Theft as a market force


First, the preamble. Posts like this need a little stage dressing, because there are so many folks out there with a My Favorite Argument[1] at the ready and I don’t want to be distracted by the Usual Conversation.

There have been lots of posts about ebook piracy recently. Some folks are furious about it. Some consider it a mild annoyance. Some don’t much care. Some frequent torrent sites to steal books.

Oh, but they don’t like that word “steal.” More than once I’ve heard people say that downloading an ebook without paying for it isn’t stealing because the author/publisher/bookstore still has their copy. How can it be stealing if they don’t deprive the owner of the item?

Well, intellectual property isn’t the same as a Hibachi, and words, miraculous things that they are, often have more than one meaning.

(v) steal (take without the owner’s consent) “Someone stole my wallet on the train”; “This author stole entire paragraphs from my dissertation”

Standup comics have long policed their own when it came to stealing jokes. Bradley Manning is commonly said to have stolen government secrets to give to Wikileaks. Mattel accused MGA of stealing the Barbie concept for their Bratz line. This isn’t a crazy new use of the word.

Now, let me pause a moment to say this: I personally think ebook piracy is a mild annoyance when I think about it at all, and the times I think about it are a) when Google Alerts emails me that my book has appeared on a torrent site and b) when a bunch of people blog about it. I usually shrug and delete the Google Alert messages without clicking through to the sites, and I skim the blog posts.

What does bug me, and maybe this is evidence that I’m seriously screwed up or something, is when people pretend that stealing isn’t stealing, or that they aren’t doing anything wrong, or that what they’re doing somehow helps the person they’re taking from. I don’t really care that that they did it and I’m not interested in why, but don’t try to convince me that it’s perfectly fine.

Seriously. I know the RIAA acted horribly a few years ago. I know they victimized people. But you know what? Victimized is not the same as virtuous. What the RIAA did was pernicious and out-of-proportion, but it didn’t make illicit file sharing all right.[2]

So, if you download books without paying for them, don’t pretend what you’re doing isn’t wrong. Embrace it! You saw something, you wanted it, you took it! Maybe it was inconveniently unavailable in the format you wanted. Maybe you didn’t want to wait for and their free worldwide shipping. Maybe you already own the book in another format and want a backup copy. Maybe you refuse to pay above a certain price. Maybe you think writing as a profession is going to go out with manual typewriters (I’ve seriously seen this argument made, that writers didn’t deserve to be paid for their work). It doesn’t matter! You wanted, you took. Own your truth.

That’s the preamble. To repeat, I’m not much interested in ebook piracy as an act, I don’t think about it often and I’m generally bored by discussions of it. Mostly, I’m not interested in back and forthing over the rightness or wrongness of it. I’m more annoyed with the justifications than the actual stealing.

This is the main point I wanted to make in this post: Pirated ebooks distort the market.

I know some people believe that ebook piracy doesn’t cost them a dime. I see their point. I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that significant numbers of illicit downloaders would be customers under other circumstances. Some would, but significant numbers? Who knows?

However, I want to quote another line from Ryk’s post which I’ve seen stated elsewhere so often that I think it’s becoming accepted wisdom:

There is only ONE way to mitigate this activity; make the book available easily, very cheaply, online. This is why iTunes makes billions; they recognized that people WILL pay for stuff, but they won’t pay what they think are excessive prices, and they won’t pay ANYTHING if it takes them ANY effort to go looking for it, sign into some arcane website…

And… well… if most of them wouldn’t be customers anyway, what’s the point of looking at the iTunes model, which is meant to bring casual bandits down from the mountain passes? There’s a disconnect there, but it’s an understandable one. We want everyone to be our readers, don’t we? Theoretically. But what about this?

Hardbacks are more expensive to produce than paperbacks, but they’re not that much more expensive. The difference in price reflects, in part, that a certain number of an author’s fans want the new book so badly that they’ll pay hardcover prices. Less fervent fans wait for the paperback. That’s pricing based on demand.

But a lot of intellectual property is no longer being sold based on demand, or what the market will bear. It’s being sold based on what will be so trivially easy and cheap for consumers that they won’t steal the product instead. And the more demand there is, the more likely it will be stolen, so there is no chance to price accordingly.

And what do you call that? Klepto-capitalism? Appeasement Capitalism? Ransom Pricing? Along with the so-called Kindlegarteners, who have been screaming about ebook pricing (with’s explicit permission), this just drives home the idea that the work novelists do is so trivial that taking it without paying is no big deal.

Maybe, as ebook devices increase their market share, more readers will need to be steered toward an iTunes-like (ie, cheap and convenient) store to prevent them from just stealing the books. And while I don’t much care whether this person or that torrents my book, I do dislike the idea that theft has a downward pressure on the amount of money I can make from my work.

[1] For those who have forgotten or where reading here the last time I touched on this, MFA explained: People typically have arguments that they like to have. When there’s a subject they feel passionate about, and they believe they have a strong, righteous take on it, they’ll often turn a discussion on a tangential issue into a chance to trot out My Favorite Argument, because it’s comfortable and easy.

[2] And, since some people will wonder: no, I don’t have any pirated music. Nor do I have pirated books, films, or software. It’s all freeware or paid for.

23 thoughts on “Theft as a market force

  1. Theft doesn’t have a downward pressure on the amount of money you can make from your book. NOT BUYING YOUR BOOK has a downward pressure on the amount you can make from your book. Pirating your book is just one more thing people can do while not buying it, and if you compare the alternatives, its probably the best one. Maybe they’ll read it and think you deserve reward, or tell a friend who buys it, or do something that promotes your brand like blogging about it … But that’s way better than them just pretending it doesn’t exist.

    Figure out why people aren’t buying your book and your time is well invested. There’s where you lose money. Piracy is orthogonal to the whole question.

  2. That’s sophistry, as far as I’m concerned.

    Added later: To clarify: I’m not talking about “the amount I can make from my book.” That’s what’s orthogonal here, and I suspect you’re bringing you a My Favorite Argument in my post about price points.

    Theft is creating a downward pressure on the price of intellectual property in several fields. In the past people who thought someone cost too much would simply not buy it. In the present, people steal the product instead. The solution implemented in the music world (which seems about to be replicated in publishing) is to sell drop the price to a level that consumers find trivial.

    It’s yet another race to the bottom, and this time it’s spurred by illicit activity.

  3. Actually, I’d think that e-readers would create an opposite pressure since it’s complicated getting a book on them that doesn’t come from an online store that also provides the software for reading them.

    This is very different from music, which comes in a format even relative novices can use.

  4. Is it complicated? I thought it was pretty basic stuff to create an epub file or, at the very least, a pdf (god forbid).

    It’d be nice to think the technology would throw hurdles in the way of stealing rather than the other way.

  5. You have to be fairly motivated to manually be loading epub files and I think for the vast majority of people who actually read books the conveniences of Kindle software or whatever their reader of choice is combined with moral qualms will do a lot to keep people as purchasers.

    Kindle software itself also has nice bonuses in that you can download to all your devices and sync, so that I can read for a bit on my iPad, then switch to my laptop if I’m out working but have some time — or switch to iPhone/Android phone if I’ve got a few minutes and I had one of those.

    Those sorts of cloud enhancements will do a lot to help promote legitimate purchasing.

  6. Michael B Sullivan

    I don’t really like “definition of words” arguments. It’s okay with me if people want to say, “this is stealing, but it’s a special kind of stealing that’s notably different from ordinary stealing,” as long as there’s no confusion.

    But the reason I tend to strongly object to people calling IP piracy “theft” or “stealing” is that in the case of this definition, rights-holding organizations are doing their very best to obscure the differences between theft (of physical objects) and “stealing” (like stealing jokes, which I note is not illegal), for their own profit.

    There’s an agenda in calling copyright violation “theft” or “stealing,” and that agenda is to make people not think seriously about the subject — to base their decisions on emotions and sloppy analogies. You may not share that agenda, but you promote it if you call copyright violation “stealing” and do not call out the differences between it and stealing physical objects.

  7. But it’s not a “special” kind of stealing. It’s the same old stealing that people have talked about for years. It’s not the same as taking someone’s Hibachi, as I mentioned above, but people have been slapping the label “stealing” onto the unauthorized taking of IP for a long time.

    That’s why I don’t have to carefully delineate the difference between the theft of IP and physical objects: words can have more than one meaning, and I assume people can tell the difference between stealing that leaves a copy behind and stealing that doesn’t.

    Finally, I have an agenda in place when I call illicit downloading “stealing.” Here is my full agenda, from first item to last:

    To call the thing what it truly is.

  8. Michael B Sullivan

    It’s materially different in a major way from stealing objects. Sure, people have been talking about “stealing jokes” for a long time, but they’ve been doing that in a sort of casual, informal way. And, again, “stealing jokes” is by no means illegal.

    The pressure to conflate the legal category of theft with the legal category of “copyright infringement” is very recent, and is completely driven by large, moneyed concerns with a political agenda. It doesn’t matter what your agenda is, at this stage. If my agenda in, say, asking to see President Obama’s birth certificate is an honest curiosity as to what circa 1965 Hawai’ian birth certificates look like, that’s great for me, but unless I take pains to clarify what I mean, my agenda plays into a far-more-dominant public narrative.

    If you insist on calling “copyright infringement” (which is an absolutely precise term which completely describes an act and does not morally excuse it) “stealing” or “theft,” then you are advancing the agenda of big, powerful corporations which are lobbying for their own interests, and doing so by means of trying to advance ignorance of the public. Their interests may or may not be ultimately fair, but they are amoral in pursuing their interests, and you are helping them.

    Nobody was ever hurt by calling a thing what it truly was — for example, calling the process of copying a copyrighted piece of intellectual property “copyright infringement.” Because that’s what it is.

  9. Iain Gibson

    In legal parlance it isn’t theft. It is referred to as piracy though. Although given that label tends to mean Johnny Depp these days, I’m not sure that would help.

  10. Seems like there’s a whole lot of intellectual dodging going on here. If someone takes an e-copy of the book without paying for it, then Harry’s not getting the money for the book. That’s JUST like stepping up to the bookstore and swiping a copy. Store, publisher, and Harry don’t get paid.

    Sure sounds like theft to me. Whatever the semantics are, the people who did the work aren’t getting paid for it.

  11. People also call it “stealing government secrets” even though the government doesn’t forget them.

    I’m perfectly happy with the definition of stealing I linked to above, and I’m not going to stop using the word in favor of other, bloodless synonymous phrases.

  12. The funny thing is that some time ago a book stolen out of the bookstore would be a loss for the store but not for me (or Random House). The store buys it and then can’t strip the cover and mail it back for credit.

    Now, of course, mass market paperbacks are done by affidavit, probably based on their inventory control software, so I would lose out.

  13. Iain Gibson

    I’m not sure that’s the right analogy – actually swiping a book from a store (or from an individual) is depriving someone of something they own – leaving the thief with the object and the owner without it. Illegal downloads don’t take something away from the owner. Which is why copyright infringement is not legally considered to be theft. And it’s also one of the reasons that some of those who engage in it don’t see it as being as bad (or bad at all).

    Illegal downloads are making use of someone’s hard work and refusing to compensate them for it. Kind of like not paying your electrician for anything more than the parts he used to rewire your house.

  14. Michael B Sullivan

    See why it’s important to use precise terms? Howard Andrew Jones thinks that copyright violation is “JUST like stepping up to the bookstore and swiping a copy.”

    It’s obviously not the same. In the theft case, somebody paid for that book, paid to have it created, and it’s no longer there. They don’t have something.

    In the copyright violation case, nobody is missing anything that they already had. You can compare it to a counter-factual world in which the person that did the copyright violation instead bought it, and say that compared to that totally hypothetical scenario, somebody didn’t get paid. And, sure, I even buy that as a concept. I don’t support the removal of copyright. But it’s clearly and blindingly obviously different from the theft case, where without invoking any purely hypothetical worlds, without worrying about the motivations of the person doing the stealing, without anything else, a loss has happened.

    And, you know? If you have any kind of actual confidence in your arguments, you shouldn’t need this kind of dishonest nonsense. Everyone here is smart enough to comprehend copyright violation without sloppy analogies to physical theft. Harry’s retreat from, “I’m calling it what it truly is” to, “Well, what it truly is is a ‘bloodless phrase,’ so I’m going to call it what it kind of isn’t” isn’t necessary. Have some confidence in the rightness of your beliefs.

    I don’t think that anyone reading this blog is going to suddenly think that copyright violation is okay because you call it “copyright violation” instead of “stealing.”

    (As to “piracy,” I have no problem with it as a term. I don’t generally suggest it as a term because some people on the rights-holders’ side of the debate think that it makes copyright violation sound dangerous and sexy. But I think it is sufficiently divorced from its original meaning that nobody would pull a Howard Andrew Jones and say, “Copyright violation is JUST like high-seas piracy.”)

  15. Iain Gibson

    Actually forget the bit about paying for the parts – forgot to account for electricity/paper/computer costs, which although less expensive than copper wiring are still paid for out of the writer’s pocket.

  16. Michael, I have not “retreated” from anything. If you think that, you’re not reading very clearly.

    I consider copyright infringement to be stealing. You prefer the nice phrase for it. I prefer the word that carries the true emotional and moral freight of the activity.

    And there is nothing hypothetical about the bills I have to pay with my writing. My work is available through legitimate channels. There’s nothing hypothetical about the fact that people who download books through illicit channels are taking something without permission, which is the definition I linked to above (and in fact was the first one I found online).

    Stamp your foot all you like, this is a long-standing use of the word; it’s perfectly legitimate.

    Some kinds of stealing is called embezzlement. Some kinds are called burglary. Some kinds are called plagiarism. Some kinds are called espionage. Some kinds are called copyright infringement. If you can’t accept those basic facts, I don’t know what to say to you.

  17. I agree with you, Iain. (Good to see you here, btw. Hope you’ve been well.) I don’t think downloading is the same as shoplifting, which is why I pointed out the differences above, but I see I should have been clearer. It’s a different kind of stealing.

  18. Michael B Sullivan

    Harry, you haven’t admitted to retreating from anything. But you can’t, and haven’t, supported your earlier strong statement that you’ll call it what it “truly is.” What it truly is is copyright violation (which you’ve admitted). You just don’t like calling it what it truly is, because that doesn’t sound mean enough for you.

    And, look, I think we can agree here: I’m not saying, “don’t call it stealing.” I’m saying, “if you call it stealing, that’s fine, give the word the emotional freight that you want to give it — just also be careful to distinguish it from stealing objects.”

    And, in any kind of formal, precise discussion, I would certainly expect people to similarly be careful to differentiate “stealing jokes” or “stealing secrets” from “stealing objects.” Indeed, I hope it would be utterly uncontroversial for me to do so. Are you going to try to tell me that if I tried to set up an argument that suggested a moral equivalency between “stealing a joke” and “stealing a car,” you’d let that pass unchallenged? Jesus, I hope not.

    Embezzlement and burglary involve taking things that actually exist. Copyright violation doesn’t. We all understand the reason why theft comes up in discussion of copyright violation, and there certainly are valid parallels to draw.

    But don’t try to elide the differences between copyright violation and theft. It’s dishonest, it’s ultimately counterproductive to your cause, and it makes you a corporate stooge.

  19. But you can’t, and haven’t, supported your earlier strong statement that you’ll call it what it “truly is.”


    How many times do I have to point out (and link to) the definition that supports my earlier statement? It’s right there in my original post! I know you don’t like that definition, but not liking it doesn’t make it magically not exist.

    Are you going to try to tell me that if I tried to set up an argument that suggested a moral equivalency between “stealing a joke” and “stealing a car,” you’d let that pass unchallenged? Jesus, I hope not.

    Is there a moral equivalency to “taking someone’s lawn ornament” and “taking someone’s life?” Obviously not, even though those are both perfectly acceptable uses of the word “take.” I look forward to your endless internet campaign to disallow one of those definitions because gosh, they’re not the same thing at all.

    Call me whatever name you like, but I’m not going to loiter around my blog all day, pointing out the same basic definition over and over. Time to move on to more fruitful discussions.

  20. Michael, if you work 30 days and your boss suddenly refuses to pay you, you aren’t missing anything you already had, either. I somehow doubt you’ll be arguing semantics then.

    It’s still stealing. As in “You’re stealing the bread from the writer’s plate”.

    Lastly, this is not a “formal, precise discussion”. It’s a blog post. If you want precise and formal, get off the internet and go read a scientific paper.

    Oh, and thanks, Harry. You make a point about something that irks me too, even when I’m more on the consuming side. I’ve downloaded stuff too. I don’t have to rationalize it as “my struggle against the corps”. It was convenient, easy, dirt cheap. It was also stealing.

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