Thursday, December 29, 2011

Online Piracy
- Updated
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: readers who upload electronic copies of books that are not in the public domain to file sharing services are committing a crime. The crime is copyright infringement.

Copyright law is pretty confusing to most people, and I suspect it is this ignorance of copyright law that allows for the rampant practice of readers (especially younger ones) to upload books to file sharing services. Their reasoning is they are simply "sharing" copies of books they've acquired, through legal or non-legal means. They compare it to loaning physical copies to friends, checking the book out at the library, or buying it at a used bookstore. What's the harm in that?

While the harm is still debatable, the basic fact of the matter is that it is still copyright infringement and it is not the same thing as loaning a paperback to a friend or checking out a hardcover at the library. Don't understand basic copyright laws? Click here for a primer. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Finished? Good. I hope you learned something. For those of you who didn't feel the need to read the article I've linked to, it all boils down to this: the author of the book you have uploaded to a file sharing site owns the right to "copy" and "distribute" the work - not you. Furthermore, when you upload books to file sharing sites that charge a nominal fee for access, you are committing outright copyright theft.

How can I be committing copyright theft? I didn't physically steal anything from the author?

Well, yes, you did. The fees collected by file sharing services do not get doled out to the authors in the form of royalties. Those fees go toward the criminals hosting the site.

Copyright of a work begins the moment the author commits it to paper or digital format. They have the right to publish it themselves (in hardcover, paperback, or digital) and sell those copies, or they can license the right to copy and distribute the work (the "copy" in copyright) to a publisher. This latter method is how writers have been doing things the last hundred and fifty years or more - we license our work to publishers for a certain amount of money for them to sell and distribute our work to the reading public. If the publisher manages to sell a million copies, we get a portion of that (the vast majority of us sell far less copies, though). Sometimes we license sub-rights to publishers; this means our publishers can license our work to other markets and media including film/TV, foreign translation, audio, and video game adaptation in exchange for a further percentage of the revenues they collect. Many of us hang onto those rights and license them ourselves to other parties. What it all boils down to is the original creator of the work, the author, has the right to decide how their work gets distributed.

As a reader, when you buy a book you own the physical object. You do not own the words on the paper. You can loan the copy out to as many people as you like. You can resell your copy to a used bookstore or, if it becomes valuable, you can sell it for more money than you paid for it. What you can't do, however, is make copies of that physical book. That right is retained by the author.

Likewise, when you buy a digital book, for your Kindle or Nook or whatever device you may use, you do not own the words and images in the file. Only the author does.

(As an aside, Amazon is in the process of undertaking a lending program for Kindle titles. I don't know the details, but from what I've heard about it, I have no problems with it)

So when a reader gets a copy of our work and uploads it to a file sharing service, they are doing it without our permission. It usually says so in the copyright notice of the book in question (pay special attention to the part where it says the work cannot be distributed or uploaded to a file storage and retrieval system). Only the author, the creator of the work, has the right to do that.

Libraries don't make physical copies of the books they have on their shelves. No, they have that one copy, which they've legally paid for, and they lend that book out to multiple patrons. But to copy that work, that's where we get into copyright infringement. Understand the problem now?

But other authors support online piracy of their books! They say that when we pirate their books, they see an increase in their overall sales. In fact, some authors upload their own works to file sharing systems!

Yes, they do, and as the copyright holder they are entitled to do that and I support their decision. That is their choice.

Brian Keene and F. Paul Wilson would rather you not do that with their works, however, and you should respect that. Why? They own the right to copy and distribute their work - not you. You may think you are doing them a favor by "sharing" their work, but in their opinion you are not, especially when most authors depend on sales recorded by chain brick-and-mortar stores (tracked by Book Scan) for their next contract. Here's how that works in a nutshell: mass market titles are generally given a two month window (in many cases it's a month) from the date of release to make an impact. If a pirated copy of a book is uploaded and distributed across multiple file-sharing networks and experiences more free downloads within that time period, it could potentially siphon off crucial sales. If the publisher was aiming for a 55% sell-through in that period but illegal downloading bumped that figure to below 40%, there is a good chance that author won't get a contract for his/her next book.

Has this kind of thing happened? It has led one writer, Lucia Etxebarria, to quit writing - (blogger is being unreliable now, but you can read this article at Among my friends and peers, the jury is still out. However, I hear a lot of anecdotal evidence from other writers that online piracy helps their sales. Whether online piracy of my own work has benefited, I am not sure. A lot of writers, like Neil Gaiman and Celia Tan, in particular, have not only learned to ignore online piracy, but have participated by uploading their own works. Readers have indicated they have downloaded books by writers they have never heard of, liked it, then gone out and bought either physical copies or authorized digital versions. If that happens, that is a good thing.

But how often does this happen? Personally, I am on the fence about this. I don't know enough about it to form a solid opinion. On the one hand, I don't like the idea of the choice to control the distribution of my work being taken away from me - that is where I side with F. Paul Wilson and Brian Keene. On the other hand, if pirated copies lead to future sales and new readers, then I am all for that. I have been told by colleagues and one of my publishers that pirated copies of my work will eventually lead to more sales, more readers. I am cautiously optimistic about this. Realistically, I know there is not much of anything that can be done about online piracy. I would rather my work not be uploaded to such sites without my permission (especially to sites that charge money for access). I seriously doubt that most people who download books from file sharing services never read them anyway. Maybe most of them flip through them, akin to sampling a page or two in a bookstore, then forget about them. Regardless, if you wind up reading one of my novels that you have downloaded from a bit torrent or illegal file sharing site, I would rather you purchase a legitimate copy or send me a pay pal donation (to 'jfgonzalez(at)'). I have bills to pay too, and I can't do that if illegal downloading is siphoning off legitimate sales.

Ultimately, it all boils down to control of one's work. In the 1840's, pirated works were plentiful. Charles Dickens was incensed when, upon arriving in the U.S. for a book tour, he discovered that pirated copies of his works were rampant in the States. I don't like the idea that if I want to write and publish a free serial on my website and later expand and revise it for profit, the earlier bastardized version will be available for free (and, in some cases, profit) on file sharing sites (which is what happened to Brian Keene). One of the primary motivations for online pirates is to have the book in a format they desire - hence, scanned pdf copies of limited edition books or books not available in digital format being uploaded to file sharing sites. I understand that - I get it.

But when you take it upon yourself to upload a copy of that work, without the author's permission, to a file sharing site that charges a fee for users to download the material?

That is theft, plain and simple. The author isn't seeing a penny of that money. And no, it isn't the same as a used bookstore selling used copies of my paperbacks. Used bookstores don't physically copy those books and then sell those copies.

Big difference.

So what's the solution? I don't know if SOPA or Protect IP are the answers. I want to be able to earn a decent living from my work. I want to reach as wide a paying audience as possible for my work, yet at the same time I want to give them a product that is affordable and that they can have in whatever format they need.

So tell me what you think.

*UPDATED TO ADD - I should add that copyright infringement is also being committed against the artist who created the cover for the book when it is uploaded to a file sharing site as well (provided the reader uploads the digital art that came with the book). Therefore, my earlier statement that only the author has the right to copy the work should be amended to only the author has the right to copy and distribute the words - his or her words - not the images that are included in the book. The cover artist retains his/her copyright. As an example, I sought permission from Daniele Serra to use the cover art for my novella Do Unto Others for it's digital edition and received it. I plan to do the same for as many other artists of my backlist as I can, or commission entirely new pieces. If I don't want to pay for cover art, I will just draw stick figures.