First, the preamble. Posts like this need a little stage dressing, because there are so many folks out there with a My Favorite Argument 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.
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.
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 http://www.bookdepository.com/ 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 Amazon.com’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.
 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.
 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.