An Author that used to oversee DMCA compliance at a web host weighs in on ebook piracy.

Last week the writing community exploded with fury over a pirate ebook site. It’s one of many, to be sure, and how this book site became the source of such anger and consternation after years serving free pirated content to the masses is not clear. What is clear is that this caused deep emotional turmoil for many independent writers. They vented much rage on various social media sites.

Much rage. Super lots of rage.

I am not writing this post to add to the vitriol.

In a previous life I worked in the web hosting industry. My first job was as tech support for the first ISP in the state of Texas, and I remained in the Internet industry for 20+ years. My final job was for one of the largest hosting companies’ in the world, and I was in charge of overseeing the execution of abuse and DMCA issues, among other things. If I named the company names I was associated with (yep, there was more than one) you would likely have heard of them.

No, not that one… yeah, that other one.

And so I’m not coming at this entirely from the perspective of a creator. I have been on the other side, one of the corporate suits desperately trying to balance the protection of my company from a lawsuit vs. the assertion of rights holders. And to be honest, dealing with the abuse department was probably my favorite aspect of my job. The legal ins and outs of the Internet always fascinated me. I got to get on the phone and talk to FBI Agents; I got to help elected representatives understand the Internet. I got to read letters from the government that sounded like something out of a spy movie. I got to explain to customers why they couldn’t do what they were doing. I got to ban hammer bad guys. I got to tell overreaching prosecutors their subpoena was ridiculous.

Once I got a seventeen page letter from the Church of Scientology asking for the removal of one zip file. Seventeen pages! Seriously, the legal indignation in it would rival any John Grisham opening statement.

It was kind of awesome.

Okay, okay, you have expertise and blah blah blah. So?

I started out writing this post intending to address misconceptions – yes, you really have to divulge your name and address (or your agent does). No, no one technically has to take down your pirated book. Even if they do, there’s no time frame on it regarding when they have to. Yes, sites really have some protections if they allow people to upload copyright infringed files without policing and only respond to DMCA requests (which puts the responsibility on you to chase the copies down and ask). I’ve seen all the above asserted as not the case during this hubbub.

But I decided not to do that.

Instead, I’d like to point out that despite Metallica’s public efforts, their albums are still available on The Pirate Bay right now. Napster may be gone, but piracy lives.

Screenshot from, like, two minutes ago.

So, what did they accomplish, really? For all Lars Ulrich’s indignant rage, Napster shut down but Limewire, Kazaa, BitTorrent, and The Pirate Bay arose to take its place. And nineteen years later you can still pirate Metallica’s stuff if you choose to do so.

The music industry was the first hit by the piracy stick, and the industry had to adapt and change. The book industry is facing the same challenge.

What? Are you saying I have to put up with this garbage? That fighting it is meaningless?

Not completely. I am advocating being more chill about it, and not let it get to you, at least if you’re an indie.

Screw you.

So, hear me out.

Your books will be pirated.

No matter what you do, no matter how much DRM you slap on your files, even if you decide to only release in paperback—someone somewhere will decide to OCR your book, to crack the DRM, and to share it. It’s difficult to shove a genie back into the bottle once it’s let loose. We live in an age of piracy. That’s just the reality.

There are people that truly believe content should be free. That downloading a pirated book does not differ from checking a book out from a library. You may disagree with them, but this is a buyer’s market, folks. This is a situation in which the sellers (authors, publishers) do not have the upper hand. The buyers (customers, readers) do.

And some of them don’t believe piracy is theft. Some countries/laws don’t see it as theft, either—Switzerland explicitly allows downloading copyrighted works for personal use.

So, there are other ways of looking at piracy. There’s not one side here.

But Amazon! And series cancellation! I’m losing money! Who do these people think they are!

It’s just business.

Take a deep breath and realize that if you entered the ebook market at any point in your career, this became part of the cost of doing business. Stores have loss prevention officers but they still lose millions a year on theft. The music industry has Spotify and YouTube and they’re still making way less than they used to. People like Maggie Stiefvater risk having a book series canceled.

I get it.

I’m not saying piracy is good.

I’m saying you’re not going to stop it any more than you will get Amazon to pay more for page reads in KU by griping about it. 17% of all online books are pirated. Getting emotionally tied into a knot about this will not help your health, your creativity, or your sales.

Accepting that enforcing your copyright is your responsibility, that it’s a part of doing business, learning how to do it and then moving on from it once it’s done, and understanding that there are places in the world where it’s explicitly legal for people to download your books and read them without paying could help you re-frame this.

Napster didn’t kill the music industry.

But it did change it.


Samson on Hill