In the above photograph, it’s clear that piracy advocate and international bestseller Paulo Coelho is not hurting for money and attention. He’s sold millions and millions of his many, many books. He’s also joined forces with the notorious free file sharing website, Pirate Bay, where you can get just about any eBook, movie, song, TV show, or software program with the click of a button. By joining forces, I mean he’s shouting, “pirates of the world, unite and pirate everything I’ve ever written.”
Why? Because if Russia has proven one thing to the world, lately, it’s this: Piracy is seemingly not hurting authors. Or publishers. Coelho’s The Alchemist was Russia’s number 1 pirated book for several years there … and has sold a whopping 12 million copies to date.
How? Piracy is about discovery, not thievery. We live in the age of Internet samples: YouTube and Grooveshark are ways to sample music, IMDB and movie trailers inform us on movies … but books? it’s only recently some publishers are wise enough to offer a first chapter online. This I guarantee you: that’s not giving anything away for free. It’s letting me sample, and if I like I buy. But if I can’t sample, I don’t buy. Why would I? I don’t trust critics and jurors, they’re not me. And backcovers, meh. Sampling is like the first date: is there chemistry between me and the first page? Do I want another page/date? Without access to a sample, I can’t tell. That’s how I’ve come to understand how piracy and sales are going hand in hand. That and the sheer convenience of piracy: Any book, music, movie, or show I want, right there right away. I equate it to the mixtape days. I never made a mixtape for my crush to steal royalties from Kurt Cobain, I shared his music out of sheer enthusiasm, so people would go buy his records. Do I like the idea of being pirated? Not really. But what I’d hate more is being unread and inaccessible to anyone interested.
“If I wasn’t a pirate I never would read your books! I consider it a preview, if you like it, buy it!” – Guy on Pirate Bay in reaction to Coelho’s partnership with them
A large part of Coelho’s argument is simply that writers want to be read, and being accessible makes that easier. In turn, publishers making file sharing impossible, in the interest of their and their authors books, is strangely and counterproductively damaging for exposure of these books. To quote the man who has opened my mind on the subject, Sean Cranbury, “What we call piracy is a basic function of the Internet.” But copyright protection and its people have not yet accepted that reality. Or embraced it in the fruitful, productive ways the music industry has.
Here’s Neil Gaiman on why he’s converted to be pro piracy:
Robbie MacGregor, Publisher at Invisible Publishing, on Piracy
Piracy concerns me not at all. I’m the head of a publishing firm that owns the ‘exclusive world right’ to publish, distribute, etc. the words of a bunch of authors, forever-and-ever, and piracy concerns me
not at all.
Digital systems facilitate sharing, they make the act of copying utterly trivial and have since sometime around when the unix command ‘dd’ came into popular use (approximately ten years before I was born, and some 25 years before something resembling the commercial internet really got rolling).
It doesn’t make sense to enumerate all the new and interesting ways in which users can share and copy a set of bits, losing sleep over the myriad ways your files could end up in the hands of unknown others for free. A job like that would be way too big, hopelessly futile … and it would be wrong-headed to boot.
In my opinion, producers, promoters, creators, should be focusing on ways to deliver better service, better files, to make things easier. When someone searches for an album, a book, whatever, make sure they find you first. Have the file there, ready to go, and don’t stick too many obstacles, logins, etc. between visitors and the stuff they came for. That’s how you win on the aggregate. It’s not that complicated. What’s the alternative? To engage in some massive, and likely futile attempt, at terraforming the web? The internet wasn’t built for commerce. Attempts to reshape it, to make it reflect and support more traditional ideas of exchange or protect the established business models of media companies will fail. Those who support these kinds of projects will invariably end up looking impotent, ignorant, stupid. Again, I’m saying this as someone who runs a fairly traditional media company in many respects.
It seems more sensible to accept the network’s biases, try to realize some net benefit in (unauthorized) sharing, in so much as it might facilitate discovery or supplement direct promotional efforts, maybe try to get your files/ideas/stories into the mix. That’s probably the best you can do.
Personally, I agree with Gaiman. Obscurity, particularly for a debut or new author, is a challenge. In a way, we can think of illegal copies as marketing in these cases. It costs money to make money. At BookCamp in Halifax this year, I was part of a break-out session that discussed the correlation between book purchasing after reading frees copies. Librarians, book bloggers. readers, and booksellers all said that if they enjoy the book, they’ll buy a personal copy. I’ve been in the same situation where a friend has loaned me a book and, if I loved it, I went out and bought a copy even if I wound up not reading it from cover to cover again.I don’t think I’ve seen any quantitative data on this hypothesis but the theory is that people who do “steal” your work and never pay for it are the ones who never would have paid for it to begin with. That’s not a lost sale. In some cases, piracy is actually about distribution channels. We’re living in a society of instant gratification. If a reader can’t get a book at the moment s/he wants it, that’s a lost sale. Sometimes we’re talking about bridging a gap with a “pirated” copy until a legal one can be purchased.