Pirates, Tramps and Thieves...
by Janis Patterson
I’ve had it. Dealing with pirates has become too much of a part of a writer’s life. No, don’t think galleons and romantic figures in worn velvet and torn lace – these are modern thieves. They take books, books which writers have worked for months, perhaps years, on and post them on the internet for free. To add insult to injury, some even charge a ridiculously low price for them – money that the writer, the creator of the work, will never see.
A third kind of pirate is oddly becoming less and less rare – the plagiarizing pirate. This particularly loathsome specimen of lowlife merely takes another writer’s book, changes the main characters’ names and perhaps eye colors, and maybe – if they are conscientious – the name of the main town, then republishes the book under her own name with a new title and cover.
The first two kinds of pirates I can understand – if not condone – because both come down to simple money. The first kind just wants to hand the book around without anyone having to pay. The second kind wants some money for himself but without having to have to do anything to earn it. Both are despicable, but their reasons are obvious.
The third kind is a mystery. There are penalties for copyright infringement. Do they really think that no fan (the stolen books are invariably from popular and well-known authors) will notice the similarities? Due to the first two kinds of pirates books from unknowns don’t make that much, so it can’t be for the relatively small amount of money they earn. They are the ones doing the stealing, so they know they didn’t really write the book, unless they think just changing the names and eye colors constitutes writing. All that is left is that they appear to the world as a Published Author. Is that so wonderful that it is worth risking humiliation and legal repercussions? I guess so to them. Every so often there’s another one.
As pathetic and annoying as these egoist plagiarists are, though, they are small potatoes compared to the first two kinds. Their numbers are increasing exponentially and there’s very little that can be done about it.
Part of the problem began back in the days when paper was all you could get. It has never been difficult to find used copies for very little in a used book store, or for next to nothing at a garage sale. This too is blatantly unfair to the writer, but until recent years the technology for fair recompense was lacking. Nowadays the technology is there (think ISBN) but no one except the writer is interested in the writer getting paid for resale of their work. Paper copies have always been traded and resold and the modern naïf thinks that electronic books are no different. They refuse to acknowledge that there is a big difference – used paperbacks are self-limiting. Given enough time and enough readings they will dissolve. Ebooks can be copied with just a button-push or two, and the millionth copy will be just as pristine as the first. All with no benefit to the author, who created the story.
This ease of duplication was not lost on the second, money-driven type of pirate. To them each keystroke was the sound of a cash register as they made free money on the work of others. Every day writers spend valuable time – time that would be better spent writing more books – sending down takedown notices to pirates. Lucky writers have publishers who pursue takedowns. Others are not so fortunate and must do it themselves, as must self-published authors.
Sometimes the crooks comply, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes when their payment protocol is disrupted the site vanishes only to reappear a few days later with a very similar name and the same list of books. As so many authors have said, it’s like playing whack-a-mole and so frustrating and time consuming that some authors have simply given up, claiming that the pirated books are to be counted as free advertising.
I will admit that I have a number of free books on my Kindle, but a book given freely by the author as a promotional offer is a totally different thing from a book taken, i.e. stolen, without permission or recompense by a third party. Many authors have used a free book as a sales tool, but the important thing is that the choice to give the book away has been only theirs.
There have always been cheats, however, and there have always been thieves. Perhaps the most frightening thing about this uncomfortable world of piracy is the attitude of entitlement which surrounds it. On several ‘file-sharing’ sites I have seen posts where those who take these free files deny that they are doing anything wrong! If it’s on the internet, they say, it should be free. Others, more bold, decry the idea that copyright equals ownership. Copyright, to them, means only bragging rights for having written it – if that – and that it is greedy and wrong of the authors who are all obviously very wealthy to want to be paid for their work.
One man’s sublimely self-serving comments stayed with me. Roughly he said – “I pay for my entertainment as much as I can. I buy what I want until I don’t have any more money, but then my appetite for entertainment is so large that I have to take free stuff to get all that I want.” Wonder how far that philosophy would get him at the grocery or the hardware store?
And that brings us to the worst part of this unholy trade. There are penalties for illegally acquiring software. There are penalties for illegally downloading movies and TV shows. Books? Who cares? Apparently no one other than the authors who see their income being ripped away. Obviously not the thieves. The law doesn’t seem to want to be bothered.
So where does all this end? I postulate that it will end in chaos, as disintegrating systems usually do. Contrary to popular belief, most professional and popular authors write for money. Not for the feeling of self-accomplishment, not for the thrill of seeing their name on a book, but for money. It’s a job. A job they may love, but still a job. When that job ceases to be remunerative, they will stop writing and find something else.
Oh, there will always be books, but books written by those who do not regard it as a profession. Those who want to see their name on a book no matter what. Those who want the fame of being a published author. And let’s face it, those kinds of books are usually lousy. The quality of books will go down as more and more professionals leave the business and eventually the glory-seekers will be pretty much the sole providers of novels.
Apocalyptic? Perhaps, but dentists don’t do crowns just for the thrill of being recognized as a dentist. Mechanics don’t give free tune-ups because they enjoy playing in an engine. I can’t think of any profession that gives away its product just because they have it. They expect fair recompense for their goods/skills. Why do people regard writers any differently?
It looks to be a bleak future, with one rather deliciously snarky exception. Something I’ve been noticing is a lot of the pirate sites have been exposed as simple phishing sites that take the buyer’s credit card information and give nothing but a big bill.
Karma, it’s wonderful!
Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.