How we will (eventually) beat online piracy

Once again, I need to start this post by apologising for the wait. The good news is that the main cause of my recent slow down is now behind me. I have finished “The Lost Libraries Archive” and – while there are still some revisions to come – I’m aiming to have it up on Amazon and Wattpad relatively soon. (Unfortunately, I may soon be going back to square 1 on my posting speed as I am beginning a new project, the first novel of a new series, side by side with the editing. More on this in future posts).

As I’m planning to bring “The Lost Libraries Archive” out online, I thought I write something today about a common concern among new authors have in the internet age: digital piracy.

It was a concern of my own when I first started looking at the possibilities of indie online publishing. However, I was lucky that my family arranged for me to attend a seminar by the excellent indie author Joanna Penn and this was one of the subjects she discussed. Her main piece of advice was that you do not need to worry about it too much. The reason is that people will only go to the trouble of hacking a copy-protected or digital-rights-managed file in only one set of circumstances: if it is already selling well. You only need to worry about people trying to steal your work once you are making money from it.

It is obviously immensely irritating and frustrating to have your intellectual property stolen, particularly when you might need the money you are making from it. However, even when people are doing this, the indie publishing world is awash with examples of people who have made money from their writing despite illegal downloading. It is possible to download Fifty Shades of Grey illegally from numerous websites or even simply read it for free online (please note: I have done neither) but this hasn’t stopped E.L. James from making her fortune out of it and I am sure the same is true for Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling.

It is true that it’s probably easier to put up with illegal downloading when you are as uber-successful as the above examples and that for less-well paid authors it can be a serious problem. However, I don’t believe – and the main point of this post is – that it is going to be a problem forever and that trying to resist it too hard and by the wrong methods can be counter-productive.

We all know how the rise of illegal music downloading nearly destroyed the US music industry (or at least shrank from approximately $15 billion to $7 billion) but I firmly believed this was largely because of the music industry trying to swim upstream against a tsunami. They ignored (in the herd-of-ostriches-with-their-heads-in-the-sand sense) the simple fact that the market had changed and that their customers wanted the greater convenience of MP3 files over dozens of CDs and they went to where they could get them. I once read a post on a forum (which annoyingly I haven’t been able to find again to link here) by a man in Canada who admitted to illegally downloading “all of my music” for over three years, but who now exclusively uses ITunes because it is so much more convenient than “trawling the web trying to find a torrent link that’ll actually work”. The success of Amazon KDP and others proves that the same thing can be true for books.

We also have to bear in mind two things. The first is that this situation is really nothing new for either writers or the music industry. Charles Dickens used to be incensed by a loophole in trans-Atlantic publishing laws that allowed American publishers to print and sell books by non-US citizens without paying them any royalties (this situation lasted until 1891). But at the same time, he had a hard time denying that the easily available illegal copies greatly increased his popularity in America. In Britain in the 1980s, the British Phonographic Industry was terrified that recordable audio cassettes were going to kill their business by making it possible for people to record songs from the radio, and made no secret of their belief with their today-much-parodied logo. Again, the damage wasn’t as great as they feared.

The second thing is that there are always going to be ways for people to enjoy your work without paying for it. Even if you only publish in paper and hardback and refuse to make ebook editions, you will not simply be sitting back and watching you bank balance rise from royalties on each sale and public lending right. One reader may buy one copy of your book and then lend it to six friends to read. One paperback copy may be purchased from a high-street shop and then resold second hand multiple times on Amazon. This has always been true in different forms and likely always will be true.

However, as I said earlier, I do firmly believe that the current situation is not going to last forever and that, eventually, internet piracy will be a thing of the past. Take a moment to ask yourself this question: when and where was the last successful bank robbery you heard about? While I’m sure there will be some readers of this who can name several instantly, most of us will have to think hard and probably not come up with much (I can’t).

A little known piece of criminal history is that the years after World War II were a bit of a golden age for breaking into bank vaults, simply because so many demobilised soldiers had come home from Europe with plenty of experience in blowing up bridges. They easily transferred these skills to vaults and safes. Today however, it is very, very hard to break into a modern bank vault. Anyone who wants to do it has to be able to deal with time locks, security cameras, silent alarms, dye packs and then spend the time checking the loot for marked notes. Modern safes have quite simply gotten too good for all but the very best; most of whom don’t exist outside of Hollywood. To take just one example, Chubb’s Manifoil Mk4 lock has a lead lining to prevent anyone from x-raying it to work out the combination. E.W. Hornung’s famous anti-hero, the gentleman thief A.J. Raffles is known as “the amateur cracksman”. Today, his great-grandson would need to be “the PhD in engineering cracksman” to have a chance of continuing the family business.

I am absolutely certain that the same thing is eventually going to happen with internet security. Any computer can be hacked (and this possibly always will be true) but computer security will eventually get good enough to defeat all but the most skilled and highly educated cyber criminals (and most of them will probably be trying to use their skills for something far more profitable than making ebooks available for free). Given how much money governments invest every year in trying to keep their hard drives completely secure, that time may not be that far off at all.

It’s been suggested in the past that we should try to deal with piracy either by guilt tripping or offering amnesties to the people who download stuff without paying for it. I’m far from convinced this would work (10 million smokers have spent their school years being repeatedly told tobacco is unhealthy after all) and that, because of the pace of technology, it’s unlikely to be necessary in the long term. Improved internet security will eventually stop digital piracy. Everyone who is making content freely available without permission at the moment is simply making hay while the sun shines. All us authors and musicians need to do is wait for the clouds to come out, and afterwards – while writing will never be a reliable means of getting rich quickly – we will be able make hay ourselves and enjoy the fruits of our labors again.



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