Monday, August 13, 2012

On Piracy

There was a big scandal out among the Interwebs last week, when a bunch of writers banded together to take LendInk offline. One of my buddies at work shot me a link to the story over at TechDirt. Belong to any group for long enough, and you'll probably find a reason to be embarrassed. (As I've mentioned before, I'm Catholic. We've had entire decades of embarrassment).

LendInk is basically a social networking site for folks with e-readers. It helps facilitate lending between readers. The key word there being facilitate. The site simply acts as an intermediary, hooking up two people so that sharing becomes a snap. It does not sell books or give away books or in any way deliver books. It's a peer-to-peer site, similar perhaps to music sharing programs of the past.

Think Napster. The problem with Napster wasn't the sharing, but the copying. It allowed one legitimately purchased copy to become many more-or-less legal copies (probably emphasis on the less, but I'm no lawyer). E-music devices didn't possess the inherent sharing capabilities that readers like the Kindle support. Sharing with a Kindle moves the file from one device to another, deleting it on the original. It is one copy to one copy, a different paradigm.

I feel like I need to proclaim my stance on "piracy." It's a hot button topic among pretty much all content creators in the digital age. It is just too easy to share information these days.

First of all, I want express displeasure with the term itself. Piracy implies stealing. Stealing requires an item to exist in one location and be moved to another (usually forcibly and without the consent of the owner). "Internet Piracy," however, is closer to copying. The original item still exists where it originated from, and it also exists somewhere else. Heck, it could be copied without the owner realizing it.

Stealing is a "bad" thing, most of us can likely agree on that. I mean, it's one of the ten commandments. It directly harms someone. It is bad news in most every culture that I'm aware of.

Copying, though? It's a bit more nebulous. Sometimes it can be bad, sure. When you copy something someone else did and try to pass it as your own (plagiarize). But what if you copy something and then turn it into a joke (parody)? Or copy something and add a bunch of your own work on top? Or just copy to pass forms out in an expedient manner (assuming you have the right)?

I think piracy is a terribly prejudiced term. It does not accurately reflect the potential crime. Still, it is what we have.

Second, I feel that we need to consider the outcome of piracy. Who does it harm? How does it harm them?

Generally, the case is made that content creators are harmed. That they lose sales due to piracy. This seems pretty hard to prove (one way or the other), yet most folks just accept it at face value. People are making unapproved copies, obviously that's bad. Or is it?

Authors rely a lot on worth of mouth. I think most would agree that it is the primary sales drive behind any and all stories. You can do marketing, sure, but word of mouth kicks corporate marketing in the teeth any day of the week (and twice on 50-shades-of-grey-day). There are plenty of cases where piracy promoted word of mouth. Again, it's hard to prove, but what if the author was earning more because of piracy?

My point here is that I don't see a whole lot of hard data on how piracy actually affects sales. We have whole lot of opinions, but not a lot of logical thought. And we all know the saying about opinions.

Finally, I think we're asking the wrong questions. Perhaps instead of spending so much time trying to stop piracy (like we've all already agreed that it is blatantly bad in any and all cases), maybe businesses should spend more time discovering why people pirate in the first place. Oftentimes, it has to do with availability. People can't find it in the store they shop, the format they need, or for the price they expect... so they turn to piracy. If there's one thing humans have proven in the last 2000+ years, it's "where there's a will, there's a way." We exude that principle as a species. It's what has catapulted us to the top of the food chain.

Sometimes, I want to scream at content providers: "If you would just make your content easier to buy, people would pay." Or, as one of my favorite movies puts it: "People will come, Ray. People will most definitely come" (Field of Dreams).

At the end of the day, I adopt a pretty tolerant view of piracy. My biggest hurdle is exposure, and anything that helps that is probably a good thing. If someone were to nail me down and ask, "how do you prevent piracy?" I'd try not to get peeved at the term. Then, I'd explain that I do it by trying to make my content as widely available as possible. I try to communicate clearly where it is available and for how much. I try to give a reader options. Don't want to pay? Check out my specials. There are plenty of ways to get my book that don't require money, or require less money. I'm constantly looking for new ways to provide content. Sometimes I'm hindered by my small scale and pocketbook, but that's okay. That can only improve with time and exposure (so long as I provide good content). If people are driven to piracy, then I look first to myself... what need of my customers am I not reaching? What platform? What price point?

Putting money where my mouth is... a friend directed me to another article on Lifehacker. This one talks about a site called StoryBundle. As a gamer, I'm quite familiar with the humble indie bundle on Steam. It's a great idea, and StoryBundle brings that to books. Awesome. Great way to increase exposure, and they allow folks to "pay what you want." How can you not like that price point? As soon as I can, I'd like to get my books into one of those bundles. It's a cool idea.

And so is LendInk. I guess that's the overriding point here, if there is one. I would love to see more tools given to authors to help with exposure. Options are great. I would be giddy if someone reads my book and enjoyed it enough to push it on a friend. Or, if they'd heard such good things that they went out of their way to find someone to lend them the book so that they could try it.

All this is figured from my basic belief that if you, as a content creator, create quality content, people will pay for it. It may be a bit of an uphill battle to establish yourself, but dedicated fans will pay. They want to see you succeed as much as you do, a lot of times. I know I feel that way about my favorite content creators. I'll go out of my way to buy stuff from them, especially if I know they benefit directly. I want them to continue to make music, write books, design games, or make movies.

Perhaps that belief is wrong, but it's the one I'm operating under, at least until I'm presented with some solid proof otherwise. As such, piracy doesn't seem a big issue to me. If I'm being pirated and not making money... then apparently my content isn't good enough. I should spend my time getting better, not getting angry.

This is just my opinion, though. You do what works for you.


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