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Edward Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives has a summary of events at Brazil’s second digital book conference. There is some interesting stuff there, including the contention of SocialBook founder Bob Stein that Brazil has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of far-too-conservative American publishers who “blew it” when it came to meeting the e-book challenge.

But something I find more interesting in this case is Nawotka’s “discussion seed” post, that brings up a point raised at the conference that wasn’t even reflected in the main article.

One panelist noted that piracy proves, at the very least, that there is demand in the marketplace for a book and that publishers can capitalize on the attention. Others balked at the suggestion.

And so the question was posed: is it better to sell 100 books with none pirated, or sell 1,000 books with 9,000 pirated?

It isn’t generally stated so boldly, but this is a dichotomy that seems to be at the heart of media creators’ anger over piracy. People get upset at the thought of someone reading, listening to, or viewing their works without paying for it—but at the same time, a good deal of evidence suggests that piracy actually helps to promote those works so they sell more.

Douglas C Merrill, formerly an executive at Google and record label EMI, gave a keynote recently pointing out that when he profiled Limewire users during his time at EMI, he found they were also iTunes’s biggest spenders. And one source within a German survey company claims that a study on movie pirates found a similar trend—so much so that the study was “locked away ‘in the poison cupboard’” for fear of discomfiting the movie industry. (Another recent study suggests that piracy increases the overall quality of the works being pirated, as well, though that’s not quite the same thing.) And of course a number of voices from the publishing industry, most notably Tim O’Reilly, have said piracy could be helpful as well.

This is not necessarily universally true, of course, and undoubtedly people can bring up a number of counter-examples where piracy harms someone’s market instead of helping it. But the point is, whenever piracy is brought up, a lot of people react as if it weren’t true at all, and any case of someone getting their content for free is not only taking the bread out of their mouths but an affront to their moral dignity. But what if piracy actually is helping them sell more books?

It’s sort of a glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty kind of thing. In the 100 vs. 1,000 + 9,000 example above, some people would be inclined to say, “Hey, great, I sold 1,000 copies instead of 100!” But others would only be able to see the 9,000 they weren’t paid for.

I’m not going to go so far as to say illicit sharers and downloaders are right to do what they’re doing, but what if they’re also buying more legitimate works because of it? Perhaps content creators should consider whether they can bear the insult to their dignity of someone reading their work “for free” if it actually does end up helping them sell more.

 
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