“I think what leads to rampant piracy is not meeting emergent demands.” – Brian O’Leary

That is the most concise statement I’ve read so far about an issue that constantly bothers me, which is that content companies create their own piracy problems.

They do it by not moving fast enough, or by not waking up to the fact that the balance of power between consumer and company has shifted. If a company chooses to not support a known distribution channel or ignores a market, it’s basically asking consumers to find other ways to get at the content.

O’Leary’s statement comes from a great interview on piracy and DRM at O’Reilly Radar, where he points out two sad facts:

  1. that we still don’t know whether piracy negatively affects sales; and
  2. that the majority of publishers still refuse to collect the information that would be necessary to answer this question definitively.

Meanwhile, companies continue to treat the world like it hasn’t transformed in the past decade, and then wonder why their customers have jumped so far ahead of them in the marketplace. An article from last week in the Sydney Morning Herald points out how Australian readers shop elsewhere when local publishers delay publishing foreign titles for months:

“Publishers who think they are protecting their markets are mistaken: the keen readers who go overseas for their niche or advance books will justify the cost of shipping by also buying those titles they may have otherwise picked up at home.”

You know what else they do, all over the world? They open up accounts at the U.S. Amazon store. They check out library books. And they look online for pirated copies.

“What leads to rampant piracy is not meeting emergent demands.”

“Book piracy: Less DRM, more data” [radar.oreilly.com]
“Culture vultures forced go pirate” [Sydney Morning Herald]

(Photo: Corey Leopold)

Via Chris Walters’ BookSprung blog


  1. Speaking as an author who has made his books available at low prices, in multiple formats, international availability, and No DRM… and STILL GOT PIRATED… I can only respond: Bull.

    What leads to rampant piracy is the fact that consumers know they can do it and not get caught. Not that publishers are all blameless… but consumers aren’t exactly innocent babes, either.

  2. I very much agree with that statement. While there will always be people who will pirate just to avoid payment, keeping content from being available legally almost forces usually honest people into piracy.

    I can’t count the number of people who’ve posted complaints in the Kindle forums about the Harry Potter books not being available as ebooks. Every one of those people are potential pirates. They rationalize that JK Rowling already made money off of them for the print books so pirating the ebook is no big deal. It’s not just the publishers either, JK Rowling and other Luddite authors like Harper Lee and Ray Bradbury are also standing in the way.

    Kindle owners in other countries are also frustrated by the byzantine licensing rules for different regions. They always want to know why they can’t get an ebook available in the US.

    The music industry figured a lot of this out the hard way, the ebook industry should learn from their lessons. I can purchase and download DRM-free music from Amazon and other retailers to use on any device I want to, ebooks should be the same.

    Honest people will refrain from piracy, dishonest people will do it regardless of the supposed protections put in place. The more barriers to a legal purchase, the more temptation to pirate.

  3. Steve, not all customers are innocent, and doing the right thing won’t completely eliminate piracy. The question we need to determine is whether or not the author is making more or less under the given circumstances. In your specific case, I’d be curious as to whether or not the books were specific to you or bundled in a larger package, contained books that are still available[1], contained titles that linked back to the purchasing site, were extensively downloaded, and how sales were affected by the release of the illicit copies? I don’t expect an answer to these questions, but the situation is quite complex and shouldn’t be boiled down to simple emotional feelings of right and wrong.

    And this is to say nothing of the long-term cultural steering that may be taking place…

    [1] I really liked a couple of the books I bought from you, but I can’t seem to find them on your new site. Out of curiosity, any ideas on when they might be re-released?

    On a slightly different note, I like the idea driving “Denial of Service” and will probably read it soon. However, it is under the free content on your site. Is there any method for paying for this content (ala a Peter Watts-style kibble fund), or do you recommend I simply purchase a non-free book to pay for what I want (ala the Cory Doctorow it’s easier to not accept donations system)?

  4. (Sorry for the double post. Common Sense’s words inspired me to tack on.)

    Common Sense brings up the very large issue I forgot to consider when casually mentioning the intentional shaping of our cultural habits. By “not meeting emergent demands” you may be driving customers to realize the ease of copyright infringement while simultaneously training them to check the pirate sites first as the content they want is almost never available via proper channels. There is a certain amount of inertia involved in this process, and the large publishers (and many smaller ones) may encourage people to coast over the rare “proper” product as their habits no longer involve investigating the market place for each and every purchase.

  5. Logan makes a good point. If Steve’s book is available in a torrent bundled along with, say, a dozen Stephen King books, how can you be sure the downloader isn’t pirating Stephen King? How do you know they’ll even look at your book and not just pull out the ones they want and delete the rest? It is not so absolute to say that this is a lost sale for you and your business is suffering due to the pirates.

    Furthermore, with something like the interview quoted, he’s speaking of a broader trend. So, a handful of exceptions are just that—exceptions. You personally not finding something true does not invalidate it’s truth as applies to the broader trend.

    I think Americans often don’t think about geographical restrictions since they don’t apply as often to them. But this truly is an issue for international readers. If nobody will sell us the book in the first place, it can be hard for us to be convinced that obtaining it elsewhere is really costing anyone a sale :-) I personally feel that, while I personally am not endorsing piracy, I do at th same time feel that publishers have absolutely zero credibility on this issue so long as they continue to refuse to sell to people who really want to pay.

  6. I agree Joanna. Also I don’t like the use of the term innocent or guilty. Who is completely innocent ? What does guilt mean ? And what does it really contribute to the issue ? And while it is easy to discover is an author has been pirated it is impossible, totally impossible to know for sure how many if any have been actually downloaded.
    What is clear from the experience of the Music industry is that the vast majority of people want to do the right thing, given the chance. The portion of people who will download illegal copies is small. It is also elastic. I know people who are quite aggressive about paying small bands full price for their music and the same for indie authors, while they have made it clear in conversation that they have no guilt over downloading Beatles or Rolling Stones stuff. I can see their point and to be honest I find it hard to disagree. I think Paul and Mick have made enough money form their music and the same goes for J.K.
    My guess is that this is a position that many people on the fringes of downloading will adopt in future years.

  7. I somehow doubt that most piracy takes place in small markets not initially served by the publication of a book. I’m sure there is some of that, and I’m sure there is some piracy of those residual publisher/authors who continue to close their eyes to the fastest-growing segment of the market (hello J.K. Rowling). Like some of the other authors on this loop, however, I’ve deliberately set low prices for eBooks, offered global distribution from the start, and avoided DRM. Yet my books are still pirated. I don’t know how much I’ve lost due to this. Certainly some piracy consumers would never pay and aren’t really part of the potential market. But condoning piracy, assuming that it doesn’t impact sales, that the piracy consumer will purchase a legitimate copy next time they want to read one of my books, seems naive. Isn’t it equally, or even more likely that a legitimate customer, if told he can get the next one for free without any moral issues, likely to switch to piracy?

    Rob Preece

  8. Rob, yes it is likely … for some (hopefully small) percentage of the market. On the other hand, people like to support the things that they like.

    Also, while some are of a different opinion, I don’t want to condone piracy. I want to discourage it, shame those that participate in such behavior, and, in general, solve a social problem with a cultural solution. Simultaneously, I don’t want to be a casualty of a “war” on pirates, have to read about simplified, ignorant statements from “victims” in publishing, and be forced to buy a reduced product because of a fear that I am not honest.

    Piracy is wrong (hush it, Howard 😉 ), but, as this interview illuminates, it is better to understand what drives people to it and what can be done about those root causes.

  9. Firstly Logan, lots of things in life are ‘wrong’. Almost everyone has done something ‘wrong’ in their lives. I simply made it clear that I can understand it. In fact I don’t see anyone hereabouts that condones piracy in principle despite people claiming that they do.
    Authors and publishers on this forum need to get away from this obsession with this whole judgemental attitude. It doesn’t lead to a solution or help the situation – it just gets up people’s noses. They should focus on how to minimise piracy and make their titles sell – not wagging fingers thinking people pay any attention.

  10. I know that living in Australia it can get very frustrating when I can see ebooks I want on sale overseas, but I am not “allowed” to buy them in Australia. I can order the paper book from Amazon and that is OK, but not the ebook. I am getting seriously tempted to use the illegal download sites, something I don’t approve of, but when people get this sort of frustration it is easy to see why they resort to this method. I am not talking about books which just aren’t issued in ebook format, these are ebooks on sale in USA and UK. And it’s not just that the books are too recent, these are books published years ago.

  11. One other scenario is at a person buys the ebook or pbook but wants a drm digital copy and so then acquires the pirated copy to be drm free but still paid.

  12. I think maybe folks like Rob and Steve (who’s got some good stuff you should check out if you like SciFi) are just along for the ride really. It’s books from the big pub houses that are the most in demand and if someone in say India or South Africa or Australia hasn’t been able to get books they want from those big pubs and have made the decision to download from a filesharing site, torrent or irc they’ve now ‘trained’ themselves to look there first instead of even seeing if the book is available for purchase. They’ve just been turned away so often that they don’t even bother to try anymore. How do you change that even once titles become available? Don’t know, but it’ll take some work.

  13. Our books were pirated, all of them, from the Kindle Store. They were placed on 4Shared and on several torrents, and Scribd as free PDFs. After a week long battle–involving the rampant flailing of DCMA takedown notices–we got them removed and began turning the tables by putting up our own sample chapter PDFs with links back to where folks could purchase the full book. It worked; sales are up, as is webtraffic. In a piece I wrote up last year, several authors weighed in on their various experiences with book pirates, which you can read here: http://sacramentobookreview.com/viewpoints-weekly-columns/20511/

    The comments on the piece were also quite interesting. Like I said in comment on another article on this site, publishers have bigger fish to fry than self-publishing writers. I didn’t believe how back the piracy was until out of curiosity I searched a popular thriller writer’s name on 4 shared; over 2 million downloads, all free. Wow.

  14. Oh terrible pirates.
    Sharing books that they aren’t allowed to buy due to geographical restrictions. Perhaps even sharing books that are out of print. Or just not available in ebook format. Oh the poor publishers are losing so many sales……
    Or maybe not really.
    They ignore willing customers, ignore their own authors by not publishing back catalogues. Or just by not making the books available at all.

    This doesn’t apply to all the books shared out there, it’s not a clear cut issue. It’s easy to blame piracy for the problems in the publishing industry but publishers should take a look at themselves first.

  15. The music industry hasn’t figured it all out either – just somewhat better.

    Australians can’t buy ANY mp3s from Amazon, for example. e.g. it would undercut the far more expensive prices we get charged for music here.

    Therefore there are significant amounts of music we can’t buy. But of course can find for free in 25 seconds.

  16. I see they are only available for the UK. Personally I see it slightly differently in that the music is available to you … just not in the format or at the price it perhaps should be.
    With eBooks, there are many eBook titles that you simply cannot buy from any source in Aussie .. true ?
    (Is Amazon cheaper than iTunes ?)

  17. “I didn’t believe how back the piracy was until out of curiosity I searched a popular thriller writer’s name on 4 shared; over 2 million downloads, all free. Wow.”

    Are some people REALLY that gullible ???

  18. No, far more music IS available in the format people Australians want – mp3 or FLAC or whatever. It just is not for sale. :)

    Apple is always the most expensive. :)

    There are huge numbers of books not available to Australians to buy in ebook form.

    Dune, for one. Which is quite astounding.

  19. In response to some of the responses about my comment: We can certainly go back and forth about the circumstances about my work getting pirated, especially along with other pirated material… but I’d argue that that’s beside the point. The point is, someone decided to pirate my work, and there it is.

    And I agree that, without actual numbers and stats, it’s pretty much impossible to pin down anything beyond that. I don’t claim to have lost X amount of money, or wasted Y amount of time, because of piracy. But obviously piracy is there. That’s why I limited my comment to pointing out the fallacy of the assumption that the fault is completely on the publishers to change.

    There is a cultural issue at work here, an evolution that began when the first electronic programs became available for sale. DRM proved itself effective for many other software uses (like Adobe and Microsoft products), so it’s only natural that companies would initially look at DRM in relation to this issue… but as ebooks are very different from applications like Photoshop, companies are now coming to the realization that it’s apples and oranges.

    The evolution will continue, but I don’t foresee it progressing until all parties stop finger-pointing and discuss the issues clearly and honestly… which includes accepting blame for our own actions, and what it means to others. The selfish posturing that tends to dominate this issue is getting us nowhere; we’ve been running-in-place for a decade-plus, and need to jump off the treadmill and get moving.

    (Logan, I’m re-releasing all of my older books on the new site, but I’m doing a proofing pass on each of them first, so it’s taking time. Be patient! Denial of Service will always be free, so don’t worry about paying for it… but if you liked it, PLEASE let others know about it, and send them a link to my site; I’ll be happy to accept their payments for other books!)

  20. In order to sell something you need to advertise. Not just put it on the market. PIRACY is mostly seen when what you want to but is no longer on the market. In the case of music in the era 50s to 70s more than likely the cost to re-issue will not be recovered there for it is not done. Only some Greatest Hits are released again but in limited editions. Does not help the Old Fellows who have worn out the old LPs and want to replace them. NOT AVAILABLE ANYWERE except for some guy who shares it online to download. RECORD COMPANY LOST THAT SALE. I got a copy but not the original as I wanted.. Just be satified that the download is available. The next question is.. How many times did that get downloaded ??? That is how many sales the Record Company stole royalties from the Artist. Now Go Kick Ass…

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