For my fiftieth post (yes, my fiftieth!), I’d like to revisit a topic close to my heart. Piracy. In the world of digital content, piracy has been around longer than most legitimate forms of digital purchase. Anyone who claims to have been reading ebooks since they had a Palm Pilot probably at some point acquired illegal digital books. Piracy is at the forefront of innovation when it comes to distribution and accessibility and yet, because it clashes with most of our current economic models, it is considered a Very Bad Thing.
So my question for today – can piracy ever be good? Is piracy a legitimate part of our culture? Are the old economic models broken? Like almost every question I post up on this blog, I don’t have an answer. But I think there are lots of reasons why people rush to defend piracy (and it’s not just because pirates are cool).
First of all, there are lots of reasons why people pirate things. I think most of those reasons are not that defensible from a traditional ethical standpoint. That is, people don’t like to pay for things they don’t have to. Piracy enables people with a certain level of technical expertise to not have to pay for things they want. This is the most basic reason for piracy, and it’s the most basic reason why anti-piracy groups want to stop them. On the one hand you’ve got a group of people technically able and willing to get things they want for free, and on the other hand a group of people making things who want to be remunerated for that.
The problem occurs not because one of these urges is unethical and the other isn’t. Or even because the former precludes the latter. The problem is that most of our cultural industries view a pirated thing as exactly the same as a stolen thing – or more importantly – as a lost sale. However, it’s evident to anybody who has ever pirated anything that this isn’t the case. Making a digital copy does not mean that you are depriving someone else of that thing. People who pirate things still buy things. And a person who pirates something wasn’t necessarily ever going to buy it. Piracy, from numerous studies, doesn’t even seem to affect legitimate sales one way or the other.
So if piracy is done for the wrong reasons, but the consequences aren’t bad – what is it? I prefer to think of it as a form of unpaid, uncontrollable viral marketing. It’s clear that the most successful books are also the most pirated. And anyone who has ever tried to sell a good book will know that the best way to boost sales is to get more people reading that book – through the always-elusive word of mouth. Piracy is dodgy, but it is also the most efficient way to distribute a digital product. And so long as there is an easy-to-use, affordable, legitimate alternative to piracy, most people will still prefer to buy it. And for those in-between cases, like people with disabilities, library sharing and proof copy distribution (problems that have yet to be solved by traditional publishers in regards to ebooks) – the availability of illegal copies means that those people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise read your book will be able to do so. To quote the excellent Tim O’Reilly, e-publisher: “Obscurity is a far great threat to artists than piracy.”
So the way to fight piracy, then, isn’t to try and make people who pirate things feel guilty. If they felt that guilty about it, they probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It’s also ethically iffy to sue people for lost sales when they’ve pirated content, as it isn’t clear that all of that content would have been purchased if it hadn’t been acquired illegally. I also don’t see the point in locking up digital purchases with DRM, as it unfairly punishes those of us who buy things legally, and makes piracy a more attractive option. At its best, book piracy is a way of getting people talking about a book who wouldn’t otherwise be reading it. At its worse it’s a bunch of dodgy people whose technical expertise and lack of ethics means that you’ll never be able to stop them getting hold of your product without paying anyway.
What do you think? I’d especially love to hear from authors who have seen their own books end up on filesharing websites. Do you see it as a good or bad thing? How would you prefer your publisher deal with the issue of piracy? And for everyone else: have you ever pirated a digital something? How would you defend your choice to do so?