When one goes hunting for pirates, dig two (virtual) graves

A while ago, I joined EPIC – Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition – because, well, I’m in electronic publishing. I was expecting to see a lot of discussion about distribution, price points, formats, that sort of thing. Maybe some bits about the scammers trying to rip people off, and maybe the occasional discussion of DRM.

Hoooo, boy. I had no freaking idea. None at all.

If you need a refresher on my particular stance, well, you’ll see below. I was surprised at the degree of out and out love for SOPA, and the venom towards pirates (and I mean pirates, not bandits here) the vocal members of the group possess. They’ll regularly vent about the ineffectual DMCA notices, about how they’ll shut down one forum (or fail to shut down another). They’ll talk about “sharing” in sarcastic tones, and SOPA as not going far enough.  (If you don’t know about SOPA, check out this article on Lifehacker.)

When I said that I didn’t support SOPA because the harm outweighed the good, a member compared online piracy to the Holocaust. Another suggested that perhaps I’m against murder laws, since those aren’t 100% effective as well. Those posts were… disturbing, but that’s not why I’m writing this.

I was shaken when one person said she gave up writing – after several novels – because it got in the way of hunting down pirates. That struck me as just sad

Another poster seemed to be well on her way to emulating the pirate-hunter, and trotted out the same arguments. And the thing is this: If you believe these assumptions, her bitterness and sheer hatred of pirates makes sense. And that’s the problem – these assumptions aren’t necessarily true.

That means that an essentially good person could, through a bad impression, sink into a swamp of bitterness, hatred, fear, and despair.  (Seriously, folks, if someone says they’re concerned for you and your first response is an ad hominem attack… well…)

Well, that damn scene in The Neverending Story made me cry.  So if you pride yourself on stopping pirates, or find yourself upset, despairing, or just plain angry about piracy more than once a day…  take a look at these arguments.  See if you hold them… and see what you think about my rebuttals.

Argument One: Pirates tend to think that if they aren’t making money from piracy, then it’s okay.

This is partially based in the fact that if they are making money off of piracy, then it is a worse crime.

That said, this impression is partially our fault. The hardliners have been blurring the line between, say, copying a CD you bought for your spouse to listen to in the car and copying it for a classroom full of folks. It’s even worse with eBooks. You’re supposed to buy another copy for your family member’s devices (because, yes, these folks hate lending as well), though you’d never do the same with the dead tree book.

IMHO, by insisting that ALL copying is evil – including stuff that’s fair use or clearly NOT evil – we made the truly bad stuff seem “okay”. “Think I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.”

Argument two: The cost of books could go up if piracy continues. Theft drives up the price of a product.

This only makes sense with physical products. Digital products don’t really have this problem – that’s why file-sharing is such an issue. Regardless, we have to keep in mind that any pirated eBook does not cost us something – at worst, it’s lost profits. The general public is well aware of this distinction. “I didn’t make as much money as I could have” is not the same as “I had to spend extra money”, and pretending the two are the same just makes us look greedy.

By the way, piracy may not be the same thing as lost profits…

Argument three: I had thousands of copies of one book pirated in one month from one site. If I have ten or twenty books out, you can figure out how much money is lost then…

There’s two big problems with this assumption.

First, you can’t generalize from one book’s sales (or rate of piracy) to another’s. The books that I distribute are doing hugely different amounts of sales, and I’ve not yet found a single variable that explains the difference.

Second, this presumes that those thousands downloads are the same as 11K *readers*. Then it presumes that those thousands of *readers* are the same as thousands of *sales*. When you put candy out on a table at a con, people will stop and grab a piece – or a handful. Even if they don’t want or even LIKE that candy. Offer it for sale… and suddenly it’s a different story. The pirate site is essentially giving it away for free, so you’ve got folks who have no particular interest downloading it and not reading it. You have another, not overlapping percentage which are reading it, but wouldn’t have bought it regardless of price.

Or to put it more simply: The number of downloads has absolutely NO relationship with how much money you would have made if it were never pirated.

Further, the industry associations do some funny calculations to determine how much money is lost to piracy.  And the latest fun argument – “prove I didn’t lose that much money in profits” – is simply illogical.  You can’t prove a negative;  that kind of argument is often used when you’re up against someone’s beliefs, not facts.

Argument four: If you’re against piracy, you’re for SOPA. (and variants thereof)

SOPA is a shitty bit of legislature. Anytime your proponents have to show its “success” by comparing it to tinpot dictatorships and by outright lying… Anyway, it’s an ineffective bit of legislation, and will do more to thwomp regular user’s rights than stop pirates, just like DRM. And yes, I seriously think that’s part of the RIAA and MPAA’s plan with SOPA, just like Disney being behind extending copyright protection is all about keeping all rights to the Mouse well after the creator’s death. The MPAA and RIAA have a long history of “accuse and sue first”, and this legislation would give them HUGE weapons.

Not to mention the potential for mischief. All it’ll take is an accusation to get you shut down. I hope you’ve never annoyed anyone…

Simply putting a technological stop – whether SOPA, DRM, or the like – will NEVER be enough.

So what can we do?

Sure, when you become aware of pirates and especially bandits, thwomp them. Talk about piracy at conventions and online. But don’t become The Operative from Serenity. Don’t give up writing to deal with pirates.

He meant well.

Instead, I’d seriously recommend focusing on your *sales*, not the pirates or bandits. Are you selling enough to support yourself? If so, I know about fifty people who would trade places with you *right now*.

If not, then the question is how to convert those pirates into readers and buyers. Is it price? Accessibility? Awareness like you mentioned before? Need to know there’s a real person there? I’m not sure what answer will work best for you.

But dammit, try one. Be inventive. Be bold.

Like the devs behind “No Time To Explain”. They used piracy (again, not bandits) to their advantage.

Just don’t be scared. Don’t treat your readers like criminals.

If you do, no matter how well you quash piracy, then you’ve already lost.

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