When I opened the email — that is, the automated alert I set if anyone on the internet was talking about my new book — I was excited. Someone somewhere was talking about my work.
But the feeling quickly turned into anger as I noticed that the website mentioning the book by name was a dodgy one, offering a link to download every possible file version of it.
I had been pirated, and much like a pirated ship in the 1800s, I was set afire.
On a whim, I immediately replied to the original uploader of the files, asking as politely as I could through my anger-reddened glasses to take them down, and hurried to write an email to the legal team of the website, asking the immediate removal, pending legal action.
But after the first bout of anger, I actually felt a bit proud — someone took the time to upload my work; he deemed it worth of sharing.
And someone else will maybe go through the whole ordeal you need to go to download a pirated file — click here, watch this, captcha that, close the hundred porn pop-ups in a hurry because you’re at work, download the zip file, scan for viruses — I mean, they could have simply bought it — 99 cents are not a hefty price to pay to avoid those shenanigans; but the human mind works in mysterious ways.
But how does the human mind work? Why do people pirate stuff?
And more importantly for my little ego, was it really that bad that my book was available on a pirate website? What an indie author needs during his/her debut is exposure, and maybe this was just another way to get my book into the hands of people who would have never bought it. Oscar Wilde used to say, There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Which brings me — finally, you might say — to my question: is piracy bad?
Problem is, piracy exists to fill a gap between supply and demand. It’s the popular answer to a problem that no one is solving.
People pirate things mainly because they don’t have access to the content they want to consume; or the content is too pricey; or they’re not sure they want to invest money in something they’re not sure they’ll like. There’s only a very small percentage of people that would willingly consume pirate content because they’re cheap asses and don’t want to pay for someone else’s work.
Try this at home. Ask your friends, your family, if they do consume pirated content. I’m pretty sure they do, even unknowingly.
They might not realise that the MP3 files your cousin gave them of that new album are, in practical terms, piracy. Everyone has in his life consumed pirated content. It’s a sin we cannot escape from.
So while piracy is a bad thing indeed, because it does damage the work of the people that produced that content, it’s mostly there because people want to consume the content but the official channels are not there, or too complicated, or too pricey.
But can we solve it, or limit it?
HBO put their pilot for the new TV show Westworld online for free. Amazon offers a sample reading of a book, so you can check out if you like it or not. Spotify, Apple Music — those services exist so you can actually listen to the music you like without damaging the artists. Netflix offers you a free week trial.
Those approaches are a good start; they already try to solve the problem of I don’t know if I’ll like it. The more we make sample of our content available, the easier it will be for people to decide if they’ll like it or not.
Another problem is the access to the content. This is a much harder one to solve, because copyright laws are old and stale; they’re made for physical boundaries and don’t take into account the digital nation. Netflix was one of the last to resist imposition by allowing the use of VPNs or DNS services to access their content globally.
Until the digital rights problems are sorted, piracy will thrive; and the fact that no one is actually trying to solve them, but are actually making them harder to crack, means that there’s more money to lose by removing barriers than by removing one of the problems that causes piracy.
And money is indeed the root of all evil; my book is on sale for 99 cents in digital edition, and eight bucks for a paperback copy. The majority of the cost of the paperback comes from production costs — paper, cover, glue, printing — and the royalties I gain with each sale, be it digital or physical, are pretty much similar regardless of the version you’ll buy.
I am a book lover, and I use my kindle everyday to read, because I can have a book on it in one click.
But I also buy physical books, especially the ones that I loved; in the perfect world that I imagine, digital content exists for its ease of consumption, and has a lower cost because it does indeed cost less to distribute. But then there are the special editions, the hardcover books, the illustrated ones — there’s no piracy that can win against a beautiful object. I buy TV shows blu-ray sets, I have the full Star Wars saga, Blade Runner — all of those things are easily available on every download websites, but I do want to possess a thing of beauty.
Physical objects will always be something I’ll gladly pay good money for.
Piracy is created mainly by the barriers put in place by the heavily regulated distribution, or from heavily regulated price policies, all things that mainstream artists don’t control.
If the content is readily available, can be sampled first, and set at a fair price, then piracy is a terrible act — no different than stealing.
I cannot change the industry, but as an indie author, I can adapt to it; my work is indeed readily available, can be sampled, has good reviews, and is set at a fair price.
I also know that there will be anyway people who will consume my content illegally. So my hope is only that they’ll love it; and maybe, they’ll come visit my website, where I’ll put a donation corner, so to allow the honest ones to pay for the entertaining moments I wish I created for them.
Piracy is bad, but pirates might be good.