Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

New age piracy: ask the right questions

Recently, one of the authors I work with was in touch with me because someone was torrenting his book. To paraphrase the email: “They’ve got my book on a site called something like ‘The Pirate Bay.’ Can you get someone to shut that site down?”

Er… no. We won’t go into all the reasons that The Pirate Bay is still around, but suffice it to say it isn’t for lack of trying on the part of authors, publishers, and other copyright holders.

But is piracy really a bad thing? We’ve discussed DRM at length on Appazoogle, but the issue of piracy itself brings up a little bit of a different issue. Some people say piracy is stealing. That’s fair. But some people think of piracy more like… publicity.

In fact, many of my pirating peers (who will remain nameless) have logical reasons for justifying their piracy. “I torrent books to see if I like them,” one says. “If I really like it, then I’ll probably go out and buy a physical copy.”

To me, that makes sense. Of course, I’m the person who can’t walk into a bookstore without feeling an anxiety attack coming on—there are just so many books. With the number of published books increasing and self-publishing on the rise, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of titles and covers screaming for our attention. Sometimes, perhaps, a test drive is just what you need to cut through the clutter.

Another acquaintance torrents out-of-print books that he simply can’t buy anywhere. “If I could buy them, I probably would,” he said. But unfortunately, the Animorphs series is in short supply in 2012. So instead he downloads PDFs of his childhood favorites.

Both of these examples tie into the question posed by a recent TechDirt article: Don’t Focus On Why People Pirate; Focus on Why they Don’t Buy. The TechDirt article, in turn, heavily references a EuroGamer article by Robert Florence which, though specifically about video games, not publishing, brings up some valid, passionate points about DRM and piracy.

Florence puts together a quick and dirty model of customer behavior when it comes to “taking free stuff.” To summarize in visual form:


Robert Florence’s model of consumer behavior re: piracy. Graphic by Leah Thompson.

Obviously, we want to stop the outcome of “take it for free” and convert that to “buy it.” Unfortunately, as Florence and TechDirt point out, we might be going about it the wrong way.

Florence points out that the critical step here is not “do I have to pay for it?” but “do I want to pay for it?” (helpfully outlined in purple for those following along on the flowchart). Publishers looking to solve piracy through heavier DRM and other locks on content are trying to force a “yes” to condition two, instead of seeking an organic “yes” for condition three. (Granted: in some cases, i.e. Animorphs man, there’s an extra step: “can I pay for it?”)

At that, I, as part of the publishing industry, start to go into what I like to call Enhanced Ebook Crisis. This is the part of the exercise where everyone starts to panic about how to create an added-value electronic product, and immediately starts to go nuts over special features they can add to their books.

But Robert Florence gives us a different point of view. In his words:

Progress has led us to a place where the only meaningful currency left is goodwill… Creators who want to survive better start earning it.

And first of all, only semi-irrelevantly, that takes me back to accounting class, where we discussed at length how you could measure the value of “goodwill” as an asset.

But it also takes me back a few days to a Bookbuilders of Boston event I recently attended. It was a panel on using social media for publicity, and the words of one of the panelists, the social media coordinator for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She said the tweets that she sent on Twitter that got the most retweets and comments were not posts about book giveaways or upcoming novels; instead, they were tweets that showed humanity.

“I tweeted a picture of cupcakes that someone brought in to work, and I got so many comments on it,” she said. “People want to see behind the curtain.”

It’s not about halting the pirates in their tracks. It’s not even about adding all the gizmos and gadgets that you can think of. Perhaps the real question to ask about so-called pirates is “how can we talk to them?”

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

One comment on “New age piracy: ask the right questions

  1. Howdy outstanding blog! Does running a blog like this take a lot of work?
    I’ve no expertise in computer programming but I was hoping to start my own blog soon. Anyhow, if you have any recommendations or techniques for new blog owners please share. I know this is off subject however I simply wanted to ask. Thanks!

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This entry was posted on October 11, 2012 by in Culture, News and tagged , , , .

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