Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pirates, Shares and Thieves, or It’s Only an Ebook

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Not too long ago I and some other writers were told about the differences between piracy, filesharing and theft. I’m sure there are true and legal distinctions, but as far as I am concerned, taking/using/sharing/profiting from the work of another without compensation to the owner is stealing, no matter what kind of label or fancy definition is put on it.

Simply, as I understand it, a pirate is one who takes a digital copy of a book and puts it up on the web for free. Presumably they get their money from the advertising that invariably proliferates on the site. A fairly new wrinkle in this form of theft is that on some sites there are no books actually involved – the site is a ‘phishing’ site preying on the something-for-nothing crowd by getting their information (credit card and otherwise). I find this vaguely pleasurable – a kind of instant karma. Gotta love it!

File-sharers are just that. They get a digital book, then put it up for free on what are called torrent sites where anyone can download. Sometimes there are subscription fees which must be paid for access to the site – in other words, the reader has to pay money to be able to steal. The torrents are notoriously unresponsive to writer complaints, because they say as there are no books stored on their servers there is nothing they can do – the exchanges of books are done between individuals and the individual must be contacted directly. Of course, they have a policy not to release the names or addresses of the people who post on them.

When cornered, file-sharers claim they have done nothing wrong; people have always shared books. There are used bookstores. There are libraries. People pass on paper books to others once they’ve read them. This sounds like a reasonable excuse – until one realizes that paper books have a built-in limitation. Books get old and decay or even disintegrate. There are only a certain number of times they can be read. By contrast, a digital file can be copied almost ad infinitum with little or no loss of clarity.

Thieves are in it for the money only. They sell copies of stolen books for enticingly low prices. A new and distressing facet of this practice is that some writers are seeing digital copies of some of their older books being sold – books that were never released in electronic format. Apparently some enterprising scofflaws are finding early paper books by popular writers, scanning them and selling them as e-books.

Need I say that the authors, the creators of these books, receive nothing out of all this?

(Also, I hasten to say that none of my vitriol is aimed at those writers who put one of their own books up for free as a promotion on a legitimate sales venue or on their own website. Offering a book for free is a popular gimmick by which some writers swear, and I have no problem with it as long as it is the writer him/herself who does it. Their book, their choice.)

DRM (Digital Retail Management, I believe) was once believed to be the Great Hope against theft. What a joke! All it does is anger legitimate purchasers who have more than one type of device, and generally it can be removed by a smart ten year old in a couple of minutes.

Every few days on a writers’ e-list someone will post that they just found their books on such-and-such a site. Others go to look and, more often than not, their books are there too. There’s a flurry of DMCA notices (Digital Millennium Copyright Act)  and copyright infringement protests, outraged reports to publishers’ legal departments and – if the writer is lucky – the books come down. For a while. They seldom stay down. Some writers I know keep lists of sites and check them every week or so for violations.

There are those writers who say that taking the time to go after thieves is counterproductive, that it’s a form of free advertising, that people who steal books would never buy one anyway, so there’s no loss involved. They have the right to believe such things, but I disagree with every instance. Taking something without authorization and getting some form of gain from it without recompense to the owner/creator is theft, pure and simple, and theft should not be tolerated.

Yes, I am a hardnose. I believe in the law.

Unfortunately, those who are supposed to enforce the laws don’t seem to care about us ‘It’s only an ebook’ is a phrase I’ve heard often. Only an ebook? Even if it were just a single ebook – which it never is – don’t these people care about principles? Imagine how the author who has labored months, perhaps years, to create that book, who has spent years learning her craft, feels when she learns (as happened to a friend of mine) that there have been 40,000 stolen downloads – 40,000 copies of her book stolen and she hasn’t received and won’t get a penny for her work.

When digital theft is discovered, unless the author has a powerful and responsive publisher with a big legal department, most if not all policing falls on her. She must first find if the site has a copyright infringement contact – or any kind of contact information at all. Then she must send a DMCA notice. Sometimes sites will have their own take-down forms that are so Byzantinely complex they are almost unusable. Sometimes the sites are offshore (China and Russia are two of the biggest offenders) and they just ignore everything. If things get too hot for the site, if there are too many take-down requests or if their ISP usage is threatened, many sites just close their doors and open up a couple of days later under another name and URL. The whole process of getting them shut down is rather like an obscene electronic version of whack-a-mole.

A good analogy would be someone stealing a loaf of bread from a grocery store and the police saying ‘hey, it’s only a loaf of bread – we can’t be bothered.’ Well, if Thief A got away with it, what if the rest of the alphabet gang think they can get away with it too? Pretty soon there’s a mass assault by thieves on loaf after loaf of bread, and the poor grocer is expected to take care of it himself – catch the thieves and, since the law is disinterested in punishing them, try to keep the thief from taking another loaf and then another on a regular basis.

It’s alarming that so many people regard anything on the internet as fair game. ‘Information should be free,’ they cry. Well, a book can be informative, but it is not information. It is a commodity, created through the work and sweat of an author, and stealing it is no different from carrying away a paperback from a brick and mortar store without paying. Digital is just a delivery system, not a license to steal.

What alarms me most, however, is the entitlement mentality of  some thieves. ‘It’s the writers’ own fault,’ one young man in a chat room cried indignantly. ‘I’d buy their books if they weren’t priced so high. My appetite for entertainment is so great that I simply can’t afford to buy everything I want.’

Wonder what happens when he gets hungry? Does he go into the grocery and take what he wants based on such startling illogic? Along more basic lines, has he never heard of living within his means? Nor, apparently, does he believe that the owner/creator has a right to charge what she wants for her work. The author and the marketplace should set the price – not the unbridled greed of some consumers.

Writers write books for any number of reasons – a message, a compulsion, a calling – but most of us work at writing like we work at day jobs. It is a profession, and one for which the author, like any other professional, should be compensated. The ideas of writing for no other reason than the sheer love of it, for the satisfaction of knowing people are reading and enjoying our words, that it is an intrinsic part of our profession for an artist to starve in a garret are pretty ridiculous. Writing is a profession, and professionals deserve to be paid for their work, not to have their works stolen without punishment.

One thing that these thieves have never realized – or do not want to accept – is that for most writers, for the good writers, for the popular writers, writing is a business, and that the purpose of a business is to make money in exchange for their work. Most professional writers don’t write for fame, or adulation or the knowledge that their words are being read by thousands of people. Those are nice perks, but they’re not the main reason. Writers write for money. It’s a job.

I have heard from many, many writers that if they can no longer make a decent return for their work, they won’t quit writing – they’ll just quit publishing. ‘I can always write for my own enjoyment. There are always other outlets for my writing; I don’t have to publish and watch my work being stolen. People don’t value what they don’t pay for.’ I’ve heard variants on all of these statements from more writers than you can count.

I wonder what will happen when theft is so overwhelming that the professional writers stop writing, leaving a vacuum filled with nothing but bad writers and wannabes. Will the thieves blame themselves? Of course not. ‘It’s only an ebook,’ as one thief said. ‘Writers are rich and I’m not. They should be glad people are reading their books. They’ll never miss just one ebook.’

Oh, yeah. And I’m so not going to get into those lower-than-the-low scum who copy a writer’s book, change a couple of names (maybe!) and then republish under their own name as their own work. My blood pressure wouldn’t stand it.

So what can be done about this, short of rewiring the brain of every ebook-stealing thief? The only thing I know is to keep after them. Complain. Even if the thieves are in a foreign country, usually the money passes through an American credit card or on-line payment company. Complain. Their sites are usually hosted by an ISP in this country. Complain. Send DMCAs. Complain. Report the offenders to the cybercrimes division of the FBI and any other law enforcement agency that might be appropriate. Complain. Sometimes you can find who owns the theft site (and be prepared for some surprises!) through and other such sites. Complain. If you have a publisher, even a small one, send all the information, including specific URLs to them. Complain. Hire companies whose job it is to track down such theft and have them send the notices for you. Speak out!

Yes, writers shouldn’t have to do this. Writers should be writing books, not being forced into spending their time chasing thieves, but if we don’t do it, it won’t get done and the problem will only grow. This is a problem that affects everyone who wants to write or likes to read, and right now it seems the solution is in our hands.


  1. Very informative, Janice. I vaguely knew some of this was going on, but didn't understand the various methods being used to steal (and that is the right word) from writers. I will say that we have to admit some of the responsibility belongs to us because, in our eagerness to have our stories read, we've given away too much. I think that's changing, albeit slowly. We're in a new publishing world and are learning from our mistakes. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  2. An excellent discussion of a serious problem for authors.

  3. Ok. now I'm scared.

    Seriously though, I don't think we will ever be able to control any of this. The digital world has opened so many possibilities both good and bad. And there are those out there far more techno-savvy than I. The people will always be able to find ways around everything.

    For me, I'll write on and hope someone smarter comes along and finds ways to control all the bad stuff.

    Thanks for all the information Janice. You help me clear the cobwebs about this issue!!

  4. Janice, thanks for this eye-opening post. I've dealt with this type of theft in the past, but as you indicated, it takes so much of the writer's time and energy to keep following up on it. It really is cyber crime.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to post this!!

  6. I believe that the vast majority of readers are honest and will buy a book they want to read. As a frequenter of secondhand bookshops and the recipient of friends' previously read books as well as a digitally published author, I understand the problem from both sides.

    I think many readers feel that there is much less cost-investment in digital books and perhaps don't always consider the creative and time-investment of the author as part of the equation.

    That said, theft is theft and all my books carry the statement to the effect that the book is stolen if downloaded from a 'free' book site. I don't offer my books for free, so why should a pirate profit?

    Thank you for your thoughts and the valuable information.

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