Opinions on Piracy (and Some Data)

I've decided this week is going to be piracy week here at Author's Echo. Not the cool kind of piracy where you swing from the rigging and swash and buckle and stick it to the mean, oppressive, royal navy. But the lame kind, in which copyrights are infringed and authors get all upset over lost sales.

Apparently, I have a lot to say on the topic, but I hope to contain it to three posts (so I don't have to bore you with it again for a while). First, some of my opinions on the subject, so you know where I'm coming from, and maybe where I'm going.

Tomorrow's a little more fun.
  • Pirates are not bad people. That has to be said up front. I have lots of friends who pirate stuff (I live in Thailand, remember?), and I still like them. I still like you. And heck, even I sometimes take advantage of "gray areas." Just, uh, don't expect a high five from me because you "stuck it to the man."
  • Most arguments for piracy are empty justifications. Just like telling myself I can eat a chocolate cake because I ran a mile today, justifications don't make a bad thing okay. (Note: I don't actually tell myself this. I just eat the friggin' cake and don't run at all.)
  • Piracy is illegal. There are gray areas, and some things are legal in some countries, but for the most part, if you download something people usually pay for? Yes, that's illegal.
  • Piracy is not worth getting angry about. For one thing, there's no strong evidence that pirated downloads = lost sales. Certainly some are, but I think for the most part, if we magically figured out how to prevent piracy forever, it would result in approximately the same number of sales. Getting angry about piracy, on the other hand, is likely to lose paying customers more than it stops the illegal ones.
  • Pirates are not doing authors any favors. It's often argued that piracy leads to new readers. The data (what little there is) doesn't support this argument either. Certainly some pirates turn into paying fans, but most don't, and not enough to justify the practice.

For those last two, Tobias Buckell does a great job discussing the data here. He also sums up his opinion (and mine) thusly:
"I believe piracy [has] a neutral effect from all the studying I've done, but also that standing up to declare you didn't pay for it for whatever mental judo justification you have means you're being kind of a dick." -- Tobias Buckell
To that end:

To reiterate: pirates are not bad people and I still like you. I don't want to beat up on pirates this week, though neither do I want to imply that piracy doesn't hurt anybody. Mostly I want to be clear that the justifications for piracy are just that: justifications -- something humans are very good at composing.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments, especially if you've got good (non-anecdotal) data to contradict anything in the links here. Of course, you can agree with me too. We love that sort of thing around here.


Dan Holloway said...

What an incredibly balanced set of points. Very much looking forward to parts 2 and 3. Your underlying message seems to be that if you get loud about piracy one way or the other people will think you're a bit of a dick and you'll do yourself more harm than good, which is a position that makes a lot of sense

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Dan! Apparently I was too balanced, since you and I are the only comments ;-)

Tobias' article (among others) has really encouraged me to back off of piracy. That said, the next couple of posts attack the justifications some. I'm probably more against piracy than I'm against getting angry about it.

Corinne said...

It's often argued that piracy leads to new readers. The data (what little there is) doesn't support this argument either. Certainly some pirates turn into paying fans, but most don't, and not enough to justify the practice.

I've seen more data to support that argument than the opposite -- actually, I've seen zero data pointing at a negative effect, and I've done a good amount of reading over the years. It's a lot of people's gut feeling to think that way, but if there's any actual data you found to support that point, I'd love to see it. In my personal experiences I've seen the positive-or-neutral effect -- people who never bought a DVD ended up with shelves upon shelves of them once they started pirating -- and Neil Gaiman's experience seems to back that up.


“Then I started to notice that two things that seemed much more significant. One of which was that places where I was being pirated — particularly Russia (where people were translating my stuff into Russian and spreading it out into the world) I was selling more and more books. People were discovering me through being pirated. And then they were going out and buying the real books, and when a new book would come out in Russia it would sell more and more copies.”

There are of course tons of people who pirate and never consider buying the original, but most of the ones I've seen/met wouldn't have bought the originals anyway, so that would point to the neutral effect at minimum, and you could still read it as potentially having a positive effect, given that word of mouth would probably lead to other people buying it legally.

There was this major LJ community called scans_daily which posted scans of comic pages -- often just panels or pages, but sometimes entire comics. They ended up getting axed due to copyright infringement, but loads of people rose up to say how many cmics they bought due to the community that they never would have otherwise. A lot of people who scan in comics to distribute them online add a page to the end at the comic that says something along the lines of, "Like it? BUY IT!" Similarly, uploaders of films and books to torrent sites will say the same. (Not NEARLY all, of course -- I'm just saying that a lot of pirates do support buying work and upload it solely to help other people discover awesome work.)

I despise the "sticking it to the man" defense, but I think there are reasonable justifications for piracy. "No money" would definitely fall into that category.

I'm thrilled to see more authors react so reasonably though. Thanks for that! Although I don't mind piracy, I'm fine with people disagreeing -- I think there are arguments to be made against piracy, I just think the benefits outweigh the cost and getting upset has zero effect whatsoever -- but I find myself getting really weary of a lot of people's outrage, false comparisons ("you wouldn't steal from the store"), and flawed reasoning ("500 people pirated my book that week, so that's $x lost!"). So thank you for that! :)

Adam Heine said...

Thanks for your thoughtful and informative response, Corinne. I love it when you keep me on my toes like this :-)

The data I have is primarily from Buckell's article, linked above. It's not the most interesting reading (real data rarely is), but you can see it here and here. The results are mixed but do sometimes show what you say: a moderate correlation between free/pirated availability and a short-term increase in sales. Not all titles tested showed an increase (which means they decreased), and correlation does not mean causation, but overall there was a small positive effect.

It's enough to keep from crusading against piracy, but not enough for me to accept "new readers" as a justification, especially since there are lots of legal ways for (most) people to try out (most) books.

Mostly it's the justifications I dislike. I think there's false comparisons and flawed reasoning on both sides. "No money" might be the most reasonable justification, but how does one define no money? If you can barely feed your family and want some free entertainment, maybe that's okay. But a lot of pirates are buying some books and not others (so I've read), which means they DO have money, and maybe a sense that they deserve access to whatever entertainment they want, whether they can afford it all or not.

But it's all ethics at this point, a gray area. Because piracy is NOT theft and the pirates WEREN'T going to pay for it (probably). So when does it matter that people are following the law or not?

Wednesday's and Friday's post (mostly Friday's) go into this a little bit, but I don't really have an answer. I guess discussion is the name of the game this week :-)

Anonymous said...

Well well well, the subject of piracy, we meet again :P!

I think that piracy is sort of a subtle subject in today's society (at least in the US IMO). What I mean by that is these days you hear about the MPAA going sue-happy (although this seems to be changing now).

Before that, it was their sister the RIAA with the likes of Limewire, e-Mule, Napster, etc. While I don't agree with piracy being "okay", it ends up serving as a vehicle for change in the way certain products are distributed.

Adam alluded to this a bit, but this refers to iTunes and more recently Netflix (who if they play their cards right, will become the defacto go-to place for movies likewise).

As far as piracy goes in general, I think it's largely blown into a bigger problem than it really is by companies who aren't that effected by it. In saying that, I'm not alluding to "sticking it to the man". Usually it's a result of the company looking for a scapegoat to hide the real problem of their misfortunes (poor quality software and/or business model).

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, the RIAA is the best example of what NOT to do about piracy. They saw lost sales, assumed (incorrectly) pirates were the cause, and attacked their best customers.

The game industry often does the same thing with ridiculous DRM that hurts the customer more than any pirates (it's stupidly easy to find a No CD crack for any game without hours of its release).

Both industries show us what not to do. YET both industries are still quite alive and well. I don't think piracy's a non-issue, but this sort of evidence almost convinces me of such.

Allie Hammer said...

First time to your blog, which I found through a follower of my own, just in case you were wondering.

Nicely balanced piece of writing. All too often, ALL we hear is that piracy is bad. (Full stop!)I like when I read someone else's point of view and it alters my own perception.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think piracy's a non-issue, but this sort of evidence almost convinces me of such."

- Adam Heine

Speaking of altering perceptions, I think I just altered Adams :o!

Adam Heine said...

Hey, Allie, thanks! And welcome to the blog :-)