Monday, February 8, 2010

Avast Ye Lubbers, And Hear Ye Me Pirate Tale of Two Clicks!

Over the weekend, a certain woman who shall remain semi-nameless—I’ll call her May—was confronted with the choice between committing piracy and…well, going without. While her story centers on a couple of music files, the larger issues it raises are equally applicable to ebooks. So hang in there, this really does have some bearing on matters of authorship and publishing.

May has been waiting for two specific, favorite old music tracks to become available for sale in digital format for many years. Both songs are from British artists, and the albums on which the tracks were originally included have been out of production for years. Kind of like a book the publisher has allowed to go out of print.

May started by checking iTunes, Amazon’s mp3 store, eMusic, and every other legitimate digital music vendor site she knows of to see if the tracks were available for sale. They weren’t, so she used each site’s contact form to request them. Months and years passed, and the tracks remained unavailable on vendor sites.

So she did periodic internet searches, just in case some new vendor might show up with the tracks on offer. She also checked the artists’ websites for any updated information from time to time. Every time she did these things, she’d spend half an hour or more on the necessary research; she really wanted those tracks, and she wanted to get them legitimately. And every time, she’d come up empty-handed. Except for the many links to pirated mp3s of the files she wanted, of course.

Those links were always there, right at the top of any search results, putting the tracks tantalizingly close. And sometimes, she’d follow one of those links to see if the tracks were really there, in their entirety, and in a high-quality file. They were. And on most of the web pages she found, the tracks were downloadable with a simple right-click/Download As command combo. No need to be a semi-hacker, or subscribe to a bit torrent service, or sign herself up for a file sharing network. Just two mouseclicks, and she’d have those songs she’s wanted so badly for so long. But every time she went on this reconnaissance mission, she’d resist the temptation of those two mouseclicks. Until this past weekend, that is.

This past weekend, she decided she was finished wasting her time and energy on the search. In frustration, she joined the ranks of the many consumers who eventually come to feel it’s the publisher’s or producer’s own fault if she downloads pirated copies, because they failed to offer her a reasonable, legal alternative.

She might’ve gone to a reseller site, like eBay, to purchase the CDs upon which the desired tracks originally appeared, this is true. But is it reasonable to expect her to spend somewhere around $10 each for the CDs, plus shipping costs, when she only wanted one track off of each? And while it may be a simple case of guilty rationalization, was she wrong to conclude that since purchasing a used copy would not benefit the artists or producers of the tracks, doing so was no better for the artists and producers than downloading pirated copies?

Now, imagine if May had been on the hunt for an ebook instead of these two music tracks. Imagine further that the book in question is out of print—though not yet in the public domain—, and neither the publisher nor the author has elected to make it available in electronic formats. May could purchase a used copy of the book from any of a number of resellers, but this won’t put any additional royalties in the author’s pocket, or send any money the publisher’s way. And May really prefers ebooks to hard copy books; she’s bought a Kindle or Sony Reader, and intends to make the most of her investment by limiting her book purchases to e whenever possible. If you were in May’s place and found yourself two clicks away from obtaining the desired book in e format, what reason would you have to resist those two clicks? What reason has the publisher or author (in a case where rights have reverted) given you to resist those two clicks?

Taking this a step further, let’s imagine the book in question is still in print, but only in a hardcover edition. May faces the choice between paying $25-30 for a ‘dead trees’ version, or two mouse clicks to get the book in the format she wants for free. May doesn’t want to cheat the publisher or author out of their due, but she can’t afford to spend that much money on a book. So she simply crosses that book off her wishlist, and while she has every intention of keeping an eye out for an electronic edition, life goes on and in a matter of days she’s forgotten all about the book. In the end, she never buys a copy at all.

In yet another scenario, imagine the ebook is made available, but only at a pricetag of $14.99, and with DRM that will prevent May from moving the ebook among her various devices. Furthermore, if May “purchases” the $14.99 ebook, she won’t really own a copy of the book at all. She’ll own a limited license to view the book’s content on one specific device, only in the format specified by the publisher, and that license is subject to recall under numerous circumstances. If the publisher becomes aware of any copyright irregularities, or if May gets into a dispute with the ebook vendor site on an unrelated matter, for example. Alternatively, she can buy the paperback for $13.99 and have a physical copy that she keeps in perpetuity, or can lend to others, or resell when she’s finished with it.

Or she can click her mouse two times and get the ecopy she wants, with DRM stripped, for free. Could you blame her for feeling the publishers’ excessive pricing and limitations on the ebook edition justify a decision to go the two-clicks route?

Observe and learn: this is how well-meaning, otherwise honest consumers are lured—some might say pushed—into piracy. Most consumers want to do the right thing. They want authors to be rewarded for their hard work. They want publishers to earn a fair profit on their products. But they also want reasonable prices, and the same flexibility and functionality they’d get with a hard copy book.

Publishers and authors who think raising the prices and restrictions on ebooks will work because readers will have no other choice are forgetting about those two mouseclicks. And the many justifications they’re giving consumers for making those two mouseclicks.

No publisher or author would have much to worry about with respect to ebook piracy if they would just give readers what they want, within reason. The criminal element that cares nothing for compensating content creators is a small group that will always find a way to steal content no matter what you do. But that group’s ranks are being joined by guilty, reluctant ‘pirates’ every day. This new type of pirate isn’t out to hurt authors, and in fact would probably be very happy to “pay” a reasonable price for pirated copies through the use of a donation button on authors’ websites. But of course, this would still be illegal and would likely put the author in hot water with his or her publisher.

Publishers: other than complaining about how wrong and unfair it is, what are you doing to make a legitimate, legal option both available, and more attractive, to consumers than a free ebook that’s just two clicks away? Because at the point where your choices with respect to ebook pricing and restrictions look more unethical to the consumer than their own choice to download a free, pirated copy does, you’ve lost the sale.

And Authors: if the only thing standing between you and giving your readers what they want is a publisher, have you considered the possibility of retaining your e-rights and releasing ebook editions of your work yourself? I’ve provided a free guide for publishing to the Kindle on my website, and there are many for-hire services that can do it for you. This is impossible for works already under contract, but is it a move that might make a whole lot of sense for your unpublished works, or works for which rights have reverted back to you?


Anonymous said...

Good grief this is along the lines of what I was thinking earlier today. I'm tired of reading about the debate. I'm tired of the whining about how unfair and wrong piracy/cheap ebooks are for author's and publishers.

As Konrath said, it sucked for people who made horse drawn carriages when cars came along. A lot of things aren't fair. Whining about it isn't going to change that NEW things exsist. People can either roll with the times and become successful or they will die off and be replaced by what the consumer wants. (Unless you are a big company and can convince the government you are too big to fail and get a few billion).

But damn it stop whining.

Unknown said...

April, thank you so much for this blog post. It's sane, well thought out, and offers choices that really need to be on the table.

The Internet offers us the way to earn a living doing what we love - but we cannot price gauge. If we do, we push readers into the pirates you so eloquently write about.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks, comingalive & Melissa. Piracy could be reduced significantly if content providers would just try to step outside their little business box for a minute or two and think like an ordinary consumer.