This is a compendium post of Pirate Week; I’d appreciate links pointing here. If you’ve found this material useful, buy me a coffee or mocha using the cups over in the right sidebar. Thanks!
Content creators need to stop worrying so much about pirates.
It’s a big enough issue around digital products that it always comes up when digital content (music, stories, art) is discussed. But it gets far more attention than it deserves.
So this week, as I head out to GenCon, we’re having PIRATE WEEK over here at ideatrash. First we’ll review why it is (and isn’t) a problem. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the two types of solutions, and then we’ll get into the meat of the solutions themselves.
This is a real issue for me – I discovered the first torrent with some of my work on it just a week or so ago.
You’d think that digital piracy (or theft) harms content creators in pretty straightforward ways. Every person who pirates my story is one less paying customer. By and large, that’s true. But there’s one important caveat.
That’s assuming everyone who pirates my story would have paid money for it. I definitely will be losing some money, but I can’t easily calculate how much. On top of that are the compelling studies showing that piracy helps everyone but the very top sellers. I don’t think that statistic justifies piracy; why would you pay for something that you got (illegally) for free? (There is an answer, though – more on that below.)
Let’s be clear: I am not condoning piracy at any point. It is, quite literally, robbing me and every other content creator.
But let’s face it – piracy exists. It is a fine line. You have to acknowledge piracy’s existence without condoning it. Given that piracy exists, I approach it as a disease to be managed. The question I ask is this: “How can I reduce piracy as much as possible – and make what’s left impact content creators as little as possible.”
So from the point of view of content creators, we’re definitely losing money to pirates, and maybe getting some benefit – but we don’t know how much, or when, or how. That’s a crappy way to do business. So there still needs to be a way to manage and reduce pirate activity around our own works.
So what’s in place to manage piracy now? Mostly DRM – aka Digital Rights Management – (and other ways to reduce your legal rights to content you’ve purchased).
DRM (and other schemes of rights restrictions) are not effective means of stopping digital pirates. DRM regularly gets cracked within months – or less. Even avoiding digital production entirely is not enough to stop pirates. Further, DRM mechanisms end up annoying (and alienating) the legitimate customers that you do have. While the 5th Circuit Court and Library of Congress recently passed some promising rulings, they are far more complex than a headline might have you think.
I am not condoning piracy. I am saying that piracy – like viruses (digital and biological) – is a fact of existence, and one that content creators have to get used to. There are only two systemically effective ways to reduce (or manage) piracy.
What do I mean by systemically? I mean a solution that works across-the-board, without the content creator having to take action with each specific instance. DRM – if it worked – would be a systemic solution. A DMCA takedown notice (background, sample), however, has to be filed each and every time. Imagine having to get an injection each time you sneezed. Sooner or later, you’d just carry tissues.
So we need a systemic solution, but DRM – the one you always hear about – is as ineffective as orange juice against ebola.
Luckily, there are two systemic ways to reduce piracy. The first sounds simple:
This doesn’t mean being BFFs with a bunch of eyepatch wearing Swedes. It means getting your customers (readers, listeners) involved with you.
One of the oldest (and most common) justifications for software piracy was “We’re just taking a little from a massive corporation.” They didn’t see it as directly affecting anyone. Or in the real world, many people have shoplifted something in thier life – but would never consider taking the same thing directly from a friend.
Mike Stackpole (among others) uses “moral DRM” to remind readers of this relationship – telling people that a real person is at the other end, and stealing the work directly hurts a real individual.
I think this also explains the effect that piracy has on sales for midlist authors and musicians. Part of the effect is due to increased publicity – if you don’t know that I write, how can you buy my work? – but another part is the awareness that you’re not supporting your band / team / friends. To make up for it, you go and buy more of thier work – both because you like it and to atone for stealing it earlier.
So that’s one factor – and one you might have heard mentioned before. But there’s one other way to minimize the effect pirates have on your work – and one I’ve not seen mentioned before:
Let’s compare two authors (I know both of them, and met them both at GenCon, so that keeps us on topic for the week, right?). Pat Rothfuss and Jim Hines. Both are fantasy writers. Both have an online presence, and both have a devoted following that they totally deserve.
There’s a great big difference between them: AFAIK, Pat has one novel out (and a single other limited-run work). Jim has six novels in print and a ton of short stories.
Let’s say I get a pirate copy of Jim’s first book, Goblin Quest. (I condone READING it, not pirating it.) I read it. I love it. Following the principle I went over yesterday, I then go and buy the rest of the goblin books. As Jim keeps producing more material, I buy it as well. I’ve become a True Fan. Sure, Jim might have lost some initial sales of his back catalog… but I’ll keep buying everything he puts out forevermore.
Same scenario, Pat Rothfuss. I get a pirate copy of The Name of the Wind, love it, and… oh. There’s nothing else I can buy, at least until next year.
This isn’t a rag on Pat’s writing speed – he’s a fantastic author, and Jim is as well. What I’m illustrating here is that Jim can afford to care less about pirates because he’s producing new material on a frequent basis. That gives more opportunities for merely casual pirates – those who are using piracy to sample work – to “go legit” and support him.
From this context, the more frequently you publish, the more you can “manage” piracy by letting it serve as a cheap back catalog. (You can cut that down even further by putting back catalog stuff on discounted sales, since there’s a percentage of pirates who would be okay paying half-price instead of stealing it.) It also goes even further to explaining the “boost” that piracy can give some small and mid-list creators – not only do they want to “support the team”, but they are easily able to. Obviously, this is something that short story and novella writers can maximize far more easily than novelists.
I can’t stress enough that I am not condoning piracy, even when it’s beneficial to content creators. I am saying that piracy is a fact of life, and one that content creators need to come to grips with.
In more and more ways, I see digital sales being a potential boon to short story writers in a way that hasn’t been seen since Dickens’ serial fiction was printed in newspapers. It’s up to us to seize that potential and make it happen.
After posting all of the above, Jim C. Hines left this comment:
So in order to make this work, it sounds like the creator would not only have to keep up a steady stream of new content (which I agree is a useful thing), but also do the personal outreach to connect with readers? This worries me, because I consider myself someone who’s fairly active at trying to make those connections, but when I compare blog and web site hits to overall sales, it looks like the number of people I get any sort of personal connection with is only a fraction of my overall readership.
It’s a good point and question (and he kindly gave me permission to make it part of the official guide here). My answer follows:
First, I think you’re already making those connections. You’re a real person to your readers, not a faceless “big publishing company”. That’s all that’s really needed here. Whether one does that through a blog, a twitter stream, Facebook, or personal appearances and signings is irrelevant – the key is being viewed as an individual rather than a faceless entity.
Second, I’m talking about using those personal connections (or even just the potential for them) converting that sub-segment of your readership who would (or has in the past) pirated your work. That number’s far smaller than the entirety of your readership.
Or put another way, I think even the Pirate Bay might  respond differently if an individual asked them to take down a work because it directly impacted feeding their family, rather than a lawyer demanding they do so. None of the “legal threats” they have up (and have ignored) are from the actual content creators.
 Maybe they would ignore it because TPB has an ideological axe to grind; I think the principle is sound, even if it’s an extreme example.
Hugh Howey is the only author I've seen so far who has a place to pay for his stories if you got them, uh, irregularly. It seems like a good idea. I wonder if he makes any money from it.
I love that you say it only takes being obviously a human to solve the problem – it makes the fun of blogging and communicating with my small number of readers even more worth it.
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