I love books. I have hundreds of them between my physical bookshelf and my Calibre library. My reading list is so long that I'll be as old as Methuselah before I make a dent in just the technical section, yet I'm always happy to add one more book to my collection! And I'm not atypical. I'm pretty confident that nearly everyone reading this article has the same problem.
As programmers, we're pretty used to this whole idea of "sharing". We write awesome code, we share it. We discover an epic library, we share it. We learn something new, we share it.
We get an excellent new programming ebook, we "share" it.
And that's when "sharing" goes off the rails.
I'm also a professional author and editor, and I own my own publishing company, so I know better than most just how much work goes into writing a book.
A typical book takes 2 to 7 years to create! Less than half that time is actually spent writing said book; the lion's share of the time goes to editing, over and over, round after round. Multiple editors, test readers, and proofreaders provide feedback, all of which has to be meticulously integrated by the author. Entire sections are rewritten. Flow is reworked. Countless hours of research are poured into every. single. detail.
(This is precisely why so many say they want to write a book, but so few ever actually do...most people burn out on the editing phase alone.)
That's not even taking into account all of the planning and research that went into the book before writing even commenced, and most authors don't count those months or years of work against the "clock."
Besides the years of hard work that an author puts in, there's also the editors (usually many), the production editor who designed the physical book, the typesetters who meticulously convert the author's typed pages into the final format, the graphics designers who create the cover and all the illustrations and graphs...
A single book represents hundreds, or even thousands, of man-hours, and none of it pays off until the book sells. The publisher is responsible for paying many of these folks up front, so they can live. After all, most of them do this for their full-time job! That means said publisher has now created debt for themselves, which they'll only be able to make back if the book sells.
Self-published authors are not exempt from this. Those editors, typesetters, graphics designers, etc, still have to be paid! If we're lucky, they might be willing to work on royalties, like we do.
Publishers sometimes pay authors and/or illustrators an advance, but this isn't free money. One of my book contracts stipulates an advance of
N dollars that I'll get paid before the book even goes on sale, but the first
N dollars of royalty payments now go to the publisher. I won't see another cent until they've made that back. (If that sounds unfair, it isn't...the publisher is a business, and they can only keep publishing books if they make their investments back.)
To compound that "debt" the publisher has entered into, there's also printing and marketing to consider. The printer has to be paid as soon as the book is printed, not as soon as it is sold. Some printers, like Ingram, print-on-demand, but that only means the risk has been shifted onto the booksellers...and even then, the bookseller can return the book to the printer, at the publisher's expense. Meanwhile, hundreds or thousands of dollars are put into marketing: catalog listings, complementary copies sent to influencers, advertising, book signings and author appearances.
So, not only does a book represent all those man-hours, but also a significant financial investment! A book is a huge financial loss until it sells enough copies to make back all that money.
One might think that a big publisher wouldn't suffer from a few losses. After all, don't they have thousands of bestseller titles? You're right that they seldom suffer...because they shift all the losses onto the little guys. The authors and illustrators see no return on their years of work, and may not be able to get more contracts. The publisher may cut back on how many books they choose to publish, to minimize risk, meaning there is less work for editors, typesetters, etc.
Small publishers and self-published authors aren't even that lucky. They're now out money they probably don't have, and if the loss is large enough, they are frequently forced to give up publishing altogether.
(P.S. This article is focusing on books, but music recording, TV shows, games, and films are exactly the same in terms of time and financial investments.)
Let's imagine you're a typical Nice Person™. You find out about an awesome little book, so you go to Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com, or wherever and buy the eBook. You pay six bucks and feel pretty good about yourself: you're supporting the author. Yay you!
It turns out, this book is awesome. You're telling your friend Jeff about it, and he's excited to read it, but he can't buy it right now.
"Aw, no worries mate, I'll just upload it to my cloud. We can share it!"
You have now committed piracy.
"Huh?" You might say. "I'm not stealing, I'm sharing! Sharing is good!"
Yes, a certain eccentric, bewhiskered free software idol may openly advocate this brand of "sharing," but he's dead wrong. This is exactly the same as if you walked into a Barnes & Noble store, took a copy of the book off the shelf, and walked out without paying.
Jeff now has a copy of the book, and so do you. You can both read it at the same time. Neither of you has a need to pay six bucks for another copy.
The publisher has just lost a sale.
It's easy to wave this off. "It's just six bucks," you might say. "The publisher probably makes a hundred times that every day." Maybe, maybe not, but that's not the point. You have just committed a crime, and one that's illegal in virtually every country on the planet, no less.
Besides that, it won't stop there. Jeff will probably share with Umeko, who will share with Kell, who will share with Youcef and Amardeep and Marceau...
Now one "share" has compounded, as everyone shares with everyone else, and now the publisher has easily lost dozens, or even hundreds, of sales.
And lost sales means that investment isn't being made back...a loss that is redirected onto the very people who poured years of effort into that book, and who probably can least afford the loss.
Before I go any further, I want to define how real sharing works. It's simple.
You give your copy of the book to Jeff. You can't read it while he can.
This is the way any public library works: a limited number of copies are purchased outright by the library, and any one of those copies is loaned to one person at a time. They have to return it before anyone else can borrow.
Real sharing always comes at a cost to yourself. In the very least, you don't get to enjoy the thing you're sharing while someone else uses it. It worked that way in Kindergarten, and it works that way now.
If sharing something comes with no expense or inconvenience to yourself, depend on it that you're actually stealing.
"My buddy Jeff doesn't have the money for books. He wouldn't buy it anyway!"
This is actually a pretty cheap excuse, mate. Jeff doesn't have six bucks to spare, but I'll bet you do.
If Jeff had nothing to eat tonight, would that be an excuse for you to rob Quik-E-Mart? Of course not! You'd invite him over to share your meatloaf. You'd buy him some groceries. You'd at least point him to the local foodbank.
Stealing from one person to give to another is still stealing, and it's not okay. You're not Robin Hood. You're taking money away from everyone involved in creating the book to "help Jeff."
Spend the six bucks, or give him your copy. But don't steal another copy for him by duplicating the eBook.
I've heard this one so many times, including in connection to my own book, it's nauseating.
"By uploading this book to the piracy website, I'm actually helping the author! It's free marketing! Look at all these people who now know about the book."
Some people even like to cite questionable "studies" about how piracy improves sales. In reality, this philosophy is bunk...most people that download illegal copies are fully capable of buying the books, but they won't, because they have no reason to. Why pay for something you can get for free? Sure, there are those rare sort that use pirated copies to "sample" a book, and then they buy the ones they want, but they're the exception, not the rule.
"But, but, there was that one author that uploaded his own books to the piracy website!*
Yes, and that was his right as the author, as it was his own financial investment he was risking. (If I recall, he was also self-published...if a publisher had been involved, he'd have had to consult his publishing contract. The publisher has rights too!)
Authors and publishers already spend money sending complementary copies of the book to influencers. They pour hundreds, even thousands, of dollars into marketing. They are perfectly capable of uploading the book to public file shares they wanted...but they don't, because the return seldom, if ever, justifies the expense in lost sales.
Recall also, if the author had wanted the book to be free for everyone, he or she would have licensed it under Creative Commons or Public Domain. There are a number of authors who do exactly this, but again...it is the creator's right to define how their own work is licensed. (More on that in a bit.)
You may feel like you're taking some sort of moral high ground by making free copies of that book. "BigScaryPublisher is a terrible company. They cheat their authors. I refuse to give more money to them!"
...sooooo, you're fighting back against them by robbing the authors? How's that math work?
Once again, large publishers aren't the ones to suffer from the effects of piracy; they shuffle all those expenses off onto the authors, illustrators, and employees. The little guy suffers.
If you don't want to support a publisher, piracy isn't the answer. Buy and promote works from competing publishers! Empower the good guys to publish more books. Voice your concerns about BigScaryPublisher publicly, and then put your support behind GoodLittlePublisher. Over time, authors will get the message, and will move to the little publisher, because that's where the money is.
If you really, really can't live without that One Book from BigScaryPublisher, buy it anyway. It supports the creators first and foremost. Besides that, like them or not, the publisher did invest time and money, and they're legally entitled to a return on it.
There are a couple of auxiliary points I want to briefly touch on.
Creative Commons is absoutely awesome. I support it 100%! It's true sharing, because the sharer (the creator) is giving up something: their opportunity to make a profit.
Again: true sharing always involves a loss on the part of the sharer.
Creative Commons is not the antithesis to Copyright; the two actually work together. Copyright is what empowers Creative Commons. If you've actually read the Creative Commons licenses, it's not a free-for-all; the copyright holder decides which rights they want to "give away," and which they want to keep back.
Copyright protects the time and financial investment of the creator, and they have the sole right to decide what they want to do with their rights. If they want to trade some of those rights to a publisher in exchange for publishing, distribution, and marketing, they may. If they want to give away some of those rights for free through Creative Commons, they may.
...BUT YOU MAY NOT DECIDE FOR THEM!
Sometimes, a copyrighted work goes entirely out of distribution. This falls into a legal gray area. In cases like this, archival groups, like the Internet Archive or WinWorld (for software) step up and preserve copies of out-of-distribution intellectual property.
Sometimes, this is technically against the law, but it doesn't violate the spirit of the law, because it is presently impossible for the rights holders to profit anyway! Archivists don't store and distribute as a way of bypassing paying the rights holders, but rather to ensure that the work is preserved for present and future generations.
Often, rights holders actually cooperate with these groups. For example, Microsoft deliberately handed over the "master keys" for old versions of Windows and a lot of their other software; in exchange, WinWorld respected Microsoft's request that XP not be considered "abandonware," and thereby not carry it.
A good archival group will always respect the rights of the copyright holder when they are exercised (including taking down a work if it goes back into formal distribution). Meanwhile, and as I said, most copyright holders cooperate with archival groups. That's why you can find first editions of books on the Internet Archive, while the sixth or seventh edition is available brand-new on Amazon.com.
Ethical archival efforts never conflict with a publisher's sales of the work.
I'm an advocate for Open Source, Creative Commons, and internet privacy. I support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I think these things are absolutely essential! I resent copyright and patent trolls as much as anyone can.
That said, I deeply appreciate the model YouTube has adopted. Through a series of legal agreements and copyright enforcement systems, they've created something that really should be emulated:
Anyone can upload anything, even copyrighted material they don't have rights to.
Legal agreements allow derivative works to be shared (e.g. cover songs), in a way that still maintains all the rights of the copyright holder. That means the music videos I make for "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" can stay online, because both Hasbro Studios and the artist/label for the song are still exercising their rights.
Copyright holders can decide what of their own content can stay up, and what gets taken down. For me, that means I can binge-watch DuckTales on YouTube, because Disney has acknowledged and permitted the content to stay online!
Can the system be improved to keep copyright trolls from abusing it? Absolutely. But the essential model is superb.
P.S. If a YouTube video has evidence of trying to beat the content detectors (e.g. video flipped, small-frame in large image, sped up, slowed down), please report it...that's absolutely cheating, because the uploader is trying to prevent the copyright holder from exercising their rights.
When you buy a book, or for that matter, a game, a movie, a TV show, or anything of the sort, you are supporting the people who have invested time and effort into creating that product.
When you make an illegal digital copy, that is no different from walking into the store and shoplifting the physical item.
When you share, you're always giving something up yourself, even if it's just for a little while. If you're not losing something, you're not sharing, you're stealing.
Piracy is NOT a victimless crime.