Pirates of the Web

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article entitled “Will Books Be Napsterized” and I have to confess it felt as though yet another nail was being hammered into the coffin of traditional publishing. Although I’m not at all the kind of person to a) become neurotic about the whole thing or b) don a placard proclaiming the end of the world is nigh (hold it, I’m an author, I’m exactly that kind of person!), recent articles about the digital piracy issue still give me pause.

According to this article there are currently 166 copies of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol available free on the web – 102 of these copies attributable to one file sharing site alone (RapidShare). Now I’m all for authors promoting free content on the web and encouraging new readers but only when the writers and publishers get a chance to actually authorize this to occur. Although Dan Brown’s book is clearly still selling strong in both traditional and e-book format, you have to wonder what the impact of digital piracy will be in 3 or 5 years from now when e-books account for a much greater proportion of the market. Illegal file sharing could then significantly impact even a bestseller like Brown – but imagine the impact on smaller publishers and authors alike. It could be (as the NYT article says) a Napster like event.
The article cites evidence from multiple studies that indicate that 95% of music downloads are “unauthorized, with no payments to artists and producers”. Given the angst-ridden state of the publishing industry today – can you imagine if this were true for books one day?
Apparently file sharing sites usually try to console the industry by pointing to the success stories of the music industry – who have used free content as a way of building a sustainable fan base. Again, I totally accept and agree that free content is a great way to introduce readers to your work – and that building a readership base who will hopefully go out and purchase more of your work is critical – yet as the NYT article points out, authors rarely get to recoup their artistic investment by playing to packed arenas or using pirated e-books as ‘concert fliers’. The majority of authors are probably totally unaware of pirated copies of their books available on the web (I certainly am – and given my lowly status I can’t say I’m worried now but I certainly would be if I actually became popular:)).
So what do you think? Are the Napster fears justified? Is the promotional value of free content enough to justify some of the existing file sharing? Look into your crystal ball and tell me what you see (but please if you see me destitute on a street corner talking to myself just keep it to yourself…)

10 thoughts on “Pirates of the Web

  1. As an author of crime thrillers, all of my plotting, and so much of my thinking, starts with the same question – “What if…?”
    “What if my car broke down at night on a deserted road and my phone battery was dead?” to give an obvious example.
    As for the question raised in your post – as an author, I can’t even explore that possibility in my mind. Thank you, but I’ll stick to the relative safety of imaginary serial killers and corpses. I find that far less terrifying than what is happening in the real world of publishing.

  2. Couple “Napsterizing” with generations who see nothing wrong with purloining copyrighted material or honoring artists’ “sweat equity,” and you don’t have a happy recipe on the surface. But perhaps the news is not all that dire. See this post for more.

  3. Leigh – I can rustle up a do or two and a few waif like boys:) James – thanks, maybe I can put the placard away:)

  4. I share your fear. I’m still writing my first book. When I see what’s happening in the e-world, I do worry. I’m a naive try-to-do-gooder. I still think that downloading unauthorized free-or-not copies is illegal! Authors and publishers should be paid for their work. If the person getting the free copy would relate to going to their place of employment and working for free, maybe they’d be inclined to pass…

  5. You know, in the heyday of Piracy the Marines made their name as swashbuckling pirate killers. That’s where the line “Shore’s of Tripoli” came from in the Marines Hymn.
    So I say those who perform acts of digital piracy should be forewarned. We should build a Corps of strong, courageous avatars in Second Life and go storming the ships of these dread pirates, running them through with our virtual cutlasses and taking back that which belongs to us and our writer nation.

    Take up the call mighty digital warrior! And brandish your weapon against the dread foe who would take our profits and squander them little more than video games, cheese curls and cheap beer! Take back what is rightfully ours!!


    OORAH! **

    KILL!! KILL!! KILL!!****

    Whoa….got a little excited there. heh…nothing like the smell of HTML and Linux Port Sniffers in the morning.

    * – phrase attributed to 2-time MoH winner SgtMaj Dan Daly, USMC at Battle of Belleau Wood, 1918 … he lived, most of the rest didn’t
    ** Marine term of endearment for anything good, exciting, or challenging, or really too hard but you don’t want to admit it
    *** Marine Motto, Short for Semper Fidelis, Latin – Always Faithful
    **** Actual phrase used constantly in boot camp when training new Marine recruits and during infantry training

    die little pirate, die!… that’s my own phrase…

    Basil Sands

  6. I love free books, and blogs that offer free books, and libraries that sell off books at ridiculously low prices. Free means I can test the waters without going broke. And if I like the author I go out and buy lots more. So, no. I doubt it’s going to be much of a problem. Not sure it’s really a problem in the music world either. We’re all still buying music – more than ever before if my kids are anything to go by.

  7. Lily and Basil – thanks – though Basil’s solution may require me to speak pirate for a day (which I am not very good at) – though I do enjoy getting dressed up. Perhaps I can create an avenging avatar with a penchant for collecting the eye patches of her unsuspecting victims…Sheila, your point is well taken that many people who enjoy free content go out and buy more books by the authors they love. As you say the music industry is still thriving so it probably means publishing just has to revamp itself (and perhaps, just perhaps, enter the 21st century!)

  8. I predict that readers will be less likely to illegally download books than the people who download movies and songs. For example, in the LA riots, a few bookstores were broken into, but only the videos were stolen. The books were untouched.

  9. In the olden days, a book was its own DRM. If you bought one copy, you had one copy. If you wanted a copy to give away, you had to buy a second. You could loan it out, and maybe get it back, but you really couldn’t have two people reading one book at the same time.

    And I’m not talking about ye really olden dayes, when if you wanted to pirate a book, you needed a roomful of monks. I mean just a few years ago. Woe betide you if you took a book I was reading into the bathroom with you and left me outside the door howling.

    I have been accused of pessimism, many times, but I’m convinced that if we can’t come up with DRM that works as seamlessly and transparently as the binding of a “real” book, then fiction writing is dead. When writers can’t be paid for what they do, they will not be able to do what they do. We’ll be stuck with “fan-fic.”

    There’s a lovely thought.

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