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Why Authors Shouldn’t Worry About Piracy

24 February 2017

From The Creative Penn:

About two years ago, I was on a panel at a writing conference with another author who had self-published a cookbook. I listened while this author declared that she refused to make a digital version of her book available until “they do something about piracy.”

When it was my turn to speak, I pointed out that bestselling author Cory Doctorow was a few rooms over, on another panel. Doctorow has sold millions of books, despite making all his books available free on his website. Getting one of his books is as simple as going to his website and clicking a download button, and yet tens of thousands of people still pay up to $9.99 for digital copies of his book. Clearly, the availability of free copies is not hurting Doctorow’s sales.

. . . .

The publishing industry has attempted to discourage piracy by implementing DRM on ebook files.

DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, is an umbrella term for various digital copy protection technologies. DRM is supposed to prevent unauthorized copying and sharing of a file, which sounds like a swell idea, except for two things: First, any form of DRM can be cracked, usually very easily. That’s because there’s a fundamental flaw in any copy protection scheme: publishers can encrypt files all they want, but if buyers are going to read the book, the publisher has to allow them the ability to unencrypt the file.

DRM is a thorny, complicated subject, but the key point here is that there is no magical technological solution to this problem. If you’re waiting for “them” to “do something about piracy,” you’re going to be waiting a long time. If somebody really wants to get your book for free, you really can’t stop them, no matter what kind of protections you put on the file.

. . . .

Studies have indicated that piracy actually increases sales, both of ebooks and other media. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that making content cheap and easy to download increases profits. Take, for example, the case of Monty Python increasing sales by 23,000% by releasing free videos on YouTube, or the case of comedian Louis C.K. releasing a DRM-free recording of his performance for $5.

. . . .

As a relatively unknown author, the worst thing that can come from someone sharing your book illegally is that you might reach a few more potential readers, some of whom might actually pay you for a book someday.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn and thanks to Felix for the tip.

Ebooks, Piracy

24 Comments to “Why Authors Shouldn’t Worry About Piracy”

  1. What if we consider piracy to be advertising? How does piracy compare in the main effect of advertising–raising awareness? The cost of piracy is very hard to quantify, but advertising has a very high cost for fairly low benefit.

  2. Proof that you might not be worth reading is when no one will bother to pirate you …

    • According to many who post on the KDP forums, they’re pirated as soon as the book goes live. And I’ve looked at many of those books, and believe me, no one is wasting the time to steal the file and upload it anywhere. Anywhere at all. Most of this so-called piracy is simply sites looking for credit card data, or the chance to download some nasties on lots of computers, or both.

      My feeling is, piracy isn’t worth worrying about. So long as no one is taking your book and claiming it as their own, with or without any level of changes, then it ends up being one of those problems you never find a way to get rid of.

      And DRM? Well, let’s lock up our files, but here’s a key so you can read it. Like, having a bank vault, but everybody can get the code to open it. Doh. My Kindle hadn’t even finished charging before I found out how to remove DRM *and* unlock it so I could put my own screensaver on it. And I had a half-dozen free books waiting to sideload on it. I’m no computer genius, either.

  3. Cookbooks are an interesting case. You can’t copyright a process, which is what a recipe basically is. So, as soon as you publish your recipe for jalepeno-banana pie, so can everyone else. Oh, they can’t use your precise words, but they can rewrite your process in their own words pretty easily.

    Still, in general, I agree that piracy is not a big concern.

  4. Paulo Coelho has been pirating his own ebooks for about ten years. He uploads them to pirate sites and encourages his readers to download them for free if they wish.

    It seems to be working as he has also sold 330 million books worldwide!

  5. There was an interesting discussion on Kboards a few days (weeks?) ago in regards to a fairly well known (within the community) fan fiction story. The story had been ‘revised’ by an unknown person who changed the names of the characters only and then uploaded it for sale on Amazon. The question revolved around if the original fanfiction had been sufficiently transformative for the author to claim copyright and how to stop future attempts at pirating fan fiction, filing off the serial numbers and selling it for profit.

    • Claiming you made a work that someone else actually made is different from piracy as discussed in the OP.

      But I’m interested in how an unknown person can sell an ebook on Amazon. Do you mean the listed author is thought to be a pseudonym?

  6. This is very old (in ebook terms), from 2010;


    An old school book pirate opens up on why and how.
    This isn’t a downloader but an uploader. There’s a difference.

  7. Many of my colleagues fret and frown over piracy and spend hours sending takedown notices. I know I have dozens of books on pirate sites but am too busy writing new stuff to chase after them. Hadn’t thought of piracy as advertising, but the authors and stats quoted in the comments here suggest it works that way. One of my favourite foreign translations is a pirate edition of a book in Thailand, brought back by my publisher. It’s in Thai script and the only words I can read are my name and the book title. Don’t know why I find this interesting, unless that it puts me up there with Gucci and Reebok.

  8. 1 – stealers gonna steal.
    2 – busy writing more stories.
    3 – the end.

    • Nailed it.

      I’m surprised people are still taking advice from people like Joanna Penn and all the others that do nothing more than write books on how to write and sell books.

  9. Here I figured being up on a pirate site was like our first one-star: sign that we made it as a real author! 😛

    But yeah, of all the pirates out there, most aren’t actually interested in the book itself other than as a counter in a game of keeping score by units – so we were never going to get any money from them anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion that Amazon took a chunk out of piracy when they put KU out, because some people too broke to feed their reading habit who want to be ethical moved to subscriptions, not unlike people moving from Napster to streaming audio once it became available.

  10. I figure that you should only worry about what you can control, anything else is just pointless.
    As for the issue of monetising Fanfiction, I have to say not really sure what all The fuss is about.
    If someone buys a piece of fanfiction and enjoys it, The chances are that they go looking for the original, and by that as well.

    • I think the complaint about monetizing fan fiction was that it was not being monetized by the person who wrote it. Nor it seems the person who owns the IP. Some third (fourth?) party took it and claimed it as their own.

      • Well, violating intellectual property Is illegal, though I don’t know if making money off fanfiction is wrong per se.
        If done right, it shouldn’t harm the original creator and in fact It could help the original creator get more recognition and money.
        Think how much more Stephanie Meyer could’ve made If E-L James had set The Fifty Shades series in the Twilight universe.

        • I think that’s part of the reason why Kindle Worlds was started. Like you said, if Meyer had had a KW and James had written her story in it, Meyer would have made a massive amount of money.

  11. the worse thing? really?

    the worse thing is not knowing who is running the site and where the money raked in for memberships and ads is going. Org crime is not stupid.

    I think I’ll start my own pirate site, charge that 12.99-29.00 membership per year for all free downloads of my works, take up the awesome ad money, and there you go. What’s wrong with that? Sounds bright I think.

    We already sell used and new of ours exclusively as affiliate on amazon, and on ebay, why not have a pirate site. I like saying Argh.

    • It just might work for you.
      O’reilly’s SAFARI service has worked beautifully for them.


      As a technical publisher their content ages out fast so piracy is less of a threat to them than to fiction publishers and a subscription service benefits both them and their customers.

      Depending on the type and pricing of your content and the size of your catalog it might make good sense at $20 a year or even higher. If you squint just right it’s not too different from BAEN’s bundles (nee webscriptions) which runs $216 a year in $18 monthly installments. 😉

      • thanks felix for that, and for the link. We’ll look into it. Not sure why more done set up their own pirate sites, say together, for instance, 10 or 20 genre authors…

        • Technically they’re not “pirate” sites since the operators do control copyright but quite a few authors do sell books on their own websites and yes, some do team up to cut on operating costs.

          Like these ladies:


  12. Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” sells on Amazon as a Kindle book for $9.22. Or you can download it free from his website (plain text, html, pdf).

    Doesn’t Amazon frown on something like that?


  13. Al the Great and Powerful

    I remember similar discussions on paper-model fora, where it was pointed out that setting reasonable prices and selling pdfs would get MORE sales than restricting distribution to expensive hardcopy.

    Some companies got the concept and prospered, some didn’t.

    In that case, though, the market was small, and many of the hardcore buyers already copied the products (because when you accidentally tear that critical part, you aren’t wishing to buy a whole kit again) as part of their use/consumption of the product. More for modding than duplication (I saw lots of modified models, I saw no fleets of the same models except for a few sets that were made for such purposes like Eric Hotz’s “Roman Seas” sets).

    It’s interesting to compare the results from industry to industry (music, movies, books, models), but in every case, piracy has continued to thrive unless the product can be delivered at a price that makes purchasing more attractive than theft.

    Al the Student of History

    • Yup. Everything has a price, even personal ethics.
      Given a high enough price to value ratio, people will happily throw ethics overboard and find a way to rationalize actions they know are wrong. (As pointed out in the vintage pirate interview.) With books pirates focus on how little money goes to the author and figure they’re just ripping off a giant foreign multinational.

      Makes perfect sense once you remember that humans aren’t really rational beings but rather rationalizing beings. 🙂

  14. One more thought on DRM. It’s effectively a tax on your paying readers, since the pirated version doesn’t keep the DRM. In some sense, the pirates are getting a superior version of the work!

    Apple and Amazon love DRM though, because it keeps paying customers “trapped” in their ecosystem.

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