Why Do People Pirate E-Books?

Piracy is an endlessly debated topic. Views on it range from “don’t worry about it too much” to “it has a huge impact on sales.” What is often ignored are the reasons why people pirate and, from there, what publishers could do about it.

How To Deter Piracy of E-Books
I’ve hung out in forums with e-book pirates. I’ve read about the subject, and I think I can distill my observations down to three main reasons why people pirate (or why they justify it to themselves). In this article, I’ll examine them. In my next article, I’ll discuss how understanding the reasons can lead to practical ways to reduce book piracy.

I expect this article to generate comments—some of them heated. Please understand that I’m not justifying or supporting the reasons presented below. I’m just reporting on my observations over the years.

1. I Like To Collect Stuff

There are a lot of “collectors” of e-books. I used to hang out on alt.binaries.ebooks, and I saw this syndrome frequently. People would just upload their entire hard drive worth of books. Think on the order of hundreds, if not thousands. I doubt many of them even read the books. In fact, I’m sure of it. Frequently the books in the archives were unreadable, or not even the same book as listed.

By the way, the same syndrome exists in the non-pirating e-book reader. A while back there was a thread on a Kindle group about, “How many books do you have on your Kindle?” I remember one person posting that she had over 4,000, almost all acquired as freebies. I doubt she’ll read even a quarter of them, and she’s probably still downloading more today.

2. I’ll Never Pay for An E-Book

I see this sentiment over and over again on message boards, forums, and in the pirate community. Some express it by only downloading free (but legal) books. Others pirate. While there is some overlap with the collector, many of these people do read the books they download. They either will not or cannot spend money on books.

And before you say something like, “you spent money on an e-reader; don’t tell me you can’t afford books,” stop and consider that e-readers are frequently given as gifts, especially to older adults. A significant percentage of the members of the Kindle Korner Yahoo group are retired adults on a fixed income. They have lots of time to read, but they can’t afford to buy many books. Students are another example. Many of them read on cell phones or their computers, but don’t have the discretionary income to buy books.

3. The Book I Want Isn’t Available As An E-Book

Fortunately, this is becoming less common in the United States. But with territorial restrictions, it’s still a huge problem in other countries. Globalization and the rise of the Internet have exposed us to content we wouldn’t have known about 10 to 15 years ago. It’s human nature to want something that looks interesting. It’s also human nature to be annoyed when we can’t get something, and to look for ways to acquire it.

While this problem is lessened for recent books, it’s still evident for backlist titles. And even when backlist titles are available as e-books, they’re often riddled with formatting and scanning errors. If you can find an older book on a pirate site, it’s often been scanned and corrected by a community of readers. I completely agree with the frustration of “I paid $7.99 for that!” Personally, I deal with it by extensively reading reviews of backlist titles, and avoiding the ones that seem to have problems. And no, I don’t then go pirate the book. I just move on to something else. There are more books available that I want to read than years in which I have to read them.

You can probably come up with other reasons for book piracy, but these are the big three I’ve observed over the years. Next, I’ll discuss ways publishers could reach these readers and sell books to them, assuming they want to solve the problem instead of just complaining about it.

53 Comments on Why Do People Pirate E-Books?

  1. 1. I Like To Collect Stuff – This is a relatively benign activity and not really about pirating and probably has next to no impact on sales. It might even have a positive residual marketing impact.

    2. I’ll Never Pay for An E-Book – These folks are the ones who are disrespectful. E-books are are cheap in the grand scheme of things and can be acquired or borrowed (legally) in a myriad of ways. To stand on principle “I’ll never pay for that” is frankly arrogant.

    3. The Book I Want Isn’t Available As An E-Book (and the corollary, The Book I Want Is WAAAY Too Expensive (cf academic books)) – This is a problem with music, TV and other forms of content. Despite there being literally millions of ebooks out there, many, many more are not. “Information” wants to be in circulation. The challenge is to work out how to make *everything* available while respecting rights holders. If content is actually out of print, I have a lot more sympathy for the pirater/piratee … especially if, once in commercial circulation, the pirate does the right thing and pays for the desired content.

  2. Alexander, first I agree that category two folks are being disrespectful. However, as I’ll show in the second article, some of them believe they are being disrespectful toward an industry that is disrespecting them. That doesn’t justify the behavior, but it does show how to address the underlying cause to encourage readers to change their behavior.

  3. 4. Won’t get robbed again (Yeeeeeeeeaaaahhh!) – Remember the early Rocket eBook? I had one. I also had a large library. When Rocket went under, they offered NO method to rescue those books, which means they got $300+ and I got squat when the hardware was no longer produced. Recently, FictionWise (at which I had a huge [paid for] collection) was acquired and shut down by Barnes and Noble. However, they were nice enough to move everything over to their Nook system. Of course, I have a Kindle. All my (paid for) books have now been decrypted against the possibility of such an event happening again. This is, according to publishers, is “piracy”. Reasonable people, on the other hand, expect a certain “durability” in goods, especially those that have no physical existence. Losing their (paid for) goods to the vagaries of business dealings is not to be tolerated.

  4. The eBook vendors may want to consider selling eBooks based on a sliding scale in countries with lower GDPs. So in West Africa, an eBook might be $2, whereas in the US, it would be $8, as an example. Piracy is lost opportunity for the both the vendor and author, and $2 is better than zero.

  5. 4. For the lulz

  6. Paul, that’s an excellent idea. I’m still writing article 2. May I quote you on that?

  7. The world simply doesn’t function on the “I won’t pay for that” rule. You may think your apartment is over-priced but it doesn’t give you the right to stop paying rent. You may think milk is too expensive but that doesn’t give you the right to walk out of the store without paying for it. It you stand on principle saying “I’ll never pay for an ebook”, fine, don’t consume them. They are not yours to take.

  8. Scott, I’ve kind of lumped your point under 2 because it’s one of the reasons some people refuse to pay for e-books, and I completely agree that it’s a huge problem. Not saying it justifies piracy, but it does explain why some people believe it’s justified. I’m apparently one of the outliers who did not get a good Fictionwise to B&N conversion. I got only 11 out of hundreds. Since I’d already backed them up, I didn’t fuss about it.

    But yeah, telling me it’s “piracy” to back up my books when they could be taken away anytime. Kind of rude.

  9. Paul, Juli Yes, software vendors have done this quite successfully in areas where piracy is rife. Differentially price your goods in Russia, China (and make sure they are well-localized and readily available and sales take off.) People thought that Russian and Chinese markets didn’t exist for software, especially games. They were wrong.

    Despite what I say above, there will always be pirates. Even if you make digital purchasing easy, and unbelievably inexpensive. There is a regular software bundle (generally of games) called the “Humble Bundle”. It allows users to pay whatever they want, including as little as one cent to gain legal access to a set of generally quite decent games. Since the proceeds are divided between developers, the Bundle company (a non-profit) and charities according to what the purchaser specifies. Despite being able to pay as little as a penny for games that regularly sell for $20-$100 collectively, some still pirate.

    Juli, I find your article decidedly incomplete from my perspective. For myself, the primary reason (speaking purely hypothetically of course) for piracy would be that you already own the physical book and have no particular desire to scan it in (which you’d be perfectly entitled to do in most countries), and feel no shame in letting someone else do that. (granted that extra step would run you afoul of the law in many countries).

    A second strong hypothetical reason which you seem aware of given your comments, though one not alluded to in the article, would be the… annoyance… of seeing a title at $1.99 or 99 pence in US/UK at Amazon, but seeing in your country that it is $18.

    Disrespect, as you put it.

    One could quite easily hypothesize an annoyed and generally honest person who, irritated, even angered by the perceived disrespect of publishers for their country, decides “screw it, let me just download it”. This is quite unfair to the author, but I find it hard in this hypothetical situation to weep for the publisher.

    Third, I would not characterize the ebook purchasing experience as terribly good. If one has an Epub device, there is the added painful layer of Adobe to complicate transfers. If one is not American, there are currently some unpleasant bugs with Amazon ebook purchasing in some countries. A trivial example: you can search for titles on Amazon.com and rapidly see their prices. Clicking on them leads to a message that you can’t buy them. Fair enough. Go to Amazon.fr or wherever, and some users have the annoyance that searches reveal only (false) messages that books can’t be purchased. Yes, you can get around this easily enough, but it’s cumbersome and annoying.

    Relating to (3), despite Amazon’s excellent work at making Ebook purchasing relatively straightforward, I think companies like Valve (they own the Steam software purchasing service) are well ahead of Amazon in purchase convenience.

    A fourth point, which you may or may not count as piracy: Hypothesize a person who has switched from Amazon to Sony or Kobo. This could be (for example) a person who had easy access to Kindles in the US but then moved, perhaps to Hong Kong or Canada or France. On the surface, for that person to strip the DRM from his or her kindle books, solely so as to be able to read them on a Sony would seem eminently reasonable. Of course, in many countries (thanks to Hollywood) that is actually an even more serious criminal offense than downloading — i.e. outright piracy. Bizarre.

    A rational person might look at the situation, and note that downloading in country X is a civil offense; stripping DRM is a criminal one. Better, then, to simply pirate outright in that context. (I don’t agree with that logic, but I certainly would start to if I saw DRM-stripping prosecutions).

    Me? I’ve purchased about 4,000 physical books over the years. I’ve purchased about 1,500 ebooks. Any other resemblance I have to our hypothetical pirate above is purely coincidental.

    Oh and… finally (really this time). There is what one could call “reverse piracy”. Where authors go out of their way to be reader friendly (e.g. make their books available DRM free, make them easy to purchase regardless of where they are in the world, offer generous prices for their back catalogs…), well, if I like that author’s work, I make a deliberate point of spending up to $100 or so to buy up much or all of their back catalog directly from the author’s website, even if I already own the books physically or electronically. Or I just hit an author’s blog and tip via paypal. At least then I know the author is getting most of it.

    You’re welcome to quote me if you wish, assuming I had anything worth quoting and that you don’t mind citing someone named ZorkNine.

  10. Juli, if you’re in the US, call 855-654-9332 to talk to B&N/Fictionwise customer service. On the other hand, it’s been a week and I’m still waiting for my eReader books to show up in my Nook account.

  11. Here’s another I’ve observed over the years.


    These run the gamut from brats with low self-esteem to bullies who aren’t brave enough to take a little old lady’s purse but want to steal something.

    A subset is “I can’t write so I hate everyone who does.”

  12. Bruce, thanks. I’ll give it a try, just to see if anything happens, but like I said, my books are backed up, so I’m not all that concerned about it. And the Nook app is not one of my favorites.

  13. Scott and Juli: Regarding this quote of Juli’s: “I’m apparently one of the outliers who did not get a good Fictionwise to B&N conversion. I got only 11 out of hundreds. Since I’d already backed them up, I didn’t fuss about it,” … Do either of you have a good sense of many former Fictionwise customers got screwed (or at least feel they got screwed) in the Fictionwise-to-Nook conversion process?

    The reason I ask is because I’m very curious to see what would happen if a large number of customers did call the BN/Fictionwise number Scott listed above. I think it’d be fascinating to compile all the various responses and outcomes. Realistically, the logistics of that sort of thing wouldn’t be easy. But I have a sneaking suspicion there are a lot more unsatisfied former Fictionwise customers out there than it may appear.

    Then again, I don’t really know. But if anyone could shed any sort of light on that situation, it’d be really appreciated. (Please feel free to share your own Fictionwise-to-BN story, good or bad, in the comments.)

  14. Dan, I don’t have a good feel. I just know that every tech or e-book blogger I’ve read who’s talked about it seemed reasonably happy with the results. Hence, my statement that I’m an outlier. I seem to be the only blogger who had unexpectedly bad results. However, I can toss out the question on a few forums and see what comes back.

  15. 4. Because many don’t believe in paying the state-imposed rents that result from the bogus legal concept of “copyright” and “IP”. Information wants to be free; once released into the human ecosystem of the mind, there is no stopping it.
    Read on: http://c4ss.org/content/521

  16. Re: Fictionwise to B&N – Well, I didn’t buy a lot of ebooks from Fictionwise over the years (a dozen or two) but none of them made the transition over to B&N.

    I haven’t gotten around to de-DRMing them since I can still read them but I was really hoping to get .ePub versions of the Palm (pdb) formatted ones… so that was disappointing.

  17. I bought a few dozen titles from Fictionwise and zero of these have been converted to Nook … because I am a Canadian customer and B&N does not sell Nooks or content to Canadian residents. But I don’t feel I got screwed: all the books I “bought” were delivered to me as promised.

    Neither is this crappy customer service a worthy justification for pirating content you haven’t paid for.

    My definition of piracy is not breaking DRM (many of us do to future proof what we’ve paid for); but redistributing that content for a fee or gratis … that’s where piracy comes in. And that’s where No 2 “I’ll never pay for an ebook” kicks in — taking someone else’s commercial content on the arrogant notion that the world owes it to them because they have some sort of grudge against the author, the publisher, the system in general. Bah on them!

  18. I already paid for this once as a dead tree book, and don’t feel like figuring out where it is in my house — I’d rather reread it on the tablet anyway.

    Also, I download and break the drm on every ebook I buy.

  19. @ Paul Salvette, the only problem with that scheme is that it would, I think, presuppose the use of geographical restrictions, as is now the case, and this practice can lead to understandable feelings of disillusionment from some customers. When you have two different prices on two sides of a border, and when your customers can see both prices, the ones being asked the higher price might feel miffed. I understand it’s got to do with that age-old economic principle that “something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it,” but when I see that someone else is allowed to pay less, then I feel like chump for paying more. Dan Simmons’ Drood, an excellent novel, is currently on Kindle for the quite reasonable $8.13, but when I see that the Spanish edition of the novel goes for $4.79, I get reluctant to click the purchase button. I mean, they even had to go the additional expense of hiring a translator, and still the book goes for more than a third less. And don’t even get me started on Kindle daily deals that don’t cross borders — Joe Hill’s Horns for $1.99 today in the US, but still $13.67 in Canada: it’s just insulting.

    It loses customers. I decide not to purchase those books. I don’t pirate them, but I’m sure there are some who do.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, however. I acknowledge that it would be good for publishers to be able to sell ebooks in developing markets, and I am not demanding that my first-world wallet should get treated to developing-economy prices — but the simple fact is that if I’m being asked to pay thirteen bucks to download a book that someone else gets for ninety-nine cents and I find out about it — the sale has been lost.

  20. Personally I wouldn’t buy a format I couldn’t remove the drm from if I need to, I admit to having some pirated books in my calibre collection but they’re all tagged and I’m perfectly willing to purchase them if or when they become available. I’ve even gone to the lengths of using vpns to buy US content when it’s not available in the uk at all. I had a lot of content in both ereader and Fictionwise but made sure I got it all backed up. Haven’t heard much about the b&n migration at all.

  21. The author dishonestly ignores the most common reason for piracy: the thief prefers to steal rather than act honestly and pay. Same reason and same lack of ethics that underlie many other types of theft. The thieves have plenty of rationalizations available, but none of them nor the author’s dishonesty change the simple fact that in almost all cases, the thieves steal because they prefer to steal.

  22. Yes, I think that we need to exclude the removal of DRM from the definition of piracy. The “sticky” part of this assertion is the fact that some eBook sellers are actually eBook renters but obscure that fact from consumers. They also obscure the terms of rental. It would seem that, at best, the rental period is for the life of the consumer or the life of the seller – whichever ceases first. In the case of eTextbooks, the rental period is usually 180 days. AFAIK, no one has challenged these terms of sale or the obfuscation of them. Surely, that will happen eventually.

  23. I agree with the consensus that members of group two are arrogant bullies. If people don’t want to pay for a Mercedes Benz, that’s fine… but they shouldn’t expect that gives them the right to drive one. Similarly, there are plenty of great books for free… with more added every day (and not just public domain books, either). While I’m sure that some of them are, in fact, too poor to afford the books they want, the solution is to deal with poverty, not to expect authors and publishers to join them in poverty. As for the first category, I agree that if they don’t read the book, this doesn’t constitute lost revenue, but it’s still a disrespectful attitude. Just because they can hoard a zillion books doesn’t make it right. As far as #3 is concerned, I believe this has always been an excuse. I understand that international rights may mean that a book becomes available in one market before another (which is something newer publishers like me have avoided) but I don’t subscribe to the right to pirate a book available, say, in Australia, just because it won’t be published in the US for a few months.

    Rob Preece

  24. I started backing up copies of my Fictionwise books after some of them disappeared from my account online, a couple of years ago. I only realized this because I wanted to re-read one, and while the title and author showed up in my account, there was no link to download the book again. Since I had the rest of my books on my computer, I didn’t bother to sign up for the transfer to B&N so I don’t know how many of my nearly 1700 Palm/Fictionwise purchases would have been lost in transit.

  25. @Hiram Miggs, I don’t think Juli is being dishonest in this article. Her #2 might have been a little easy on the pirates, but she certainly didn’t stint at calling them pirates after all. She’s not falsely ennobling them, and I think it’s disingenuous to suggest she is.

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