Pirates of the High E-s


Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about piracy.

E-book piracy, that is. 

It’s been in the news a lot.  Supposedly, fear of pirates is driving some publishers to make all kinds of decisions.

First, some people didn’t want to make e-books at all, for fear of pirates.

Then, they think releasing e-books on the same day as the hardback increases piracy.

I think it’s time we slow down on this and think it through.

After all, if we make decisions based on pirates…um, it’s like not sailing to the New World because “here there be monsters”, right?

Let me state a few things up front.

I think piracy is wrong.  I think theft is wrong.  I’m one of the biggest rule-followers you’ll ever encounter…to the point it sometimes drives people nuts. 

However, I do want to take my feelings out of it.  Some people see e-book piracy as a noble calling…as if they were “privateers” rather than pirates.  They want to make a statement, or right a wrong.  That’s not my approach to things, but I’m mentioning an attitude I encounter.

I think we need to define the term first.

What is e-book piracy?

An e-book pirate deliberately takes content that doesn’t belong to them. 

That “deliberate” element is important to me.  If there was no Digital Rights Management (DRM) on a book, and someone made a copy for a friend, I don’t consider that piracy.  Unless the person had been given permission to do that, it would typically be against Copyright law, and therefore illegal.  That person did infringe, but did it unintentionally…that’s a problem, but I don’t immediately slap an eyepatch and a parrot on that guy.  It’s just done out of ignorance.

That, by the way, is one of the best things DRM does…prevent ignorant copying.   Pirates often can and do break DRM, but if you innocently went to make a copy for Grandma and you weren’t able to do it, you’d probably just stop.

So, for me, it has to be deliberate.  A pirate knows that what she or he is doing is against the law (or at least the rules), and does it anyway.   For me, whether or not you think you are serving a greater good somehow, it’s still piracy.

Let’s talk about next how it is done (in very general terms), the impact, and preventing it.

How do people pirate a book?

No, I’m not going to give you a step by step or help you do it.  I do want to talk about some of the basic ideas, without getting specific.

if an e-book edition does not exist, there are two main ways to pirate a paperbook into an e-book.  You can scan the paperbook.  You just need a scanner (and many people have them now…a lot of printers are also scanners).  You can just sit there and scan each page…it wouldn’t take that long.  You could convert the scanned images into text, if you wanted to get fancier, or just save it as a pdf.

The other thing you could do is read it into something like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. That does the opposite of what the Kindle‘s text-to-speech does. It does speech-to-text, converting words into text. It’s very handy for work, and a lot of my doctor students use it.  That seems relatively hard to me, but it’s a choice.

Hypothetically, you could just sit there and type it into the computer…that might be the hardest.

What’s the one thing they need on all of these?

A copy of the paperbook. 

If an e-book version has been released, then someone could hypothetically break the Digital Rights Management (DRM) and make copies. 

DRM is code inserted by rightsholders into electronic files to control the use of those files.

If someone can break the DRM, making copies would be easy. 

Breaking the DRM (which is itself illegal in most situations) requires a much higher technical ability than scanning or reading (or typing).  Once you break the DRM once from a company, you may have a pretty automated way to do it in the future with other books.


So, scanning/reading is easy, although you have to repeat the effort every time.  Breaking the DRM requires a more sophisticated skill set, but is probably easier after the first time.

Breaking the DRM you need a copy of an e-book, not a p-book (paperbook).

Releasing the e-book facilitates the breaking the DRM method of piracy.

It does not have an impact on the scanning/reading method.

Why do people pirate?

This is a really key question.  I think a lot of people assume it is to make money (or, you know, “acquire booty”).  But I don’t think that’s the main motivation, though.  I think I’m safe in saying that most of the pirated books that are available through the internet are available for free.  That’s right…free.  People aren’t making money doing it. 

For one thing, money is a lot easier to track.  It’s also harder to process.  You can’t hide in the shadows on a street corner with e-books under your coat.  You have to (pretty much) process it online, and that’s more easily detected.  The exception to that is that you could sell CDs with the books on them…we see that on eBay quite often.  That’s often by people who don’t realize that the books are still under copyright (I’ve heard of that with Doc Savage books, for example).

So, why do they do it?

For some of them, it’s just because they can.  It’s just fun for them to do…like sneaking across the back lawn of somebody who has a No Trespassing sign posted.  It’s a thrill, and they feel like they got away with it.

For other people, it’s because they think it is wrong that the book isn’t available.   They are “freeing the information”.  They want people to have it.  They may also want to punish the publisher by hurting them through the  piracy…teach The Corporation a lesson.  They may also want to release the book with a “missing’ feature, like text-to-speech. 

What is the impact?

This is a much trickier question than it seems.  It’s often reported that an industry lost x amount of dollars due to theft.

For that to be true, it has to be money they would have made otherwise.

That’s key in assessing the problem.  If ten thousand people download a pirated copy of an e-book, that doesn’t mean that ten thousand sales were lost.  That would only be true if all ten thousand of them would have bought the book otherwise.

When e-books are made legally free, lots of people get them who would not have paid a penny for those books.  That’s one reason why free e-books dominate the bestsellers in the Kindle store.

Many people who get pirated copies don’t realize that they are pirated.  I see people apparently innocently recommending pirate sites to people who are looking for a particular title.  

It might seem obvious that something is pirated, but the sites often look pretty good.  Heck, we’ve had unauthorized editions in the Kindle store (although the most famous instance, the Orwell book, was pretty clearly not pirated…just available out of its jurisdiction). 

Some people do charge for pirated copies, but again, I think that’s relatively rare.

Do the publishers ever lose sales through piracy?  Sure, they probably lose some.  But I think many people getting the pirate copies are just getting freebies indiscrimanately…they may not have bought the book otherwise.

This next statement is my biggest belief in all this:

Given a choice between a legal copy and an illegal copy, most people will pick the legal copy.  That’s assuming all other things are equal. 

I ran a poll some time ago:

If I had a choice between a legal copy of an e-book for $9.99 or an illegal copy for free, I would:

Pay the $9.99 for the legal copy 48%

Get the free and illegal one 4%

Wait for a cheaper legal copy 48%

 In that question, things weren’t equal…people paid had the option to pay less for the illegal copy, and only 4% said that would be their choice. 

No question, that isn’t a scientific poll.   There certainly may be a bias towards honesty in my readers (I hope there is).

However, I do think that’s generally true.  People tend to want to do the honest thing.  Readers tend to want the authors to get paid for their work.

Author Eric Flint wrote a great essay you can read it the Baen Free Public Library.  He suggests that piracy may even be good for sales, by exposing more people to the book. 

Even it’s better for the author and the publisher, I still think it’s wrong.

How do you curtail piracy?

The most effective way to stop piracy is to give people a legal alternative.

I believe that delaying the release of an e-book after the hardback is released increases piracy.

“Windowing” (or “staggering) the release does, of course, keep the e-book out of the hands of those who would break the DRM.

But it also creates a vacuum that can be filled by people with scanners and speech-to-text software.

Remember that those are the people with the less sophisticated skill set.  They just need to buy something and be willing to put in the time and effort.

The people who want to give it away for free, the people who are angry at the publisher…they may be more compelled by the delay.

That seems obvious to me.  Make the book legally and conveniently available, and people will get that version rather than finding some pirate site. 

If people believe that a publisher has done something unjust, that may drive them towards piracy.  Again, I think piracy is wrong…but if someone thinks that is the lesser of two wrongs (not a philosophy I follow), that may be an impetus for them.

Those perceived wrongs include high prices for e-books.

Not, I think, as an economic driver.  I don’t think someone becomes a thief over five dollars, usually.  They don’t pirate the book because $14.99 versus $9.99 is more money than they can pay.

They might pirate it because they think $14.99 is unjust.

Would anything indicate that is the case?  Yes, if the pirate gave the book away.  A thief who steals for personal gain is not usually concerned with making it possible for someone else to steal the same thing.  If a “personal gain” pirate figures out something that works, they often don’t want to share it.

If they do it for vigilante reasons, or for the glory, they may distribute that book widely, to people who don’t realize it is theft.  That gets around the moral issue for the recipients…they don’t know it is wrong, or they probably woudn’t do it, in my opinion.

Right now, I assume some of you are seeing the publishers as stupid in trying to block piracy, maybe partially based on my explanation.

I don’t think publishers are stupid…never have.

I think they see this.

As a former bookstore manager, we included shoplifting in our budgets.  We knew we could never entirely stop it…it wouldn’t have made economic sense.  I mean, you could have let one person in the store at a time, and assigned an employee to be with that customer at all times, watching like a hawk.  For that matter, we could have kept the books under lock and key.

However, we would have lost business…significant business.  People wouldn’t have liked shopping with us.

So, we just calculated the likely losses (around eight percent, including employee theft and damage).

There’s no reason why e-book publishers couldn’t do the same thing. 

They could seriously cut back on piracy by releasing e-books at the same time as the hardbacks.

You don’t want people to pirate your books?  Don’t just release them in paper, release them in e-book form as well.  Hacking the DRM is harder, and there isn’t that much motivation for it. 

Budget something for the rest of it.

Do I think publishers see this?


I think it’s possible that the stated fear of piracy may just be an excuse.

Piracy is bad, but manageable.

I think paperbook publishers do want to slow the adoption of e-books.  They have a huge advantage while paperbooks are the dominant medium.  They have those twin barriers of manufacture and distribution to limit competition.   With those two removed (as is the case with e-books, to a large extent), they will have a lot more competition.

So, while I think e-book piracy is inexcusable, I think it’s actual negative effect on the business is negligible and manageable.  As a straw man, though, they may be quite effective. 

Think I’m wrong?  Think that pirates significantly cut into actual sales of e-books?  Think that justifies windowing?  Think that there are circumstances under which is it justified?  Feel free to let me know…

Note: I just wanted to mention that The Hound of the Baskervilles is about to start today in my other blog, 221B Blog Street.  I send out a chapter or a short story of the original Sherlock Homes material a day, in order  It’s a ripping yarn, even if it isn’t my favorite portrayal of Holmes himself.  If you get blogs on your Kindle, this might be a good day for that 14-day free trial.  🙂   Conveniently delivered to your Kindle  or free online.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

11 Responses to “Pirates of the High E-s”

  1. Daz Says:

    I like your point about the volume of sales that is loss. I don’t believe that if 10,000 copies of the “free” book was downloaded that the publisher and author would have actually lost sales of 10,000 books in real terms. Likely the number would be much less than that because most of the people who would pay for the book, would pay for the book. I think that it is only the people who make it a habit to get DRM broken books or download “free” books would go out looking for such a thing. I’ve looked and found the whole exercise just not worth the effort of often trying to save $2 or $3 or whatever the price of the book is, for a book that I can legally obtain. A blog I recently read was talking (and likely not unjustly) about the thousands of copies of a book that was downloaded for “free” without the author’s permission and how the author suffered and died from lack of funds as a result of it. That’s probably just an example of a very dire situation, but I don’t think that it’s the lack of sales because of the book becoming available for “free” that caused her death. I’m sympathetic to what has happened and sad for the author and her family, but I also question the actual real impact of such a situation.

    It’s always better to obtain a book legally. That’s one less thing to worry about and one less lie to cover up.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Daz!

      I’ve read the post…it’s certainly very sad.

      The author community should be happy, though, that Dorchester is embracing e-books. It is my belief that the best way to counter those pirated downloads is to make them available legally. Those torrent downloads for books that are published as e-books legitimately at the same time (or earlier) than paper editions are greatly reduced. That may not help as much for books that are already out there illegally, but the motivations to pirate books are much lower when legitimate editions exist.

  2. Daz Says:

    My two cents worth. 🙂

  3. Daz Says:

    How do you feel about a buyer stripping DRM from books that they have purchased and paid for legally, not to distribute but to be able to convert to another format and read on various devices that require different format files?

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Stripping the DRM is illegal, except in certain specific circumstances. It’s illegal separately from whether or not making a copy for your own use is legal.

      That’s addressed in section 1201 of Title 17 (which is US copyright law). You can see that here:


      Generally, I don’t recommend that people engage in illegal activities, especially for personal gain.

      My intuition, for example, is that it would be okay to scan a paperbook to convert it into an e-book format for your own personal use, even if that book is under copyright protection. It would be similar to the time-shifting that was allowed in the so-called “Betamax case” (Sony vs. Universal). However, I haven’t found anything that allows it yet, so I don’t do it.

  4. Daz Says:

    Something I got recently on Dorchester. Sad really. http://tinyurl.com/265q5lo

    Would it stop you?

  5. Daz Says:

    There’s “Showdown in Mudbug” by Jana DeLeon mentioned as well as “Guns Will Keep Us Together” by Leslie Langtry but I think there’s more than just those books. And I’m also not sure if they are the only author’s affected, only the ones blogged about at Smart B*tches. [BUFO’S NOTE: I’ve edited this for language…even though that word can be used in a no-offensive way, I’d rather moderate it].

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Daz!

      it’s a complicated question. Dorchester stands accused. My intuition at this point is that they have done something wrong but I hate to make that determination based solely on hearsay. There are so many books to read, though, that I can easily skip Dorchester books until something definitive is released. However, that means that Dorchester might be hurt unfairly…and if they are paying royalties and have obtained rights properly, the authors will be hurt (for books I would purchase).

      My answer for now will be to skip Dorchester titles until I hear more.

  6. Round up #59: Pirate to prison, impressive impressions, Amazon predicts where you’ll go « I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] https://ilmk.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/pirates-of-the-high-e-s/ […]

  7. Round up #154: interest-based ads, piracy helps sales? | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Pirates of the High E-s […]

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