Freedom or Theft?

Until recently I had not given a second’s thought to the problem of pirated books. Rather naively, I assumed that piracy was limited to music and software. Until I stumbled on an article in the Sunday Telegraph of 19 June 2016.

In it Robert Colville, a British journalist, author and commentator, describes how he felt when, two weeks after his book The Great Acceleration was published, he discovered that an illegal version had been uploaded onto a website. His first reaction was a sort of flattered bafflement – that anyone should wish to pirate his book – followed closely by anger. Being a journalist, Mr. Colville naturally did some digging. It did not take him long to find other authors with similar stories.

I was stunned to learn of people who indulge in stripping e-books of their software protections and who then distribute the stripped files over the Internet because they think they are making “information” freely available. Excuse me, but since when did Stephen King and Tom Clancy become “information”?

You do not need to be a bestselling author to be pirated: when Mr. Colville’s book was illegally copied onto a website, it ranked 309,607 on Amazon!

The more of his article I read, the more agitated I became. The subject is a salient one, now that I’m on the verge of having my first novel published. Getting to this point has taken five years of toil and persistence and much investment, emotional as well as material – research trips, developmental editing, not to mention forgone earnings. All of these costs were sunk before I was even signed up by a literary agent and a publisher. Yet there are people who seem to believe they should be able to read my novel without paying for it.

My agent Thomas Colchie confirmed that some of the other authors he represents have seen their books illegally uploaded onto a host of websites. Fortunately in the US and UK, large publishers are able to force stolen versions of books to be removed from websites, which contains the problem somewhat. However, this still means that 10% of e-books in the UK – or 7.2 million books – are read illegally. A whopping number, and one for which I fail to see any justification.

Do the people who pretend to be freedom-of-information warriors also refuse to pay at supermarket check-outs and in restaurants? Do they help themselves to Boots’ shelves? Because it seems to me that that is what book piracy is: theft, pure and simple.

Many of those who benefit from versions of illegally downloaded music, movies and books probably don’t think of themselves as stealing. Some may not even understand what I’m talking about. As a youngster in Malaysia, I routinely copied songs for other people and listened to music that had been copied by friends. Back then, I had not heard of intellectual property, I did not understand the consequences of my actions on the singers or songwriters. The same cannot be said of these so-called book pirates.

According to Mr. Colville’s article most of them are aged between 35 and 55 and sufficiently educated that they know how to strip e-books of their software protections. These are not teenagers who cannot afford books. Even if they were, let’s be clear about one thing: books are not an essential item like food or medicine. There can be no moral justification for stealing them in a wealthy country like the UK. If you want to read a particular book and you can’t afford it, take yourself down to the local library.

Lurking in the midst of this troubling phenomenon is a warped sense of entitlement. Some of the modern book thieves apparently believe that “writers are wealthy and publishers are wealthy and therefore, it’s okay to steal from them”. This line of reasoning is both factually flawed and morally disingenuous. First of all, the average writer is not rich. In 2013 authors earned on average just £11,000 – well below average earnings in the UK at the time of £26,500. In my own case, it took two full years to complete my first novel; if I hadn’t already been comfortably off, it would have taken a lot longer. As for publishers being wealthy, this completely misses the point. It isn’t as if my publisher does nothing and then suddenly reaps benefits. In my blog-post The Things that go into Creating a Book, I mentioned that I had not appreciated how rigorous the editorial process would be. My publisher is putting in a huge amount of care and professionalism into ensuring not only that every sentence in my book is as good as it can be, but also that every semi-colon is in the right place. Publishing a book is a huge enterprise that involves large numbers of people and their time.

So, when next you are offered a pirated copy of a book, please spare a thought for those who have put so much of themselves into making it available. That labour must be rewarded appears to be tacitly acknowledged by one of the piracy websites quoted in Mr. Colville’s article, which actually offers to pay its programmers! Apparently, even anarchy has limits. Not everything should be free after all.

2 Comments

Filed under Novel, Publishing, Writing

2 responses to “Freedom or Theft?

  1. Jin

    Yeah, it sucks, I worry about my work, try to console myself by remembering that pirated PDFs etc can help generate buzz … Also, your target audience is probably one of the better ones in terms of respecting you as an author and not stealing your stuff. Congrats on your launch, btw!

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