Piracy: Digital Doesn’t Mean Free

- by Vonna Harper

Alexandra Nicolajsen, Digital Content/Marketing Manager Kensington Publishing Corp.

Working in the publishing world, it is impossible not to be cognizant of the current turmoil revolving around book piracy.  Publishers are irate at the seemingly astronomical loss of revenue, the theft of content, and the lack of discernable regard for copyright law on the part of many consumers, who either post pirated material or take advantage of it by downloading it illegally from the ever-growing pool of sites that host illegal content. 

Meanwhile, authors are at their wits end, seeing Google alerts every day notifying them of illegal copies of their books available for download, searching for these copies themselves, or having loyal readers forward links to the pirated content.  They’re not only seeing a loss of sales, but a cut that goes to the core of the work they do and the countless hours spent writing and rewriting books in order to get to the end result they imagined when they set out to write a book in the first place.  Meanwhile, many ask if it is all really as bad as it’s being made out to be…

Every day, when I get to work, waiting for me in my inbox are at least 5 emails containing suspected pirated works.  These links come in to our editors from many of our authors, some much more diligent about scouring the internet for illegal copies of their works than others.  While this number may seem disheartening, it is not as bad as it might seem. 

The good news is that many of these links don’t lead to pirated copies of books at all.  The bad news is that those sites that aren’t actually hosting illegal copies of books are really there as a scam to steal your information.   Our editors weed through many more links that I never actually see, removing those that lead to these bogus sites.  So, right off the top, know that there are a great deal less illegal copies of titles available on the internet than it initially seems.

I’d love to say that’s the end of the story, but unfortunately, where there’s a major concern, there’s generally a reason for it.  While many links that seem to lead to illegal books are a sham, there are thousands of links that do lead to actual pirated content.  When Kensington first looked at ways to combat this issue, some said it was an insurmountable task. 

However, with the help of Attributor, an outside company that protects against unauthorized use of content, a significant dent has been made in the number of links leading to pirated content from our authors.  Attributor continuously monitors the Web for copies of Kensington’s content and removes those that violate our anti-piracy policy.  In addition, all those links that come in from authors are gone through by our editors and me, and those that are in violation of the copyright are forwarded to Attributor, who then makes moves to have the content removed. 

While this is a big step in the right direction, there is no way to stop piracy at its source, but work can be done to try and lessen the number of people posting illegal content.  The first things we need to examine are the reasons why people are pirating books in the first place.  When music sharing sites were first introduced, they took the internet by storm and millions of tracks were downloaded. 

The book piracy problem is not yet as pervasive as this was, but it is a growing issue.  I can’t speak for those who upload illegal copies of books, but I can write about some things I’ve found and read on my own.  Many of our authors enjoy the benefit of ardent fans who read five or more books every month.  These are excellent readers to make up a fan base.  However, in this economic climate, many people are finding it difficult to budget enough to purchase all the books they’d like. 

 They may purchase some, and steal others by illegally downloading them on the internet.  They’re aware what they’re doing is stealing, but do it anyway, because they feel it’s the only choice they have.  The other, more prevalent, issue I’ve found that motivates piracy is a lack of an e-book version being available for a particular title.  Many authors feel that they can avoid having their books pirated if they don’t allow an e-book version to be released. 

This seems to actually promote piracy, rather than prevent it.  E-readers are more prevalent than ever, and people who own them want all their content to be available to them in their desired format.  When that content isn’t available, many make the switch over to searching for the content illegally. 

In reading some anonymous confessions of a book pirate, another interesting point about piracy was raised.  In the thousands of books he had downloaded illegally, only one had been from a DRM-cracked e-book copy.  All the others came from scans of physical books.  This would seem to support the idea that keeping your book unavailable electronically is not actually stopping it from being pirated.

There are many sides to this issue, from publishers, to authors, to consumers.  As someone from the publishing industry who believes in the power of free as a promotion tool, it still bothers me every time I see active links to our books available for illegal download.  When the author and the publisher have no control over the content, it’s an uneasy situation, but unfortunately, one that will not go away any time soon. 

People who believe in the importance of books, authors, and the book industry need to continue working together, along with consumers to educate on the value of a book, all that goes into it, and why digital content doesn’t mean free content, simply because there are no physical pages to touch.

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  1. The same thing happened with the record industry when it became so easy to make copies of CDs and DVDs on home computers.

    The only good thing about it is even if they’re getting illegal copies, an author’s fan base is growing, and maybe they’ll mention if they liked the book.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Thank you, Alexandra, for a very insightful post.

    Piracy is definitely a tremendous threat and shouldn’t be ignored. I protect my copyrighted material and report all illegal links to my work. I do believe that much more should be done. The onus shouldn’t fall to authors alone to seek out and send DNCA takedown letters.

    Two points I’d like to add…

    For whatever reasons, foreign editions seem to be pirated to a very high degree. These pirates are also extremely cunning. When they notice you are having the illegal links deactivated, the repost them immediately under new file names.

    These new file names are often disguised in ways I won’t note here because I do not wish to give out piracy tips. It’s enough to say that reposted links to my foreign additions often appear under coded attempts to thwart my ability to locate the files.

    And that touches on a second point: it isn’t just the file sharing sites. Foreign edition pirates, especially, make use of Blogger and WordPress to post illegal links.

    It is my hope that NY will someday fight pirates as vigorously as the film and movie industry. If NY roared, much could be be changed. If the present bill before Senate or other stringent laws were passed, this problem could be addressed. Authors firing off DMCA takedown notices isn’t enough.

    Our careers are being impacted. We are not dipping into pirates’ weekly paychecks. Yet that is exactly what they are doing to us.

    Writers cannot afford to work for free. Piracy hurts our incomes and also affects numbers. Our publishers do not care how well-loved we are by pirates. All that matters are the cold, hard numbers. Piracy sends them plummeting. Everyone knows what then happens.

    Thank you so much for blogging about a topic that many seem to wish to ignore.

  3. Please excuse my typos above – I type at lightspeed and shouldn’t hit send before reading through more than once.

    Obviously, I meant DMCA and not DNCA as I typed near the top.

    And I meant the film and music industry, which should also be obvious.

    Thanks again for posting on a hot-potato topic.

  4. I’ve been fighting piracy every day for two years now, and when I mean every day, I mean every day.

    Four things are against authors and publishers:

    1. The mentality of “digital is free”.
    2. The unavailability of an ebook when the paperback or hardback has been released.
    3. Price.
    4. Author and publisher apathy.

    As far as the mentality of digital being free, could someone please come up with a Digital Doesn’t Mean Free banner and small logo? I’d post it all over my website and blog and I know other people would, too.

    I think we need to wage an advertising campaign. Digital Doesn’t Mean Free seems like a good place to start.

    Ebook Not Available

    I’ve read, many times, (from the pirate’s mouth) that they’re scanning printed books. It doesn’t matter if the ebook is available, there are commercial quality scanning programs available for free or a nominal cost. Oh, and they congratulate each other on what a good job they did at “editing” the books.


    Another problem is pricing. If, as I’ve read from many sources, an ebook is only licensed to a reader – and it’s not possible to share or sell it – then why is it the same price as a paperback? Or higher?

    The last thing that’s against authors and publishers is the fact that not every author fights piracy. My life would be a little easier if I knew there was an angry hoard of authors behind me. That’s not the case. A great many authors ignore piracy, I think. Or tell themselves that it doesn’t affect them. I see the download numbers – every day – and I cringe for them and can’t imagine how it isn’t affecting them. And some publishers contend that it isn’t affecting sales.

    If digital reading grows to be 25% of the market, as it’s projected to be, you can bet that piracy is going to impact everyone. I just hope, by the time every author and every publisher realizes it, that it isn’t too late.

  5. I really appreciate everyone’s feedback and there’s some great insight and ideas here. We will keep working to combat the issue as much as we can, but please keep giving me any ideas you have, and as things progress, I will continue to use different channels to keep authors updated.

  6. Alex, of course I love Kensington (where you work) because I’m published there but beyond that, I’m impressed by how seriously Kensington is taking piracy. Yes, please keep us informed.

  7. It is a global market place and I am not sure the DRM issue surrounding eBook version is helping with this problem. A reader wants to read what they want to read and will get it whatever way they can.

    For instance in NZ we cannot download an eBbook from amazon because of the DRM – thye won’t work in NZ. Are publishers going to make DRM that can be used world wide?

  8. Alex, as a Kensington author, I really, REALLY appreciate what you and the company are doing to reduce piracy. I don’t have Google alerts because I don’t want to be driving insane by pirates, so it’s good that others are keeping watch.

    That’s an interesting point that not having an e-edition available actually promotes piracy. Time I got my backlist digitized!

  9. There is a lot of great information in this post. I’m just wondering how well the scanned versions of books read on a reader like Kindle, with digital ink, and whether anyone knows how many presently pirated books were ebook copies to begin with. It seems like it would be much easier to steal an ebook which is already in the required format, rather than scan an entire book.

  10. The decision tree is complicated, even for honest folks like me.

    1) Is the book available legally in digital format? If the answer is no, my decision is to borrow from the library or look in one of our used bookstores. Some people would go to the darknet. No one is making any money off of either of these decisions.

    2) Is the digital book available in a format my e-book reader supports? I did not buy a Kindle because I wanted to borrow electronically from our library–and Kindle file formats are not supported. However, some books are only available in Kindle format (for example, novels by Saul Bellow). My choices are to buy from Amazon, strip the DRM and load onto my e-book reader, (something of a gray area in my country), buy a second device, or read on my phone or computer using Amazon software. I could also visit the darknet for a version I can read on my e-book reader.

    3. Book is available digitally in a format I can use, but geo-restrictions prevent me from purchasing it. I can violate the terms of use of the electronic bookstore, pay my money, and buy the book anyway using various techie tricks. I can visit the darknet. The library/used bookstore analog option also exists.

    All I want to do is read a great book. I do not use the darknet, Why does the current system make that so difficult? Why does it force honest people who are more than happy to pay for e-books navigate through all these hoops in order to do it?

  11. The authors who are most hurt by “sharing” are not those published by major publishers such as Kensington, but the small press and e-publishers whose chances of getting into print may depend upon how many legal copies of the e-book are sold, and whose entire revenue depends upon the sales of e-books.

    Every author ought to let it be known that “sharing” is not cool, even if they aren’t much affected.

    I know of authors who lost contracts to sell rights-reverted works because publishers discovered that a book they were initially eager buy had been widely pirated

    I know of authors who sold a dozen or so legal copies on their new book’s release day, and who found thousands being shared on pirate sites at the same time.

    There are parasite sites that make money by telling the public that the books are “freely available”, and charging a download fee, or membership fee… of course the “complimentary” books were not given away with the consent of the authors.

  12. The sort of attitude displayed publicly by one prolific contributor on GOODREADS.com

    ” It doesn’t help the author any but when it comes to e-books. I’m cheap. If it’s a new release and IF I really, REALLY want it. I’ll go as high as ten bucks. That’s it… I absolutely refuse to pay the same price for ebooks that I would for a hardback. I’m pretty cheap when it comes to hardbacks too. I VERY seldom buy first run books. But if I do, I can be convinced to go all the way to twenty-five dollars- but that’s only if it’s really nice and so new the ink isn’t dry yet.
    I never pay that much for authors I don’t know. If I’m following an author, sometimes I open my wallet.
    I haunt the bargain bin at used bookstores- no money for the author in that…
    I do book swaps- still no money for the author in that…
    and I also… HUSH… download- no money for the author in that – oh and it’s technically illegal but that little detail doesn’t bother me much.
    If these avenues of cheap books weren’t open to me, I still wouldn’t be buying a lot of books. What I would do is use my public library more often. That’s what we did when I was a kid we were poor. We went to the library. I’m a taxpayer. If I couldn’t download it. I’d get it from the library. If I couldn’t download it, swap it, buy it used or get it from the library, I wouldn’t read it.

    Very, very seldom would a new author ever get any money from me.

    That said. I started to wonder how I do find new authors. These days this site turns me on to a lot of different authors. I see what other people are reading and try them out.
    The other big way is short stories in anthologies. I do buy anthologies and sometimes nice, pretty new ones in big bookstores.
    Product placement works. If another book is in the same pile as a book I already know I like.
    Endorsements work. If one of my favorite authors has a blurb that says this book is great, I’ll take a look at it. But it has to be an endorsement from some author I know. An endorsement from Joe Smith Magazine weekly doesn’t work for me.
    When I used to shop Amazon a lot, they had a cool sales pitch. They’d say “customers who bought this product also bought THIS product…” Sometimes that would get me to take a look.

    I ALMOST bought several books recently. Ah but I didn’t… I was able to get all of them from other people.
    I ordered another ereader instead.

  13. thanks for this explanation. i’m impressed that you’ve an understanding from all that, nice write for Some good content that you share on here.