Saturday, 6 February 2016

Downloading #bookz - A Discussion on Piracy

[Update 2019: The Society of Authors has released a guide to what to do if your book appears on a piracy site.]

This post has been a few weeks in the making.

Thanks to my dad, I've been interested in computers from a young age. Before the Internet took off, there was FidoNet, and before MSN and Facebook burst onto the scene, geeks like me used to chat via IRC (Internet Relay Chat). If you don't know, that's where Twitter nicked its #hastags and @handles from.

I hadn't logged on for a few years. The other week I decided to see whether it still exists. 

It does.

Though quieter than ever.

Whilst there, I did a /list command on Undernet, looking for active channels. The most popular channel (chat room) by far was #bookz. It regularly has over 350 accounts (mostly human, some bots) on there. Unlike other #chatrooms, this one isn't for chatting - you get booted off if you try to be sociable. It's specifically designed for file sharing books. If you'd like to know the specific ins and outs of how it works, you can read about it on Encyclopedia Dramatica.

A little while ago I wrote a post on here about copyright, and whether we could get rid of it. For a long time I've had my suspicions that our current copyright laws are detached from modern living, but I also suspect that file sharing books might have different consequences to file sharing music and films.

So, in pursuit of enlightenment, I decided to look deeper. I talked to publishing guilds, talked to authors, talked to one reluctant publisher, and three members of the #bookz file sharing group.

I'm aware that's a lot of information for a little blog post, so I'll try to condense things down a bit. I really didn't have any agenda when I set out. I just wanted to know more about the file sharing of books, how it is perceived, and what motivates it.

The Industry

Ever since watching Rob Reid's TED talk on The $8 Billion iPod, I have been extremely sceptical about the true cost of file sharing to the arts industry.

I approached the UK Society of AuthorsThe Authors Guild of America and the Publishers Association, looking for more up-to-date statistics and to find out what their policy for tackling file sharing of books is.

The Society of Authors sent me this article, which was published in their Summer 2011 edition of The Author:

To give an idea of how far reaching the piracy can be, the now infamous bit torrent tracker TextBook Torrents, a site allowing users to exchange scanned copies of textbooks amongst each other, had at its height over 20,000 people exchanging files at any given time. A concerted effort by publishers and rights holders resulted in the site being closed at the end of last year. It is almost impossible to gauge accurately the true scale of the threat piracy presents to publishers and authors, but even conservative figures show it to be a growing problem.
The Publishers Association has estimated that the size of the criminal market based on pirated and counterfeit books in the UK is worth approximately £30m a year, and the Association of American Publishers recently reported that US publishers lost in the region of $600m last year from copyright piracy. The publishing industry is by no means alone in this: the British music industry posted figures in 2006 estimating the loss of sales due to piracy as costing in the region of £165m. The losses attributable to copyright theft across an economy as a whole can become gargantuan: a US Trade Representative report in 2005 estimated that losses to US copyright-based businesses due to piracy were between $17 and $23 bn.

When I tried to obtain more up-to-date figures specifically relating to the UK economy, I received this response from the Digital Infringement Manager at The Publisher's Association:

There are no publically available statistics on the potential costs of piracy to the UK market, this is for a variety of reasons but one of the biggest challenges is working out whether a download represents a (whole or partial) lost sale.

At least that sounds like the beginning of a rational conversation. It's also a consideration echoed by Verso, one of the file sharers I spoke with (more on that shortly):

I doubt the argument, as we've been hearing at least since the RIAA learned about Napster, that suggests that each pirated copy represents a lost sale, which copyright-reform activists such as Cory Doctorow have been challenging for years.

In the UK there is a fairly comprehensive online copyright infringement tracker called 5th Wave, where you can get statistical breakdowns on copyright infringement across all media categories. Of online media consumption March-May 2015 (both legal and illegal), books made up around 12% of total consumption, along with computer software and video games. Leading the downloads were music (35%), TV programmes (34%) and films (22%). The report states that consumption has increased since the last report, due mostly to a boom in online film consumption. In a three-month period, ebook downloads seem to have accounted for only 1% of illegal downloads.

The reverse trend seems true on Undernet, where the following number of users were recorded on media download channels during one /list in January 2016:

#bookz - 356
#MP3Passion - 143
#MP3Download - 94
#ebooks - 38
#easymovies - 25
#Audiobooks - 11

5th Wave is a really fascinating report, well worth a read: Online copyright infringement tracker survey (5th Wave)

Havoscope also has some useful US and world statistics on book piracy, mostly focused on physical copies.

The Authors

I ran a few searches on #bookz to see whether any of my friends' titles were available for free download. Almost all of them were, with between 3-100+ separate files available for each.

I decided to ask friends what they felt about this. Here are the responses from two authors. I've disguised their identities. John is a crime writer and Ann is predominantly romance.

(93 entries available for download) 
I liken the idea of book piracy to stealing apples from a market stall. If one person does it, one might argue, where's the harm? There are plenty more apples on the stall. But if that person goes off and tells all their friends that apples are easy to steal from the stall, pretty soon the trader has no apples left and has worked hard for no return. 
In short, piracy is theft, pure and simple. I don't hold with the idea of free market access because it's my work that's being stolen. Yes, there may be cases where open access, especially with films, deliberate or not, has worked well. But that was largely because a fan base gave sufficient push to a product that it spread far and wide and included a great many paying people. I'm pretty sure I'm not in that league! 
(28 entries available for download) 
Piracy?  Meh, it's an ongoing problem that I can't see any real solution to.  Just a couple of things occur to me though.  One is - a lot of these sites that advertise ebooks for free are actually phishing sites.  You go on and try to download a book and they make you put in a credit card number 'just to check you are in the right geographical locality to download this version'.  Next thing you know they've cloned your credit card and run off with all your money  - and you still don't have a book to show for it. So I'm not sure there's that many actual pirate sites about that really do give away (or even sell) pirated copies. 
Secondly - generally the people who download books from these sites are people who wouldn't buy my books anyway. They download the content, because it's free.  They never read the books, they were never going to read the books. It's like people who download books that go free on Amazon, most of them never even read it. 
Thirdly - if they *do* download my books, read and enjoy them....well, at least they've read and enjoyed! They may, and it's only a small chance, but they just might, go looking for other things that I've written that might not be on the site and end up legitimately buying those.  
Fourthly - I have heard that geographical restrictions in some places prevent readers from buying books from legit sites.  I'm talking about countries that have restrictions on books with 'unapproved content', LGBT books, anything considered subversive; some countries ban these from sale. The only places that these readers can get such books, are pirate sites.  So they can have a positive side! 
In short, I am far easier to find on Amazon than on a pirate site! Most of the sites that turn up my book if you Google, if they aren't proper retailers, are phishing sites.  So I doubt I'm losing millions of sales to these places. And if I am, what could I do about it? 
Better that there's a chance the book is getting read by someone....

A friend in the publishing industry was a little reluctant to speak her mind publicly because she didn't hold with the industry view that piracy is always theft, but felt that saying so went against the official stance of publishers and could damage smaller press with less income. Although she doesn't pirate books herself, she felt there was a difference between readers getting their hands on books they can't afford to buy, versus people reselling books they've obtained for free:

There's a fine line between an acceptable amount of piracy and the end of small press publishing.   
We know a lot of book pirates. They're all people who can't afford to buy as many books as they want to read. 
Books are not "essential" but they're important. A person who loves reading shouldn't have to live without. Someone who has no money is not stealing a copy of a book in the same way that a person who has no money is not stealing bread from the bin.

She echoed Ann's sentiment that people pirating books wouldn't have bought a copy in the first place, so probably don't represent lost sales.

It's also interesting to consider, just as a point of perspective, that around 77 million books get pulped each year because they haven't been sold.

The Pirates

We hear a lot about piracy from the publishing industry and from authors, but I wanted to go a step further and talk to some of the file sharers. I wanted to see whether the views expressed above held true from the perspective of people sharing books online. I headed over to #bookz and asked around.

Three people came forward to talk to me. I have disguised their handles (online names) to protect anonymity:

Booker_: Poland, 24, college student, first time using #bookz
FlipChart: USA, 20, college student, infrequent user for about a year
Verso: USA, mid-30s, odd jobs, monthly user for about four years

The big question I was curious to know, was whether file sharers felt that what they were doing was theft or not:

Booker_: Yes, I do belive that the argument 'downloading is theft' is right to some extent. Morally, you really couldn't justify getting someones work for free. For me it is strictly finacial choice, and really books have value much higher than material goods. In a sense, books are like healthcare, or insurance, or taxes - they are source of intellectual wealth, that not everyone can afford, but everyone absolutely needs it.
FlipChart: Oh definetly not. I've been downloading since I was 14. It's become a big part of my life and who I am and I've always challenged it as beeing thievery. I don't agree with it. I believe it is a right 
Verso: Not for a meaningful definition of theft. It's copying, not deprivation... There's also the issue of privatizing scientific or scholarly knowledge (since I mainly dl and ul nonfic), especially when those studies were publicly funded. I admit the ethics of pirating works of living authors, especially novelists, is less black-and-white, but I would like that to be clarified by public discussion and participation.
If I were pressed I would make a utilitarian argument in support of piracy, that it serves the interests of more than enforcing copyright, that we need an art-inspired and knowledge-informed public more than we need moneymakers, especially when those moneymakers aren't the creators but middlemen. And to spite those companies with walled-garden business models, who make most of their profits from keeping art and knowledge artificially scarce, I might even make a capitalist argument (though I'm generally critical of capitalism), and say that piracy is the market telling them to correct their pricing.

When I pressed further by asking 'how do authors make money if no one purchases their books,' Flipchart said:

FlipChart: I guess it is much harder to say for authors but I will apply the same reasoning from music. [File sharing] is a way of advertising really. If more people read it or have access to one's work then... it reaches more people no matter how it was obtained... it's much harder to say for books than music. For music it really doesn't matter because most revenue comes from touring. Not to mention the contract between artist and recording company. Also, exposure. I belive there really is no winner or looser when it comes to downloading music for free... For books: the exposure helps because it can lead to a film or television adaptation  

Whether you agree with that assertion about the music industry or not, it does raise the theme of promotion - reaching audiences you wouldn't usually reach. But the logical hiccup there is: what does it matter the size of your audience, if none of your audience are paying? It's hardly an argument for file sharing from the perspective of an author.

I'd suggest that the big difference is that download rates for films and TV are logged, they make up the majority of the download market, both legal and illegal. Whereas it's hard enough to keep track of legitimate book sales (Laine Cunningham's book gives a brief intro to how that doesn't work). The piracy rate of books is so small, no one's really watching - so you're never going to get the big buzz you do around a TV series.

Undeniably, though, piracy has its uses, and is largely credited for the meteoric rise to fame of Game of Thrones. It's worth watching this video through to the information on merchandise figures:

This is another major part of the puzzle I wanted to ask about. 

It has long been evident that people who occasionally pirate media, also spend the most money on legitimate media (up to 300% more in some studies). Even our 5th Wave report backs that up:

For four of the six categories, those who consumed a mix of legal and illegal content claimed to spend more on that particular content type over the three-month period than those who consumed either 100% legally or 100% illegally. The ebook infringer base was too low to analyse.

This sort of stumped me, because, if pirates are spending more money on media than the average consumer, the argument of 'poor book pirates' can't hold true.

So I asked my friends on #bookz what their main motivation was for downloading:

Booker_: I download books because I want to learn something. I used to read novels when I was in my teens, now I'm 24 and I moved towards science books and generally more informative books: biography, autobiography, history, biology, physics, management, leadership. I use #bookz, I use torrents, and any internet sources really that I can get my hands on books... I am a student with only small scholarship, so tight budget is the main reason why I prefer to download over buying, however I do buy at least a book or two a month... Since I am a Pole, and because english books are alot of hassle and money to get, I prefer to download them for free at the moment.
FlipChart: I would rather not spend the money for physical books. I'm a College student so downloading books is way cheaper. I even bought a tablet just to read my books on. But if a book interests me I would definitely purchase it... College students don't see [downloading] as a right (atleast not all of them). It's more about not being able to or not wanting to pay for expensive texts... [T]here aren't multiple copies [in a library] and not every book will be available. Downloading is easier and I get to keep it incase I need to refer (probably not likely). There couldn't be enough copies to go around for every student who would need that book in a semester   
Verso: I use #bookz mainly for the convenience. For a long time I didn't have access to a public library, and since my interests tend to be obscure I often need an interlibrary loan anyway, plus I fail to see the wisdom in privatizing knowledge (much of it publicly funded: the "Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings" series is several thousand dollars for the ebooks alone) or having to pay upwards of $40 for a book (or even merely 48-hour access to a journal article) just to find a few facts. 

All three respondents focused strongly on non-fiction works, none of them regularly read or downloaded works of fiction. When I asked about their purchasing habits, they all had personal libraries of physical books at home, ranging between 60-70 to 'a couple of hundred'. And Booker_ said that he didn't illegally download music, but used Spotify.

So it does seem true, at least within this small sample, that book pirates also spend a substantial amount on legitimate copies. I was really touched by their sentiments on books:

Booker_: In a sense, books are like healthcare, or insurance, or taxes - they are source of intellectual wealth, that not everyone can afford, but everyone absolutely needs it.
FlipChart: I still remember my first book... Reading is Fundemental... that's what we were told at a young age. It was almost a slogan at the school. But I beive it is too because reading forms a basis for knowledge. If you know nothing, but know how to read, there is a way for you to know there is a path to self-education. You can be very poor and not have access to education in a classroom. But if you have a book, even if it is not of an academic subject, you have an opportunity 


I set out to see how I felt about book piracy online.

I'm both a computer-loving geek and a published author, freedom of media consumption and piracy both affect me in different ways.

What I find interesting is that there seems to be more in common between pirates and the publishing industry than I first thought - in that both sides are passionate about books, and about books being distributed to the widest audience. 

The downloaders and file sharers on #bookz aren't some evil, clandestine group hell-bent on depriving authors of an income. They're often college students, financially restrained, rampant book lovers. And I can really sympathise there, having been a student myself and seen academic works retailing at £90 to over £200 a piece, plus the interminable delay whilst waiting on inter-library loans. 

But here's where I hit a snag. In my original post on copyright, I included a TED talk by Johanna Blakley on Lessons from Fashion's Free Culture, in which we learnt that fashion doesn't have copyright protection, and that industries without copyright protection are both creatively and financially more productive.

I want to believe in that, and I wonder what the implications might be for a publishing industry without copyright. But I think there's a flaw to the idea, which particularly applies to fiction.

If anyone can do anything they like with an idea, then it will always be the people with the money - at the top - who have the power to promote that idea over the heads of those at the bottom. For example, Jane Doe might come up with a really trendy new design, but it's Gucci with the money to put it on the catwalk, attracting the type of exposure that guarantees sales. 

Same with books. There are countless fabulous novels published each year, but only a small handful with the financial backing of Random House behind them, getting those full page glossy spreads and bus stop posters. 

When we talk about free file sharing promoting reading - yes. In a Game of Thrones way, it's undeniably good for the industry in terms of physical sales and follow-up merchandise. But the industry isn't everybody. It's very distinctly divided into those with money, and those without.

Those with money aren't going to miss a few books being downloaded on the sly. Those without money really are. And the idea that a downloaded copy doesn't represent a true sale, sort of adds injury to small authors when they know that the person who downloaded their book for free is statistically very likely to spend their money on somebody else's book or merchandise. 

FlipChart suggested that the exposure from file sharing books might help to swing a television series or film, but as I mentioned above - who's recording illicit book title downloads? They don't count towards sales records, and it's sales records the producers are looking at whilst calculating how many viewers they might attract.

So, even though a pirated book might not represent the loss of a legitimate sale, a legitimate sale counts more towards supporting a living author's career.

At the same time, especially with non-fiction, it would be interesting to know what the worth of those pirated works translates to in terms of the economy: more knowledgeable and informed graduates and entrepreneurs in the workplace. If a pirated title has a loss value, a read title must also carry a positive value?

It's hard to say where the balance lies. It doesn't seem fair to punish file sharers who love books but can't afford every title they want to read, whilst statistically spending more of what they do earn on purchasing books and media. Yet it doesn't seem fair that struggling indie authors should ever lose the cost of a book they worked so hard to produce.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below.

I'll leave off with perhaps the most balanced copyright notice I've ever seen - click to enlarge.

(click to enlarge)

1 comment:

  1. Philosophically, I agree with Ann more because I'm one of those authors who would toss people books for free if somehow one could still make a living doing so. Regardless of the amount of piracy that may or may not take place, it's not depriving me of the ability to sell my book and it's sharing it with people who might not otherwise be able to access it. I think I have a bigger problem with the phishing that takes place on those sorts of sites, like Ann pointed out.

    That being said, I love how Ghostwoods words it. I'm an independent artist with four children. Two of them are disabled. My royalties go toward my bills and my rent, and my normal royalty percentage is about what Ghostwoods offers, so each purchase makes a difference. Pirate the book if you really can't afford it, and if you enjoy it and still can't afford it, at least leave a review in places where potential customers can see it. If people even did that, I'd be content.