) enjoy today (except for the power over others that such people typically lust for).

        • While that is true, at least from a certain point of view, I have two issues with what you say:

          1.) Poverty as an excuse, sure that’s open to argument. Poverty as a motivation however, is less arguable. Honestly, you have no idea what anyone’s situation is. And yes, I have coworkers — faculty members — who make less than $10k a year. Even part-time work is no longer easy to come by, full-time? Forget it. You’re living in a fantasy world if you think people who are in poverty have a choice in the matter.

          To say such people would never have access to ebooks is ignorant: I know rich people tend to buy new, but the majority of people I know have hand-me-downs for all of their technology… and all of their paper books too.

          Poverty may not be an excuse for anything, but do not hurt your own argument by dismissing the realities of living on the edge.

          2.) This is the big one: it’s not theft. It’s copyright violation. Again, your argument is undermined by hyperbole. As the George Bernard Shaw quote here illustrated the other day: If I have an apple and you have an apple, and we trade, we still each have only an apple. If I have an idea and you have an idea, and we trade, we now both have two ideas.

          If someone takes an idea (i.e. violates copyright) without giving back, it’s not fair, it’s not ethical… but it’s not theft, and it doesn’t deprive anyone of anything.

          • I’ve been a college student with no income of my own — and I’ve bought filk tapes that I couldn’t afford at the time, down the road, but could get off a friend. (And Leslie Fish has forgiven me (I asked, one Gencon years ago), since I did buy the tapes when I could and more besides, so my conscience is clean.)

            Being a college student can be, in my experience, a very odd liminal state — you have access to some things that are definitely “privilege,” but non-access, or lessened access, to other things that one might think are less expensive. It’s also what you can justify to spend your money on: a laptop for schoolwork trumps cassette tapes. One’s for (school)work; the other’s just for fun, so you can’t budget for fun.

            Electronic-stuff piracy is definitely an odd kind of “theft” — it deprives one of the fruits of one’s labor, on the one hand, but you can still sell those fruits to others who have more integrity. Personally, I choose to believe that, with the occasional mild reminder, more people will have integrity than not.

        • Ok, have you ever lived on 14.5K per year? After you’ve paid your rent, gas, utilities, phone (doesn’t matter what kind) car insurance, student loans, and water, you get to decide between eating real food and watching PBS and fuzzy channels in Spanish, or living on ramen and getting internet. If you happen to get a hand-me-down ereader from someone, you’re going to go looking for free books, and if you can only get pirated books, you might tell yourself you’re going to buy it later. Maybe when we get our yearly “handout.”

          Is it great? No.

          Can I tell you to bite me over your hand out crap. First of all, if you’ve made a living on the money you get from working at Wal-mart you would know that all the “handouts” you get don’t add up to shit. If you’ve got kids you’re even worse off. And it’s really great having people treat you like… well you… because working a crappy, stressful, degrading job any shift between midnight and midnight isn’t good enough to deserve any respect.

          If anyone living like that has any sense, they don’t have an extra 10% to waste on anything extra. They’re picking this stuff up at garage sales and going to use them at the library.

          And your stuff about the cell phone bill… Yeah, it costs about $40 to have a cell for one person, but you can’t just get rid of it for a month so you can buy a glorified toy. That’s one of the dumbest arguments in your “great edit”. Even if you could afford to not have a phone for a month, it costs $200 to drop your coverage in the middle of your contract. What was that argument even supposed to be about?

          Go and look at how the poorest in this country actually live. Don’t just read articles cataloging the “opulent lifestyle” of the poor in America with our ceiling fans and microwaves and refrigerators. I live in Nebraska, which has arguably been the least effected by the economy, and the only people I know from college who aren’t working some crappy retail job are the education majors. And all of the rest of my friends were physics majors. Right now your ability to have a job that isn’t in the lower echelons of society has nothing to do with education. There’s a lot more luck in doing OK anymore than there has been in the past.

          Please get over yourself. There’s nothing laughable about the poor, and being poor doesn’t make you a bum with your hand out. People work hard, and take a lot of shit for simply not being paid enough for the hard work they do.

  2. Book pirates were a different breed. (I suspect it’s a very different group, now that ebooks are common.)

    Back about ten years ago, there was a book piracy panic, and SFWA put out a call to members to go monitor the Usenet and other places where pirate ebooks were traded. Since I was a big Usenet user, I answered the call.

    What I found was something very different from what SFWA thought was there. While there were a few of your usual pirate types (many of whom seemed to be “collectors” who just wanted to download and upload and didn’t seem to be able to read at all), the predominant type was the archivist. They were people who scanned PD books for Project Gutenberg, but who also wanted to preserve lost books which were out of print, rare, author dead and no identified estate.

    Most of them were not all that holy — most considered any out-of-print, author-dead book to be fair game. Many considered any book which was not available as an ebook to be fair game (especially if the author was dead, but not always). If a book was published with a living author, and that author showed up and objected, most of the group took those books out of their libraries and would get after anyone who uploaded those books thereafter.

    One part of the group ethos (at that time) was that you should always attempt to acquire and own a legal copy of the book while you possessed a pirated copy for e-reading.

    One of the reasons they were like this is because book piracy was HARD in those days. People had to scan physical books and then hand correct the OCR files. Only people with a real drive and love for the books would bother.

    Now that more books are available for ereaders, and more and more old books are coming back into print, I suspect most of these people are no longer motivated to take part in the pirate groups. There are still archivist communities who are interested rare, lost post-1923 books, and I’m sure there are still the “collectors” who upload and download massive quantities of anything they can find (without reading).

    Not really sure what there is in between, though. As this article said, even expensive books are not that expensive, and, there are plenty of alternatives.

  3. brendan stallard

    “So in the end, DRM really only affects people who bought the book legitly and want to move it into their own storage for safe-keeping or onto different ereaders. It’s a pointless cost.”


    Every word is true.


  4. “Most people don’t read for fun.”

    Wait–what? What strange planet do these people live on? Remind me not to go there.

  5. I’m always dumbfounded that people quote Shirky. He essentially throws off slogans that are incoherent when put together (but no doubt pad his hefty consulting fees).

    For example, here he says books are free at the library. Then he says books do not have a piracy problem.

    Well, duh! I wonder why that is?

    So what follows then? Restrict books at the library, and you will have a piracy problem. (Which seems to be where the Big 6 may be taking themselves on digital).

    This somehow will create a “vibrant” literary culture (as is implied)? Wide-spread piracy would seem to be the symptom of a failing culture (as was happening in music resisting the move to digital). “Niche” piracy among collectors or super-fans is a slightly different matter.

    Also, Shirky strikes me as someone who doesn’t read for pleasure (like Steve “Americans don’t read” Jobs). Anyone who did would know there are virtual “lines out the door” on practically any bestseller. (I’ve seen hold queues in the hundreds of people).

    I suppose if you made these people camp on the sidewalk for weeks on end to get their books that would give the P.T. Barnum atmosphere Shriky associates with cultural significance. But man, would that be annoying (like Shirky himself).

  6. Abeth, there’s one more type of pirate to add to your list – the ones that *would* buy the ebook if it were legitimately available in their geographic territory. I’ve seen a lot of reader complaints talking about lost sales (and illicitly downloaded copies) because of the stupidity of territorial restrictions.

    • Ah, point. I think I’d group them as a parallel group to the “too poor now; will buy when they can,” with the same danger of slipping into “entitled git” territory.

      (For my own material, I like to make it available quite far and wide. I think Smashwords accepts anyone’s cash, so long as it transfers to ’em cleanly? 😉 )

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.