Monday, November 14, 2011

Opinion — Unauthorized eBook downloads — Pirating or Sharing

CNET executive editor David Carnoy, author of mystery-thriller Knife Music had this to say earlier this year when he discovered his work had been pirated: “I had the strange reaction of being both dismayed and weirdly honored that someone had selected my book to strip free of its copy-protection and include as part of a collection of ‘quality’ e-books, many of which were from very good authors.”

The other day a friend of mine, Baby Dave, having received a Google Alert bearing my name told me the eBook version of my most recent book, Good to the Last Kiss, had been made available for free. My reaction was similar to David Carnoy’s.

What bothered me the most is that this was a book in which I did the most research. There was not only time involved, but because I was trying to learn about the mind of a serial killer, research wasn’t always a pleasurable experience. Next I wrote the book. And edited it. And edited it again. And I did the long and sometimes exasperating search for a publisher. Finally, the book is published.

And somebody steals it!

All right, that is a provocative phrase. We’ll get to that. Another question was “why me?” I wasn’t alone. Several authors were on the list. Many were talented and respected writers. One that I was particularly aware of had maybe a dozen books on the list.

A dozen? He has a dozen! And I only have one? Well, I consoled myself, he has written many more books. It is difficult to be indignant and honored at the same time. I’ll take pleasure that one of my books made the list. As one friend responded, surprised it seems, when I mentioned this. “You’re that popular?” My friend saw this as a badge of honor. Maybe. I suspect it was a fluke.

But let’s get back to “stealing.” To describe the act of downloading a file containing the work of someone else and do what’s necessary to make that file available for free to the rest of the world — would it be fair to call such an act “stealing” or “pirating?” Not everyone agrees, it seems. Some call it “sharing.” Sharing is good. Not sharing is bad. Right?

Okay, but if I take a loaf of bread from the mom and pop store on the corner and I give some of it to others, is this a good thing? Maybe, if everyone involved has fallen on hard times and were in danger of starving to death, I could easily rationalize the deed. But assuming that most pirates or sharers are not in such dire circumstances and can probably continue living not having read my latest book, then maybe there is something wrong with this so-called generosity. Dire circumstances aside, the reason it is wrong is that mom and pop cannot sell that loaf of bread. It’s gone. They will have to pay the supplier even so. Something of theirs was taken from them.

But, the sharer would say, we’re not talking about something that is in limited supply. By taking that file, we have not diminished the supply at all. There is an unlimited supply in the virtual world. Essentially, in this case, that loaf of bread on the shelf, though taken, is still there.

Interesting point. Magical even to those of us who grew up in both a more and less material world. But if the books sell less, then maybe the publisher tells the writer to take a hike, maybe more than one writer. And because there are fewer writers and fewer books, the publisher must eliminate others who work at the publishing house — editors, proofreaders, designers, the people who coded the e-book in the first place — all because someone felt entitled to the work he or she had no hand in creating. It was merely appropriated — a kinder word than “stealing.”

On the discussion boards there are arguments to counter this notion as well. One is, and it’s not an argument without merit, that if these people who pirate or share other people’s work had to pay for them, they wouldn’t buy them. Simple as that. They are only taking things they wouldn’t buy anyway. Even though they read my book, I haven’t lost a sale because there was never going to be a sale. So again, nothing is lost. And in fact, some would point out that with more readers, the word of mouth would increase and so would sales of the book, if those friends of pirates didn’t appropriate it themselves.

What if there were (I suspect there isn’t, but theoretically speaking) a way to perfectly protect a reading file, would people who now make free downloads available and those who download them for free simply stop reading books or never start reading them in the first place? This is what that argument says. Only if that argument is true — and I can’t believe it is — would that mean nothing is lost. In the end, writing, designing, editing and proof reading are ways people earn their livings.

Perhaps a more damning argument against pirating is that they are offered on web sites that accept advertising — often from big, multi-national corporations. So those who pirate the works, especially of authors who make a modest or less than modest living, do so to support that already well-heeled one percent. Any claim to nobility of purpose is pretty much erased.

CAPTION: Abbie Hoffman's famous, early seventies anti-establishment book ended up on The New York Times Best Sellers list and made him tons of money.

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