It is not ethical to pirate an author’s work without their permission

I wanted to expand on a tweet I posted yesterday evening.

The context is an on-going argument about changes Internet Archive made to how they allow people to borrow in-copyright books online in response to the Covid-19 crisis (see and IA’s explanation here ) In response to an article on NPR about the changed policy Chuck Wendig posted this tweet:

…and that set of a whole host of counter-reactions.

I’m not going to get into the details of Internet Archive’s move or whether what they are doing amounts to piracy or not. That’s been hashed out elsewhere and some of the arguments depend on the murky waters of Intellectual Property law about which almost any opinion has an uncanny ability of being wrong. Rather, what has been bugging me has been responses to Chuck Wendig’s post (and posts radiating out from there on the same topic) that take a generic pro-piracy stance with regard to written works. In particular what is bugging me is people claiming that their pro-piracy position is somehow progressive or of the left.

The argument goes along the lines of Intellectual Property isn’t real property or to take it a step further, property itself is a regressive concept and therefore by authors claiming ownership over texts they are setting themselves up as landlords/rent-seekers and by attempting to prevent piracy authors are setting themselves up as police. The argument being that authors objecting to piracy amounts to authors acting as the repressive aspect of capitalism.

I’m more than happy to concede that there is much merit in the idea that IP is a deeply flawed concept. I’m also happy to accept that the concept of ‘property’ itself (even in its less abstract physical variety) is problematic. The analysis of nineteenth century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon into the nature of property (‘What is Property?‘ from which the slogan ‘property is theft’ is coined ) is still pertinent today and remains a challenge to how our modern society is organised.

But it is a fallacy to leap from a left-wing tradition of scepticism about property to justifying pirating books. Property maybe a concept used to prop up the injustice of modern capitalism but that doesn’t make it OK to eat your co-worker’s sandwich. Likewise, even if we accept the broad notion of property but reject the notion of intellectual property the underlying logical fallacy remains.

The fallacy is this:

  • Say the standard argument for why it is wrong to do X is because of some principle Y.
  • Say we can show that principle Y is itself fallacious, immoral or otherwise wrong.
  • It does not therefore follow that is NOT wrong to do X.

Although the framing is in terms of ethics, the fallacy is just a basic fallacy of implication. IP or maybe even property in general may be wrong, or false or fictional but that doesn’t demonstrate that it right to pirate written works. You need to show a positive case with an alternative moral framework. Sure, authors describe their opposition in terms of copyright and IP because that is how compensation for labour is set up within our current capitalist system. That doesn’t make them landlords any more than any worker looking for their pay-check.

It’s fine (indeed right) for people on the left to reject the moral framing of capitalism as far as they can and likewise it isn’t hypocritical to recognise that this is the system we are currently stuck in and have to work with. However, you can’t justify an act by rejecting moral arguments framed in capitalist terms. If you reject those terms then you have to demonstrate that it is ethical within an alternative framework.

So put aside intellectual property for a moment. Consider the ethics of written work. There is more to it than IP.

Firstly it is work. It is undoubtedly work. We do not need any kind of legal fiction to define creating writing as work. It takes time and effort. It is of benefit to others. I know of no progressive, left-wing, socialist moral framework that denies that a person should be compensated for their work or that the worker should have a say in how and how much they should be compensated.

Yes but…I can hear a person say, there are other ways authors could be compensated and…Sure, sure but that’s not what we have now and that isn’t the system that is in place. Might we find better ways of compensating writers for their labour in some future, better society other than copyright? Absolutely, the copyright system stinks. However, currently that is how authors ARE compensated. It’s rather like saying that because the modern banking system is corrupt, exploitative and unethical that is therefore OK to steal my credit card. It isn’t and nor are you liberating me by doing so.

But, but…by undermining copyright the system is being subverted, a person might claim. Well no. There are many roads to a better future and I don’t know which is best but I can guarantee that book piracy isn’t an effective way of destroying capitalism, not even at a micro-level.

But, but…compensation is still about property! Sort of. We can frame arguments about labour in terms of property but that’s because it is a concept that is designed to do that. Capitalism isn’t wholly incoherent or nonsensical. That doesn’t mean either that property must be ‘real’ or that showing it isn’t real means the points above fail (I’ll come back to that because it is the punchline of this blog).

Secondly it is about self and identity. In my tweets above I mentioned plagiarism. Off Twitter somebody took that to mean that I was saying that piracy and plagiarism are the same thing. I should be clear, they are different things. My point about plagiarism is to show that there is a moral dimension to written works that exists independent of concepts of property.

If I were to pass off Proudhon’s essay above as my own work then that would be recognised as plagiarism even though it is not legally copyright theft. We could call it ‘stealing’ but it would be a very strange kind of theft as the work is public domain and Proudhon is long dead. I’m still doing something wrong though but it is an immorality of dishonesty rather than theft.

Creative works are an extension of a person’s thoughts beyond themselves and as such an extension of themselves as a thinking being. Too appropriate somebody’s creative efforts is a form of dishonesty. Even if you give credit to the author, you are still asserting control over an aspect of the author’s self. Yes, we can translate that idea into concepts of property (particularly libertarian notions of self-ownership) but we aren’t obliged to do so nor does the claim fail if the notion of property were to magically vanish.

What about J.K.Rowling? I’ll swing over to a different argument if I may. J.K.Rowling is fabulously wealthy (although not as wealthy as the very wealthiest people) and it is hard to see her as just an ordinary working person just looking out for weekly pay check. Likewise, there’s an easy argument to make that her books are derivative and surely that undermines my second point about extension of the self. Surely, there’s no moral case against pirating Harry Potter? Well, Rowling isn’t going to suffer if you do but that’s not the point. Ad-hoc piracy isn’t the issue, the issue is creating frameworks for mass piracy and distribution of pirated works and any framework that can do that for Harry Potter can do that for works by authors who are barely making ends meet.

The impact of systems for pirating works don’t hurt J.K.Rowling, they hurt the less wealthy (what a surprise). Famous, ‘best selling’ authors are not typically rich and many notable authors are barely making do. Mass piracy is exploitative both in the sense of exploiting other people’s labour for your own benefit and in the sense of appropriation. Authors objecting to that doesn’t make them cops or landlords, it makes them workers standing up for being paid for their labour.

I said there was a punchline. There is but it is a punchline for this blog as a whole because it is a common theme from posts on mathematics, atheism, Hugo awards or talking cats. Lots of things are fiction. The range of things I regard as fiction is broader than most people’s. However, the counterpoint to that is that fiction is also powerful and not just in the sense of being emotionally moving. Yes “intellectual property” is not ‘real’ but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful concept that is *currently* how the economic system of capitalism has hacked how to compensate creative work. It’s confusing and flawed and a legal mess and is exploited by powerful business but it is *currently* the means by which authors get paid and pirating books won’t change that.


40 responses to “It is not ethical to pirate an author’s work without their permission”

    • It’s the same with music: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people argue “Oh, musicians should just make their money from touring, they can’t expect me to pay them for their music.” The difference is that with music, this attitude is now so completely ingrained that there are legal entities like Spotify that have been allowed to utterly destroy the ability of the overwhelming majority of musicians to earn a living from their music. Spotify infamously paid David Lowery of Cracker $17 for one million downloads of “Low”.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. My own view on the matter is simple, possibly to the point of being simplistic: information may want to be free, but the people who process it (non-fiction) or create it (fiction) need to eat; needs trump wants, every time.

    If we lived in a post-scarcity economy where everyone was guaranteed a comfortable standard of living no matter what, then that argument might carry less weight – but we don’t live in that sort of economy, and pirating books won’t get us there.

    And – as you say – for every J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, there are about a gazillion authors who are at best one royalty cheque away from the poorhouse, so pirating books is hurting people economically, and no amount of “but I want to read it and am too cheap to pay” will change that.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. As a counter example, I’d like to present the case of the wonky donkey children’s book.
    A few years ago someone uploaded a video of a Scottish granny reading a children’s book called the wonky donkey and having a great time, and this video went viral, sales of the book went through the roof so much so that the publishers had to announce three more print runs in order to meet demand.
    What the Video uploader did was piracy and copyright infringement, since you’re not allowed to read works allowed without paying the necessary fees, yet this has benefited the author of the book.
    So was it wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was wrong not to ask the author whether it was OK to upload the video. I can see your point but I think we are again on well tread moral ground: person B does something for person A that benefits person A but to some degree violates their personal boundaries…it turns out person A was OK with what person B did in the end. Did person B do something wrong? Sort of yes, they really should have asked.

      Liked by 3 people

      • It is possible that a morally wrong thing has a positive outcome. Doesnt make the original deed less morally wrong.
        If I randomly shoot a gun into a crowd and accidently hit a serial killer or child rapist, who deosnt die, but yould be arrested because of my random shooting, it makes my original deed not less wrong.

        Its also worth saying that someone always benefits. “Spotify” is a good example, but the Internet archieve or Youtube or twitter (or, even electricity or cabel companies) may benefit from a viral video or pirated book. There is a big chance that they benefit more than the original author, something most people would consider “unfair”.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Intent might count for something, there – people still get very confused about whether the Internet is a public or a private space*, and it’s entirely possible (I don’t, of course, actually know!) that the original uploader didn’t think it would go any further than a circle of friends who’d appreciate it. It’s a lot less wrong than deliberately making a bootleg audiobook, I think – there are different degrees of wrongness at work here; I think, for example, that the Internet Archive’s position would be a lot worse if they were selling the pirated material, rather than giving it away… they’re still in the wrong, though.

      *(My own rule of thumb is that you should always treat the Internet as a public space, unless you take deliberate steps to make things private.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Truth. I’ve heard accounts of people who think an online ad asking for resumes from young white men somehow isn’t illegal. Or people on FB announcing their eagerness to buy pot or ecstasy.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Suppose someone beats me up. At the hospital, x-rays find no real damage, but they also uncover a tumor, which they can remove safely but which likely would have killed me had I not found it for another few months.

      I owe my life to the man who beat me, but I owe him no gratitude.

      Liked by 4 people

    • It was infringement because uploading the video — which went viral — can and does provide financial earnings/benefits for the granny and family who uploaded the video of her oral performance of the entire book. Publicly uploaded videos are an intellectual property that can produce financial profit. Reading the book to the kid was not capitalistic exploitation. Filming the reading for the family was not capitalistic exploitation. Uploading it to the public — where they could profit from it — without authorization, and performing the whole book, not a fair use snippet, was capitalistic exploitation.

      In this case, since the author was compensated indirectly by sales, the author and publisher chose not to press charges of infringement and instead authorize the video retroactively as beneficial free publicity, especially as it was an international situation. But if the author and publisher had decided to press charges, they had grounds to do so. The family chose to exploit the book and the entire book in a way that was not authorized use — a public video performance.

      And that’s the key thing. It’s not mainly the money. It’s the authorization for an exploitation. When musicians make covers of songs on the Internet, uploading the videos for potential financial profits, direct and indirect, or perform a cover of a song live on a stage to an audience, they can do so from having gotten the authorized sheet music — license fee, which goes to the creator of the song/license holder (which may or may not include the original artist.) Now, many musicians may not buy the sheet music to do a cover on a video — maybe they do it by ear. But laws and regulations and court law have all developed to accept that exploitation as fair use for performance, as authorized, as long as the musicians credit the original artist/owner of the song. License companies and creators have given general authorization to fan productions and fanfiction if those creations using their IP are non-profit — not financially exploiting the IP, at least directly, and so on.

      A lot of people fundamentally don’t like the idea that ethically they have to have a green light to use and publicly exploit material created by others, that they have to have permission. They feel they should be able to exploit anyone they want for their own benefit and purposes in any way they want and they don’t care what the consequences are to others, including the creators whose work they borrow. They don’t really care if a creator whose work they borrow has to leave the business and can’t create further because there are always lots of other creators to replace them. People, even big reading fans, fundamentally don’t care about creators, especially writers. They are just material dispensing machines.

      And when you dehumanize someone in that way, what happens? You exploit them for your own purposes without interest in their fate. You certainly don’t accept that they have a right to authorize any of your own behavior concerning what they made. (Which again is a fundamental application of capitalism, not leftism.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In the general case, depriving authors of their livelihood is wrong, I agree. While copyright as it typically functions is unjust, authors unable to earn a living is more unjust and has a greater weight because there are workarounds for the injustice of copyright, including educational fair use and general libraries open to the public.

    In the case of books that are out of print and unavailable any other way, I think accessing them illegally is fine. The author is not losing any income from that.

    In the case of a worldwide shutdown of libraries, I think the cost to authors is outweighed by general need for information that can’t be obtained the way it typically would be. The mechanism by which the injustice of copyright has been ameliorated has been shut down so the balance tilted back. Many people are deprived of income by this emergency, not just authors. Many are just as poor as authors or even poorer.


    • The problem I see with this argument is that it excuses theft of any sort. I might as well say that since I am temporarily laid off during this emergency that I have a right to steal games from the local Walmart because I’m bored, and they should put up with it because my need outweighs theirs. No, I can figure out something to do without theft.

      And there is no overarching reason to steal books not in the public domain. Plenty of books are in it, and if you’re that much of a reader, you’ve probably got things you can re-read. Your need for entertainment is *still* not more important than my need to eat.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Books aren’t primarily entertainment, they are information. Your argument is reasonable if it’s entertainment (I don’t entirely agree or disagree but I’ll come back and write more about that later) but if the only information on how to fix your septic system is in a book, and you can’t get that book legally or afford repair service because you’re out of work, it’s not worse than letting yourself and your family get sick.

        Copyright exists because of a balance of benefit and damage to various parties. When the balance shifts, the moral behavior shifts. It’s not a natural moral situation, or it wouldn’t have started off as 28 years and been gradually lengthened, not would it be assignable. It’s arbitrary in the arbitration sense.

        Like legal adulthood, nothing vital changes when a person turns (21 in US, or whatever age) and can legally buy alcohol. It’s not natural morality that makes it ok to give that person a bottle of wine for a birthday gift but illegal to give it to them the week before. Same with copying a book from 1920 vs 1925.


        • While I admit I haven’t taken a statistically valid survey, I’m skeptical that much piracy involves the situation you describe. Certainly it doesn’t relate to the Internet Archive situation.

          Liked by 1 person

        • //if the only information on how to fix your septic system is in a book, and you can’t get that book legally or afford repair service because you’re out of work, it’s not worse than letting yourself and your family get sick.//

          I agree but this is just take us along another well-worn and much discussed question of morality: is it OK to do something that is regard as bad in normal circumstances when you are in some desperate circumstance. Is it OK to steal a loaf of bread if you are literally starving? Sure (it might still be illegal). There are so many examples from self-defence to survival cannibalism. It’s not a worthless discussion but it doesn’t provide many insights into the broader nature of the act.

          //Like legal adulthood, nothing vital changes when a person turns (21 in US, or whatever age) and can legally buy alcohol. It’s not natural morality that makes it ok to give that person a bottle of wine for a birthday gift but illegal to give it to them the week before.//

          It is an arbitrator legal boundary, that is true but in your example there is an ethical principle at play: it is bad for children to drink alcohol and therefore you shouldn’t be giving them alcohol. Regulating that as a law involves establishing ages at which society can legally deem somebody is safely not a child. Law and morality are different but they can inform each other.

          Liked by 1 person

          • There’s a great line in the Barbara Stanwyck/Fred MacMurray film “Remember the Night” where Stanwyck (a thief) asks MacMurray (prosecutor) if he’d steal a loaf of bread if he was starving. MacMurray: “of course I would! Anyone would.” “That’s because you’re honest. I’m a thief, so I’d go into the restaurant next to the bakery, order a seven course meal and after I finished, tell them I’d lost my purse.”

            Liked by 3 people

    • Can’t think of a single non-fiction book I’ve read since I graduated from uni that hasn’t had a tremendous amount of work put into it, been entertaining *and* informational. I’m not sure where you get the idea that most books are purely information, when there’s a burgeoning fiction market and the vast majority of non-fiction books out there also seek to be entertaining as well as informative.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s also worth noting that re-writing an instructional book in your own words so that the form but not the content is substantially different is 1. not plagiarism and 2. not copyright piracy.


  4. Piracy is a problem. NPR and other news sources giving piracy legitimacy is a bigger problem. It’s been shown frequently that if there is a legal way to acquire something that’s as easy or easier than piracy, people will go for the legal way (think online music purchasing, where the establishment of easy markets basically made rampant pirate/sharing of music fade from mainstream).

    ELibraries are getting more and more filled with great stuff, but the common person in at least the US has no idea it exists. It’s not publicized well at all. And so when NPR and major sites publicize these pirate resources, even if they’re identified as such – and they’re not always – people may gravitate to them instead of libraries, which are actually compensating authors in their own ways. Which is not to abrogate blame from the pirates themselves, but the news sources are as big or bigger of a problem right now.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. They aren’t actually leftists. They don’t hate capitalism — the owners of the Internet Archive are techlord capitalists who will come after you for touching their code. They are people who pose as leftists but routinely support capitalist exploitation. They’re the same trolls who:

    1) In the late 1990’s scanned thousands of print books and loaded them into torrent sites in huge numbers, hoarding the files of stuff they never read just to have the ability to do so and also frequently making a profit off it, and their supposed supporters. They argued that since they could do it thanks to developments in technology, that was the Internet’s problem and they’d keep doing it.

    2) In the early-mid oughts, Google decided that they should be able to scan every book that had been published and offer them or most of their content for free as a profit-making search asset of their company, then one of the richest companies on Earth, without the permission of and compensation to authors and publishers. They and their supporters argued that this was a lofty preservation and research goal (pretend lefty argument that supports capitalistic theft.) They got sued and while that sort of worked, they basically still tried every infringement opportunity they could and have continually tried to pay authors as little as they could for taking their stuff to benefit Google.

    3) In the late oughts, when Amazon became the first major online vendor of retail e-books and exploded the e-book market, there was an equal expansion of piracy, stealing e-book files being even easier to do than scans of print books. This situation was then exacerbated by Amazon claiming to be oppressed by publishers in the selling of e-books as it tried to negotiate hardcore deals where it got more money in fees from publishers than before. Supporters claiming to be leftists argued that Amazon, then on its way to being one of the richest companies on Earth (it now is,) should be able to do whatever it wanted as this would supposedly be beneficial for capitalist consumers. They argued for Amazon maximizing profits — capitalism.

    They also argued that piracy of e-books wasn’t theft on the basis of all sorts of elaborate justifications — that e-books weren’t available enough in enough territories since publishers were then scrambling to digitize them and deal with different countries’ laws, so piracy was fine; that e-books weren’t priced the way they wanted, so piracy was fine; that e-books weren’t a physical object and essentially a rented app, so piracy was fine (that’s where you’re getting the authors as renters bit now;) that pirating e-books on torrent sites was essentially preserving them like a library or museum (sound familiar?) so pirating them was a noble non-profit service; that information (fictionalized novels aren’t information — they’re created entertainment) needs to be free which means anything they wanted from games to videos to texts, should be theirs but they should be paid at their jobs, etc.

    None of these are actual leftist, socialistic arguments. Because even socialists make deals for authorization, whereas piracy is just a form of black market capitalism. Libraries are non-profit socialist — they are government owned and funded. And libraries get official authorization to have titles and purchase the titles they then lend out to citizens who paid for the library to purchase the materials through their taxes. The libraries do not infringe on copyright and break the rules of the governments and public institutions who fund them. Even when those governments cut the funding of libraries, the libraries still work within that remit to buy and pay the fees. Even when a book is in the public domain — past the time period determined when it is not practically feasible to pay the author or immediate heirs — the libraries still pay or at least get authorization from the publisher/producer who did the work putting out an edition of the public domain work they are lending out.

    The Internet Archive’s “Emergency Library” isn’t a real library, though it’s worked with libraries. The IA is a private operation by tech overlords — capitalists — to “preserve” parts of the Internet — taking stuff they don’t own to exploit it often without authorization. And they carried that over to their library idea, extending it — just as Google did — into basic infringement. Even if an author/publisher gives a non-profit a property to use for free, such as with translating books into Braile for the blind, it’s done with a permissions authorization. They don’t just take it as free “capital.” The IA may have a non-profit intent — doesn’t directly exploit the properties, but it does get indirect exploitive benefits from using the books. So it should get permission and if required, compensate for the authorized use that it benefits from. If it was a real library, even as a private library, that’s what it would do. If it cared about authors and the books they provide, that’s what they would want to do.

    But the IA didn’t do that. It just did capitalistic piracy, declaring the properties theirs for whatever use they wanted. It’s not a real library. It’s not socialistic and part of the government. It’s exploitive. And those claiming to make leftist arguments to justify it are just making a capitalistic argument about ownership in support of major capitalistic companies and leading modern industrialists. Stealing is what the property class does best, while claiming it owns property — land, water, etc. that socialistically should belong to the government and thus to all the people in the society the government serves.

    Libraries are already working with publishers to adjust authorizations on the lending of e-books so they can be lent for longer time periods during the emergency period. And if people borrow e-books from libraries, that helps them get more funding from their governments, allowing them to be able to provide more books to a greater number of citizens — an actual public service. One that may lead to better e-book lending procedures for libraries for the future. The IA’s “emergency library” undercuts that whole opportunity; it does not support the left and greater socialism. It does not support libraries. Maybe they’ve thrown some money at the national libraries and feel that should be enough for little old authors but it’s still unauthorized exploitation.

    Even if you had a social system where authors were paid by the government as their compensation and gave ownership of their creations to the government in return for that money, IA would still have needed to get authorization to use the texts from the government. And they didn’t have that either. So the objections have nothing to do with leftism and everything to do with the governing ideas of capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t evaluate the truth of your other comments, but your statements about Amazon are so full of shit that it makes me doubt the truth of anything else you post. I was there when this was all happening, so I know for a fact that you’re wrong. But you don’t care. I guess some people just like spreading fake news, but I’ve never understood the appeal.


      • Greg, could you please tell us *what* you think is wrong? I value your perspective, but that doesn’t help when I have no idea what it is.


      • @Hampus

        Greg, could you please tell us *what* you think is wrong? I value your perspective, but that doesn’t help when I have no idea what it is.

        Sure. When I worked at Amazon, I worked a lot with the books team, and conflicts with publishers were a regular topic. What became clear to me was that the big book publishers want to milk readers for every dime they can get, and they’re extremely short-sighted about it. Whenever you see the publishers fighting Amazon on something, 100% of the time, Amazon is standing up for the customers and the publishers are trying to rip them off. The publishers are just really good at spinning a narrative that makes them look like the good guys. (It reminds me of Donald Trump, but infinitely more sophisticated about it.)

        The specific that Kat mentioned was publishers who insisted on charging the hardback price (or more!) for e-books. Amazon didn’t want e-books to cost over $9.99, partly to promote the platform, but also because the customer ought to benefit from the savings on printing and shipping the physical books. The publishers couldn’t see past the idea that this was free money.

        So whenever I hear anyone repeating this crap about Amazon being the bad guy and the publishers being the good guys, I blow my stack. I sat in meeting after meeting discussing what to do about one or another customer-cheating requirement the publishers were demanding of us. I know the real truth here.


  6. I too disagree with the comments made about Amazon, though perhaps not as vehemently as Greg.
    I know it’s become quite fashionable to criticise Amazon on the left, and certainly they deserve a great deal for the treatment of workers but the fact is that dozens of small businesses would not even exist if it wasn’t for Amazon and self publishing is one of the greatest things Amazon ever did.
    A lot of publishers excluded diverse voices and authors, and although they’re trying to make a token effort to include them now by adding a couple of Hispanic characters here and there but still of course being written by white people, Amazon allowed anyone to write and publish and this meant that hundreds of thousands of diverse authors could have their views heard and their books read without needing to go through a gatekeeper.
    All this without having to go through the exploitative contracts that traditionally published authors have to, and allow diverse authors to retain a great deal of control over their works and being a person of colour myself, I understand that control is one of the things we lack in our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t speak for the left (nobody does) and I don’t dislike Amazon (well I don’t like a lot of its worker policies, but I use them sometimes.) They do bad things some times and they do good things some times. They’ve had major negative and positive impacts on the industry. They are a business, not a non-profit. There were people who claimed to be on the left who were supporting Amazon at the time, not criticizing them, and they were also supporting piracy — which hurt Amazon as well as authors. Both of those were capitalistic arguments, not socialistic ones, was my point.

      When Amazon was negotiating with publishers over e-book prices, it wasn’t just a negotiation about prices. It was also a negotiation about how much of the revenue Amazon would keep on sales. They wanted a bigger portion as marketing fees/co-op advertising. Amazon had made those demands before — it was a business negotiation, one that had squeezed badly a lot of smaller presses, but the bigger ones that did bulk sales could take it. Both the publishers and Amazon put out false information at the time about the negotiations. Amazon yanked Macmillan’s authors’ sales buttons as part of a negotiation tactic. That was not a fun time for a lot of authors and it’s a tactic that Amazon has used more than once. Many authors were attacked online about the prices of e-books, even though the authors had no control over the prices being negotiated between their publishers and Amazon or other vendors. And that was one of the main justifications people made for pirating books — something that again doesn’t help authors, publishers or vendors like Amazon.

      The average price for e-books at the time, both on Amazon and elsewhere, were low, about the cost of a mass market paperback, but those advocating piracy often said they didn’t feel that they should pay anything. One of the big arguments for e-book piracy at that time was that since you didn’t really own e-books — that they were temporary files (rented,) and so they weren’t property that you should have to pay for, unlike printed books or objects in your house. Another argument was that printed books, such as hardcovers, should not have higher prices than other formats of the same book, such as the e-book, and since publishers were pricing the same book in different formats at different prices, pirating books was justified. They often made the capitalistic argument that consumers should look for the best price available and the best price available was free.

      So again, pro-piracy arguments are usually capitalistic, not leftist, in support of large corporations and of piracy operations that hurt both creators and large corporations. Which is weird, but those were the arguments made at the time.

      All of which has nothing to do with Amazon and self-publishing, which is a separate market from license publishing. Amazon has done some real good for self-publishing. I have nits to pick with them about some things they do to self-published authors (fluid contracts, royalties that aren’t actually royalties, etc.) and there is the issue that self-published authors still are stuck with very narrow distribution market, but overall they’ve provided a large market platform that has been very workable. Unfortunately, while self-publishers are not in a pre-order bind like license publishing authors that piracy has a real impact on, self-publishing authors are also hurt by piracy (which again also hurts Amazon.) Those arguing for pro-piracy tend to be even more pro-piracy when it comes to self-publishing authors. Which again isn’t very leftist.


  7. Kat: “that e-books weren’t priced the way they wanted, so piracy was fine”
    Yes, I’ve been told that it’s okay to steal because publishers just mark up their ebooks so high over cost. I would bet very few people have actually crunched numbers to confirm this or engaged in any deep thought about what a “fair” markup would be. Or why this justifies piracy — as John Scalzi says, restaurants soft drinks are marked up way over cost, does that mean it’s okay to get drinks for free?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Publishers use with print books a pricing system built on format, distribution method and scheduling availability, so they can maximize their narrow margins throughout the usual shelf life of titles. A book that is a mass market paperback original has a lower price because of that format, because it’s sold through bulk wholesale distribution — discounted sales price, less sturdy product, shorter shelf life, but more sales at once. But if the publisher decides to issue the book first in hardcover or trade paperback (which became more common after the collapse of the wholesale market in the 1990’s,) then the same book has a higher price for the format, because it isn’t bulk wholesale distribution, it has higher production, marketing and distribution costs, and because it’s the first available format, with less expensive and less durable formats for bulk sales coming later. Cheaper paperback formats of the book come out later on a deliberate schedule, because the book is older and thus may have steady but less market interest than new releases (just like almost any other product.) Older hardcovers also get discounted.

      E-books are mass market bulk wholesale formats. For a book in which publishers are doing a first release hardcover format, they are having you pay for the format but also the early availability as a new product. Putting e-books out at the same time at the mass market distribution and price would undercut sales the same as putting out a hardcover and a mass market paperback of the book at the same time. But people really wanted an e-book right off the bat when Amazon expanded the retail e-book market. So the publishers treated e-books as a multi-format based on schedule availability — the initial e-book on release is treated as an electronic hardcover with a high price for that early availability. Later on, when the book is older in the market, the e-book price is dropped down to mass market paperback prices or lower, sometimes being sold for free for brief periods.

      A book that is put out in mass market paperback only — as many mid-list and new books are — has an e-book that is about the same as the mass market paperback in price and then goes lower over time, but sometimes the publishers will do the e-book on a lower price right off the bat, as the e-book sales have replaced a chunk of mass market paperback sales lost from the 1990’s wholesale crunch. Big publishers were actually able to have a lot of low priced e-books as discount sales because they also put out mass market paperbacks, but smaller presses that relied on hardcover and trade paperback sales and didn’t do mass market paperbacks often could not lower their e-book prices as much.

      In the oughts, they did crunch the numbers and the average price of an e-book came out to be about $6.99, which was slightly under the cost of a mass market paperback then. Self-published books were lower in price, usually running in a range initially of $2.99-$5.99, affected by Amazon’s payment terms with self-published authors. A lot of people argued that e-books from publishers should be the same cost as e-books from self-publishing authors and that they were not then justified piracy. That publishers could not necessarily put out e-books for sale right off the bat in countries where there were different regulations was also considered justification for pirating, etc.

      Which is all a lot more complicated than this IA thing. I think right now a lot of folk don’t see authors as actually suffering from the crisis going on, unlike other workers, and so are expressing resentment that authors might object to the opportunity to get their books for free, that authors saying they need money to live and/or continue writing isn’t real. But authors don’t object to people getting their books for free when it’s authorized — from public library loans, from official giveaways done on Amazon or elsewhere, from your buddy passing you a used copy of a book that has been paid for because that’s essentially word of mouth that may hook you on the author even. All of these things directly and indirectly help them. They object to unauthorized exploitation that cumulatively can hurt them a lot financially.

      A lot of folk who are pro-piracy argue that those who pirate then may go buy the author’s work later — that they use piracy like a library. But what we know from the numbers is that they don’t do that. A lot of people who pirate works for free never read them — they just collect free files. Whereas people who borrow from libraries usually do read them and do buy the author’s work later and even if they don’t, they are directly contributing to the authors’ income by borrowing the book from the library. People who borrowed books from IA might treat it like a library, but it was not authorized like a library is and it didn’t pay for the books like a library does.

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      • “A lot of folk who are pro-piracy argue that those who pirate then may go buy the author’s work later — that they use piracy like a library. But what we know from the numbers is that they don’t do that. A lot of people who pirate works for free never read them — they just collect free files.”
        There was an author a couple of years back who printed a gushing letter from a fan who said she loved the writer’s works. Loved them so much she felt really bad about pirating them — so why not officially release the works for free so the fan wouldn’t have to use pirate sites?
        “Self-published books were lower in price, usually running in a range initially of $2.99-$5.99, affected by Amazon’s payment terms with self-published authors. ”
        As someone who’s self-published, this is where the “you charge too much!” argument really shows its hollow core (not that anyone’s told me that). The royalties on the books compensate me for a lot of hours put in writing them, proofing them and going through the publishing process. The fact I don’t have to pay for paper and physical distribution doesn’t mean I should be selling ebooks for next to nothing.

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      • You don’t get royalties if you’re self-publishing. You get gross and semi-net sales profits, just like a publisher. If you sell a self-published book on your own, such as off your own site, the money is then gross sales from which you deduct your expenses as a publisher, including production, marketing and distribution costs to arrive at your net profit. If you self-publish and sell through an electronic vendor’s platform, such as Amazon, you then receive semi-net sales profits from those sales as a publisher — the gross profits minus the expenses Amazon deducts for itself for your use of the platform and its services — Amazon’s production service costs, distribution service costs, marketing service costs and accounting service costs. You then take your semi-net profits and deduct your business expenses as a publisher — production, marketing and publicity, distribution, writing supplies, etc., and that gives you your net profit income as a sole proprietorship (or an incorporated entity if you as an author have incorporated your business.)

        A royalty is payment from a producer for the exclusive or non-exclusive license right to produce and sell your content in conjunction with you, such as you licensing the production rights to a publisher, an audio publishers, a film production company, etc. As a self-publisher you don’t grant Amazon or any other electronic or print vendor a license to produce and sell your work and profit from it, paying you a portion for the license. Amazon has no copyright interest in your work, even in the Kindle format. What it does in production, sales and marketing are services for which it takes a cut of your sales as fees — business expenses. What you pay Amazon for self-publishing is no different than the fee you pay a free-lance editor to edit your book or an artist to design a cover for your book. It’s a business expense, not a licensing arrangement.

        And this is one of the big nits I have to pick with Amazon, Smashwords and other electronic book vendors — they lie by calling the net profits they pass to the author “royalties.” So they can say, you’re earning more “royalties” with us than you would by granting a license to a publisher. But it’s two different types of income with very different factors. Amazon does not invest any money in producing, marketing and distributing your book like a license publisher does. There is no cost to them — you pay for all their services. And they are just passing you YOUR sales money after they take out their fees, not giving you a cut of THEIR sales money for the license to produce, like publishers do. It’s a deliberate deception and it causes self-publishing authors to make bad business decisions.

        A lot of pro-piracy folk don’t care that you have to, as a self-publisher, pay for all of Amazon’s and other electronic vendors’ services at whatever rates those vendors demand, in order to sell on their platform, plus all the other expenses you have to write, produce formatted text, market and publicize, etc. There was a lot of early insistence that self-published e-books be 99 cents, the same as one song on iTunes, and if self-pub authors took a loss on that, too bad. This is again applying the philosophy that self-published authors and small presses are the same as large publishers — able to sell large numbers of books in bulk at discounted prices because they get discounted rates for services to do bulk sales. But self-publishing authors and small presses have large expenses that they can’t get discounts on; they can’t do margins that small. And even large publishers can’t do it easily on e-books because it’s a different format, different distribution process, different cost factors.

        And while Amazon was initially very generous and gave self-publishing authors a lot of services for discounted rates, they have over time raised those rates up and put pressure on self-published authors to raise their book prices if they want to get lower fees (do sales less in bulk.) There is and has been an argument to be made that electronic book vendors mark up their fees more than they need to, and that this means self-published authors are making less than they could because they get to keep less of their profits. But it’s hard to analyze either way and Amazon doesn’t give out information. So the electronic book vendors have offered self-publishing authors terrific, easy sales platforms that have much wider distribution than the authors/publishers could get on their own, but it isn’t free — self-publishing authors are paying for everything the electronic vendors like Amazon do for them.

        But most people who are pro-piracy or want e-books to all be very low prices all the time don’t really care if you crunch those numbers for them.


  8. I had a time I pirated books, movies and comics. At that time, my income was so ridiculously low that I just didn’t care about morals. Since I got a salary I could live on, I have stopped all pirating and bought a lot of the stuff that I previously pirated.

    I am very much against pirating for everyone who can afford to pay. Remembering my situation at the time, I still have sympathy for those who pirate because they can’t afford anything else. Even if I know it is morally wrong.

    And while I think there might have been a time where online buzz due to piracy could cause an uptick in sales, I’m sceptic towards that still being true with the much larger abundance of all kind of works.

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  9. Sum up article on the situation here:

    It’s even scummier than I thought. They’ve been doing it the old fashioned way — digital scans, and pretending to be a library for some time. The argument that knowledge should be universal through digital access 1) ignores that for the poor, access is not possible without being able to afford equipment and decent access, so they’re basically just giving free stuff to people who could afford to pay for it and creating another class system; and 2) is used as an excuse to steal and cheat creators and it is always by tech people who make a fortune for their inventions, codes and services, no matter how simple, and will pursue you to the letter of the law for your last dime if you tried to get their stuff for free and argued it should be universally accessible for free instead of proprietary. It’s the usual tech attack on creatives — their work is desirable but not worth paying for, so they should be exploited and be grateful for it.

    The arguments that IA have been using are the same as the people who set up early torrent sites and hoarded hundreds of thousands of stolen titles as their “collections.” One literary agent has found 53 of her author clients’ titles on their site. It is not, by any measurement “fair use.”


  10. “is used as an excuse to steal and cheat creators and it is always by tech people who make a fortune for their inventions, codes and services, no matter how simple, and will pursue you to the letter of the law for your last dime if you tried to get their stuff for free and argued it should be universally accessible for free instead of proprietary.”

    I’ve thought of this in response to the “lots of people write and post stuff for free so copyright isn’t needed!” argument. Lots of people code and write software for fun and accept no pay so by the same logic …

    Good point about the digital divide’s role in this.

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    • There are many needs for knowledge to be universal to all because the blocks put up to the poor to access that information are deliberate political and cultural control and it is going to get worse on the Internet. But making knowledge freely available to all is not the same as stealing creative products from their creatives and rights holders for your own use. And most of the people making the knowledge should be for all arguments (justifications) make their money from tech and business and they don’t mean or want to make knowledge universal for all (such as government or anyone else subsidizing artists or free Internet access to all as a public right/service.) They mean they want knowledge for themselves for free and to use that to make money and gain influence and control of systems.

      The guy who started the IA created Alexa for Amazon. It’s just a theft ring, as far as I can see.


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