With apologies to Dante: There are different circles of piracy hell

One of the tumblr blogs I follow is written by someone who loves music and has terrific links to and streams of different bands. Until very recently, he also made these awesome mixtapes. My favorites are reproductions of individual episodes of MTV’s 120 Minutes. Talk about a blast from the past.

This blogger took the mixtape posts down because someone took umbrage at his mixtapes (which were accompanied by download files) and reported him to the download site he was using. This is, of course, completely within the rights of the whistleblower, because many (if not all) of the links and files were clearly copyright violations. In the end the blogger closed that blog, switched to another one, and changed the format of his posts (mostly streaming, although it is still possible to download mixes if you’re paying attention). I feel a twinge of regret about this, because the blogger is so clearly a serious lover of music and some of the links were for performances which are only available as illegal downloads. To me these mixtapes were a bit like the bootleg cassettes that used to be sold in lower Manhattan on sidewalk card tables, back when I lived in New York.

The closure of this particular blog came hard on the heels of another experience I had with piracy and copyright infringement. In order to answer a reader question at Dear Author, I googled a new Mills & Boon series to find out when the books would be available in North America. I was pretty sure that the name of the series was different in the two releases, so I wanted to make certain I had the right names. On the first page of Google search results there were multiple links to pirate files of the entire M&B series. They were clearly files of the UK version because they used that name, and none of the novels have been released in the US or Canada yet. I was infuriated at what I found.

But what’s the difference between the two? The tumblr blog was an act of love, in the sense that finding the music and putting the different tracks together in a mixtape setup took an enormous amount of time and energy for which the creator was not financially compensated. But the pirates of the M&B novels weren’t making any money off the uploads either. And both were unambiguous instances of copyright violation, without any extenuating arguments for the fair use exception.

Authors, if you’re still with me at this point, you might want to close the tab and read something else. Because most authors I come in contact with hate piracy in all its forms. I can totally understand that; to discover that something you’ve slaved over and that contributes to your ability to support yourself is being offered illegally and freely is like a kick in the stomach. But from my perspective, as both as reader and an author, there are differences among types of piracy and types of pirated media.

[I'm not going to resort to one of the common justifications of illegal downloading: the reader takes a chance on a new-to-her author without paying, but if she likes the book she goes on to pay for other work by the author. This is because while the argument may have had some validity in the past, current practices make it absurdly easy to try out an author before buying. Many authors have excerpts on their websites. Amazon lets you sample Kindle books (about 10 percent of the pages). Smashwords gives you even longer excerpts, up to 40 percent in some cases.]

Without further ado, I present my completely idiosyncratic and not entirely defensible list of genre fiction piracy, in increasing order of horribleness:

(6) Piracy of out-of-print novels which have been translated from English into other languages (e.g., Harlequin’s Spanish-language lines). These are not available in e-form and readers in these countries frequently can’t get used copies without spending a disproportionate amount of money for shipping (none of which goes to the author).

(5) Piracy of out-of-print novels in English. These are scanned, OCR versions of print books which are not available in e-form and which may or may not be available as used copies, and if they are available they are sometimes offered at higher-than-new prices (again by resellers, with no royalties for authors). The e-versions may or may not be properly edited and formatted. To turn them into e-form is an act of love, and reading them is often an act of courage.

(4) Piracy of DRM’d Agency 7 books, originally in e-form with the DRM stripped. These books are priced the same as, or sometimes higher than, their print versions. The print versions may only be available to non-US/UK readers by paying both the inflated price and inflated shipping charges. Readers in countries where credit/debit cards are difficult to obtain are SOL, even though they can read reviews of publisher-distributed ARCs as well as publicity releases online. Many overseas readers would be happy to pay for the books, they just don’t have any way of doing so.

(3) Piracy of non-Agency 7 books with DRM. These are often more easily available in a range of countries and may be discounted. But they still require readers in many countries to have credit/debit cards or Paypal accounts to obtain them. For readers in countries where purchasing them is straightforward, they can buy them in one of the DRM’d formats and then hope like hell that the format remains relevant. For readers in these favored countries who have the ability to buy the books and the know-how to strip DRM and therefore save the files in various formats, piracy is harder to justify as anything but stealing. Just my opinion, of course, but it’s my circles-of-hell scale.

(2) Piracy of non-Agency, non-DRM books. Same as (3), but no DRM restrictions. These books are usually not that expensive, especially the longer novels, although the prices for short stories and novellas can be eyebrow-raising. If you are given the opportunity (and that’s always a question given our crazy-quilt publishing rights regime), why not just buy them? You pay for the broadband access which gets you on line to learn about them in the first place, don’t you? So you’re willing to give your money to a soulless, frequently inefficient media conglomerate, but not to publishers and authors who do their best to make it easy for you to buy their books?

(1) Piracy of small press or self-published, non-DRM books. Oh come on. Yes, on occasion they can be somewhat expensive. But they’re frequently available worldwide. And the money goes to small publishers and authors. You read and enjoy their books. For heaven’s sake, recompense them for that pleasure.

ETA: Chris and FiaQ have provided fascinating information in the comments on authors who upload their books to P2P sites. I had no idea! (Yes I am naive/clueless on this, let’s take that as a given.) Here’s a link to the Teleread article Chris mentions.

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11 thoughts on “With apologies to Dante: There are different circles of piracy hell

  1. Your posts always get me thinking! :) I might have another circle for you – today TeleRead linked to a post that claimed some authors pirate their own books as a promotional tool of sorts. Wha…?

    • Oh no. And yet, what does it say that this is totally believable?

      And it raises the obvious question: is illegal downloading worse than an author’s violation of a publisher contract? Because the author owns the copyright, so it’s not that kind of violation, but it clearly violates the publishing contract.

    • It depends on which type, I think. Let’s focus on the biggest groups what I think they are:

      a) Some authors use torrent as a point of distribution.
      b) some authors distribute their books illegally.

      Reasons:
      the a) group: torrenting is the cheapest and fastest way of distributing and promoting their works. Most authors under this category are usually self-published or fanfic writers so there’s nothing wrong with this method. Torrent is a legitimate form of electronic distribution after all. It’s the contents that can be determined as pirated, illegally distributed or legitimate.

      the b) group: some do it for various reasons – promotion opportunities, a dispute against their publisher’s lack of effort in pushing their titles through bigger distribution, a dispute against their publisher’s retail cover prices for their books, or whatnot.

      The majority of this b) group tends to be authors of e-book only publishers. They do it to pimp their names enough to i) create a base of fans, ii) some of these readers will write reviews of their books or/and iii) start up a word-of-mouth trend.

      On informal basis, we find that it’s usually male fantasy authors of smaller presses and romance authors (especially m/m romance and erotic romance) who practice this. Even so, they are the minority.

      I think the funniest eye-raising moment is when we discovered one certain e-book romance author who screeched against piracy on many blogs turned out to be the one who pirated her publisher’s books including her own at a popular torrent site. :D I desperately wanted to ‘out’ her when she did another round of anti-piracy rants, but I couldn’t because our research during that short period was restricted to pretty much ‘look, but don’t touch’.

  2. I love the whole idea of being damned by degree and agree with your circles of damnedness criteria. I think we could also factor in CS Lewis’s ‘Screwtape’ demonology here – not that Ihave read it in more than 30 years.

  3. Wow, I am so clueless. Thanks for this enlightening explanation!

    I agree that torrent/download sites are not per se the problem, they’re a legit form of distribution. They host distros and other useful files, as well as open source and public domain media.

    I had no idea published authors illegally uploaded their own books. That has to be in the top circle (unless they’re self-published, in which case it’s their legal and probably moral right). Although I can here the excuses: the publisher isn’t treating me right, my public really wants the books, etc. etc. Eerily similar to reader complaints probably.

    • I occasionally had an impression that some authors didn’t even realise what they were doing was illegal. Such as believing it’s okay as long as it’s their own books while equalling ‘piracy’ with ‘distributing books without my permission’.

      I’m pretty sure my instinct is spot on with some seeing that quite a few authors have a skewed perspective of intellectual property law and like so. :D

      • Such as believing it’s okay as long as it’s their own books while equalling ‘piracy’ with ‘distributing books without my permission’.

        Yes! And of course not thinking about the contracts they signed as binding documents (facepalm).

  4. I get Google alerts on my books, and I receive a huge proportion of alerts to pirated copies of my audiobooks. Not sure if that has to do with cost (they’re expensive, unless you buy a lot and get discounts at Audible) or availability (country restrictions, credit card issues, etc. as you described).

    Anyway, it’s another data point.

    • I hadn’t even thought of audiobooks but of course you’re right! There are loads of them at the torrent sites. It’s probably the same set of motivations, although cost may play a larger role here.

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