Originally this article was going to be entitled “Why Care About eBook Piracy”, but that’s the wrong term. Piracy is what happens off the coast of Somalia, or in the South China Seas when armed men board your craft, kill your crew, and steal your cargo. Unfortunately the term also has a certain glamour borrowed from high adventure stories.
We should stop calling Copyright Theft, Piracy for the same reason that the police stopped using the term Joyriding and now use the term, Taking Without Consent. Joyriding makes it sound fun and cool, whereas it is actually reckless and destructive. Equally, there are no pirates boarding eBooks. It’s just people exploiting the hard work of others for their own benefit.
Let’s be clear, distributing copyright material without the consent of the copyright holder is illegal. It’s also extremely easy to do. In fact it’s so easy, many people have done it without realising. We also need to be conscious of the degree of illegality taking place, and of the harm caused. In this country we don’t generally prosecute people for exceeding the legal speed limit by 5% on the motorway because it’s within the margin for error and the harm done is minimal. Similarly, should we prosecute someone for sharing their favourite eBooks with their friends?
Consider these scenarios:
Bill reads an eBook and likes it so much he emails a copy to Jane with a note saying,”read this, you’ll love it.” – This is illegal, but it’s also a personal recommendation that most authors and publishers would value hugely. The scale of the illegality is tiny, and the harm done is negligible, right?
Bill takes his entire eBook Library of 200 eBooks and copies it to Jane’s PC, so that she can read his books if she wants to. Actually Jane’s taste differs hugely from Bill’s, but she takes them anyway because it’s easier than sorting through them. – The scale here is slightly larger, but the harm done is still small. Jane may only read one or two of Bill’s books and it may result in her discovering a ‘new’ author. To an extent Jane has simply mitigated the risk of spending money on a book she wouldn’t normally buy.
One million people do what Bill did and copy their eBook Library to their friend’s PC. Now the scale of the problem is much larger. Even if they only read 1% of the books, we are talking about 2,000,000 copies (200 books x 1M people x 1%) – ask any author or publisher whether they can afford to lose even 10,000 sales and your answer will be clear. The trouble is that it’s not 10,000 sales – those people would not have bought that book. They only read it because it was there. They would have bought something, though. There was a sale lost somewhere.
Now take Bob, no relation to Bill or Jane, who sets up a website hosting uploads from his clients. Bob has 100,000 clients who pay $5 a month to access his ‘Premium Content” which is 70% material for which he is not the copyright holder. Bob doesn’t upload the material – please note – his client’s do, and as there are 100,000 of them he can’t possibly keep up with what they are doing. Nevertheless, Bob is hosting well over 100,000 eBooks (and videos and music) and he’s receiving half a million dollars a month to run a website. With revenues of $6M a year, Bob is thinking of retiring, but actually his business takes so little time and effort, why bother.
Those of you old enough to remember the eighties in the days before MP3 players will recall the Sony Walkman, a portable player which used cassette tape. You will also remember the campaign, Home Taping is Killing Music – People would record their favorite tracks from the radio onto tape and play them while they were out and about. This was, of course, illegal but a lot of people did it, so it became acceptable behaviour. The Home Taping campaign was about raising awareness that this was affecting record sales. It was a drop in the ocean compared to what MP3 and home broadband did to record sales a few years later. By the end of the century the music business was in serious trouble. It’s interesting to note that most successful bands now make money from touring, not from selling records.
If we roll that example forward to the world of eBooks, we can see that it won’t be long before book publishers will be forced to change or disappear. You might see that as a good thing, venting your frustrations on media giants like News Corp (owner of HarperCollins) or Bertelsmann (owner of Random House) but those businesses are diversified and if there’s no money in books they will find something else. Most often, it’s the smaller enterprises that suffer most. If you’re a publisher with a staff of 500 you can make cuts. If you’re a publisher with a staff of two, that’s a lot harder.
By copying their eBook Libraries, Bill and Jane are undermining the system they rely on for new material. If you don’t think that’s true, look at how the earnings of mid-list authors have fallen over the past ten years. Look at how booksellers have been forced to focus on the sales of material with TV tie-ins or cross-media promotion – they simply can’t afford to market books for their own sake.
It used to be the case that publishers could only afford to pick winners, simply because the costs of publication meant that if your books didn’t sell you had to absorb the costs of editing, production, printing, marketing and distribution – most of which were incurred before you’d sold a single copy. Nowadays it’s possible to launch a book with minimal production costs – to test the market before you commit to print. That means that publishers don’t have to be as discriminating, and equally they can afford to take more risks. The flip-side is that selling 5,000 copies of a book becomes economic for the publisher who can simply move on to the next book. Unfortunately, 5,000 copies isn’t economic for the author, unless it’s a hobby and they’re not expecting to make any kind of living from it.
And with 10,000 ‘new authors’ for every existing author waiting in the wings for their chance at publication, expect to see a boom in the number of new books being published and a crash in the author’s earnings from their work. That’s without self-publishing, where it really is about publishing the maximum number of people possible, at their own expense.
I hate to be pessimistic, but this game hasn’t played out yet. It’s likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Bob’s not worried about that though. There are plenty of people willing to upload their own material. He doesn’t need the publishers; all he needs is an endless supply of new writers who want to be ‘published’ and will therefore upload their own material for free in order to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame. And the best bit is, because they are the copyright holders – it isn’t even illegal.