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Ebook Piracy and How it Affects Authors

Can authors and publishers do anything to curtail eBook piracy?

I got a Google alert a few days ago for my name, which informed me that one of my books was available for free download on SoundCloud. While I’ve gotten alerts before for books available on sites that host pirated ebooks, this is the first time I’ve been notified that a book of mine is being given away for free on an audio platform. I contacted the publisher of the book, who sent a takedown notice to the site, and, when I checked a few days later, the book was gone. I did, however, find another of my books available for download on the site; one from 2004, that is so out of date that I don’t care. (And for which I don’t earn any royalties, having never earned out the advance.)

But this isn’t new. Since most of the books I have written in the past decade are for a publisher who publishes ebooks, and which are not copy protected, this is just the cost of doing business. On the Take Control Books FAQ page, the publisher says:

“Our ebooks do not use copy protection because it makes life harder for everyone. So we ask a favor of our readers. If you want to share your copy of an ebook you’ve bought with a friend, please do so as you would with a physical book, meaning that if your friend uses it regularly, they should buy a copy.”

Given the scope of the books published by Take Control Books - they are mostly about using Apple products and software - the audience is limited, so we’re not worried about massive piracy. And we know that most people who download pirated versions of these books are unlikely to buy them anyway. But it’s still annoying, and it’s a game of whack-a-mole for the publisher to chase down all of these copyright violations.

How digital content is protected (or not)

Digital content of all kinds is easy to copy. Whether on a plastic disc or in a file, it’s trivial to copy and share digital files, at least if they are not protected with DRM (digital rights management) systems. DRM is what means that you can’t keep a copy of that movie you rent from the iTunes Store, or share a movie you buy.

Fun fact: you don’t actually own digital content that you purchase like this; you are only licensing it. For example, Amazon says, “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by Amazon.”

When you buy a CD, you can rip the CD and make copies of the music, as well as copy it to other devices, or to make backups. (Though it’s still not legal to rip CDs in the UK and some other countries.) But the law is much less clear about DVDs and Blu-Rays; while copyright law says no, fair use suggests that you should be able to rip video content for your own use, and software is widely available that circumvents the DRM that protects these videos.

In the early years of digital music downloads, copy protection was applied to all music. But this created problems of interoperability. Why should users not be able to play music downloaded from one service on a competing company’s device? In 2007, Steve Jobs wrote Thoughts on Music, pointing out that copy protection was a hindrance to users. A few years later, most DRM on digital music was dropped, with the exception of streaming music services, where DRM ensures that you have a valid subscription.

In fact, it is streaming music services that have eliminated most music piracy: it’s a lot easier to pay $10 a month to get all the music you want than worry about dodgy downloads from seedy websites.

Ebook piracy

Ebook piracy is a huge problem for authors and publishers; it’s hard to measure and hard to stop. It’s trivial to crack ebooks; software exists that can strip copy protection in seconds, given how small ebook files are.

Ebooks are easy to share, and there are many huge repositories that store books for download. In 2017, the The UK government’s Intellectual Property Office estimated that 17% of ebooks were consumed illegally.

It is easy to see parallels between pirated music and ebooks, but there’s one interesting statistic to consider: a 2009 study found that people who downloaded music illegally bought ten times as much music as those who didn’t. Could pirated ebooks be loss leaders for other books? When someone downloads a pirated copy of a book, and likes the author, are they likely to buy the author’s book? Will they recommend that author to friends?

How can you protect yourself from ebook piracy?

If, like me, you have an uncommon name, you can set up a Google alert to tell you when your name pops up on websites. (If not, you can set individual alerts for combinations of your name and your books’ titles.) If you find one of your books is available on a website, there’s often not much you can do. I generally ignore these alerts. But in the case I mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of my books was hosted on SoundCloud, which was unusual.

For other websites, you may find that they books aren’t actually hosted at all, but are listed to trick people into downloading malware, or to serve ads. Don’t go clicking links on websites like that; your computer could get infected. There’s no point in publishers contacting such websites either; they will just ignore the take-down requests.

Some people suggest using watermarking technology, and you can use this if you sell files directly, or through certain outlets. This inserts a digital watermark in files, which generally contains the email address of a purchaser. If you find a pirated copy of a book, you can then track it to the purchaser. But what do you do then? There’s no point in getting a lawyer to attack an individual who shared one of your books. There are some services that claim to be able to help remove pirated ebooks from various websites, but your books will pop up quickly on other sites.

Perhaps authors need to accept that ebook piracy is nearly impossible to stamp out. People who download pirated copies of your books are unlikely to have purchased them in the first place, and, if the music example transfers to books, these people might be big purchasers of other books. They might find that they like your books, and buy new ones, and even recommend them to friends.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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