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. I think there’s another reason why people pirate e-books that several people seem to ignore. It’s easy to get a digital copy of a book (album, TV show, etc.) and in some ways it’s easier to get an illegal copy than a legitimate copy due to DRM and the distributors. Stealing something physical requires efforts stealing something digitally right now is as easy or easier than buying something. I think that can be the foundation for #2 and #3. If the person isn’t a digital hoarder and only wants to read, not own a title, they will be drawn to the easiest path (instead of searching and buying every best-seller, you can get every one in a zipped file).
    This is part of the reason Amazon gained traction over physical bookstores: easy of discovery and purchase.

    One other thing I haven’t see is any real kind of breakdown on how big piracy is for e-books. I’ve seen estimates from companies trying to sell anti-piracy services, but no solid numbers on how big a threat this is to publishers.

  2. I didn’t get screwed at all by the BN/FW changeover. A few books either didn’t make the change, or I couldn’t DeDRM after they did. That only amounted to 10 out of 1,720 total books, though. Some previously lost books I actually got back after the changeover, because they were killed by expiring format at FW. All in all, I was pleased with the result.

    That doesn’t mean I won’t back up anyway. As I stated before, Publishers have a nasty tendency to believe that if they no longer support your reader, the customer has no recourse but to rebuy. That is not acceptable.

  3. @Juli, sure you can quote me. Just an idea of mine. eBooks from Amazon are actually more expensive in Thailand if your account is set up here (they have a $2 surcharge on the delivery).

  4. It might be germane to mention that if you established your Kindle account in a country (like I did for the US), you may continue to use that account no matter where you are. I moved to China for work, and was able to use my Kindle account in the US to continue buying books. The only problem is that I broke my Kindle, and am now waiting for a replacement, since they don’t sell them here.

  5. Paul, information might want to be free, but entertainment has to be paid for, or it stops being created.

  6. pls. don’t forget the geographical restriction also for the ebooks

  7. pls. don’t forget the geographical restriction also
    I give you an example, J. Scalzi : Human division #2, Kindle format
    If you live in USA , for you 0,99 , for me in Hungary 3,80 , even I’m a fun of his work, it is maybe a masterpiece, to pay 3,80 for an episode …

  8. One contributing factor at least that I think deserves remarking on is the compelling quality of the legally free content available as ebooks. Project Gutenberg et. al. ensure that material which simply wipes the floor with the vast majority of new writing is readily available for nothing, and people become habituated to not paying for it.

    Please note that this is *not* an argument to ramp up copyright entitlements even further. It *is* an argument for publishers to wake up their business models, pricing and charging strategies, and editorial standards even further. It’s the same argument that has faced record companies for ever now. Big Media has been penalizing its audience for ages for its slowness and reluctance to adapt to the new environment. There are ways to do this without punishing your own customers, if only companies were flexible enough to do so: Amazon, for all its flaws, is one of the few that’s come closest to doing this. Without Amazon, we would probably all be still waiting for the publishing establishment to test the ebook waters.

    Lastly, there’s cause of piracy I haven’t seen mentioned here – and dismiss it if you like. That’s a combination of altruism and vengefulness. People may positively resent certain restrictions imposed by publishers, and respond accordingly. For instance, see my earlier post on the situation with George Orwell in the US. [http://newteleread.com/wordpress/books/a-new-black-orwellian-saga-for-orwell-day/] Myself, I take great pleasure in highlighting the copyright-free sites where Orwell’s work can be downloaded, entirely legally, in Australia, Canada, etc., because the author himself is dead and his ideas live for ever. The importance of his ideas to the entire human experience, to the struggle for freedom, their value as tools and weapons in the face of political and commercial assaults on our powers of thought and action, far outweigh the interests of publishing companies in a situation where the realities of the market and the environment have rendered their enforcement ridiculous anyway – and where no living creator is being hurt.

    I don’t agree with the thesis that you should never pay for ebooks. I do believe that creators, though less so their marketers and distributors, deserve their rewards. But the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act is one major contributory factor to piracy, IMHO. People will break the rules of what they see as an unfair system, and once they start that habit, it may become hard to break. But the rule-makers are the cause.

    And as for the argument that new works won’t be created without payment, I can tell you as a writer that that is a non-starter. Creators are churning out writing, music, etc, regardless, and will continue to do so. Yes, payment is nice. But the rewards are more than financial, as almost any creator will tell you.

  9. Wow. Lots of good discussion while I was asleep.

    Lots of good points. Thank you @David Lomac for defending my honesty. I admit I was mostly focusing on problems that could be addressed by publishers. People who want to steal, will do so, regardless of what publishers do. I’d just like to see policies in place that encourage basically honest people to do the right thing and not feel like they are being taken advantage of when they do so.

    Geographical restrictions are a huge problem, and I lumped them under #3, the book I want isn’t available.

    Good point, @ZorkNine on piracy to avoid legal scanning of paper books you own. I’ve personally taken to re-buying, in digital, books that fall in that category (when a digital version is available), but I realize not everyone can afford to or wants to do that. I’ve eliminated a lot of paper books I used to own, and didn’t bother to digitize most of them because I didn’t expect to re-read more than a few of them.

    Sorry if I missed something I really should have responded to. Keep up the conversation. I assume Dan will release my follow up article later today, and we’ll have even more to discuss.

  10. I’d like to point out a few other situations that should be accounted for in the article,

    “I download pirated ebooks because I want to try before I buy” (The limited online previews are completely useless for that purpose).

    And it seems to me that the article classifies pirating only as the act of downloading stuff, but I think that one should also investigate the motives of those who upload pirated contents.

    PS: The analogy between physical and digital goods at some point cannot be enforced anymore. There is no “theft” of digital goods, as understood in the common sense of the word, simply because digital stuff can be copied at no expense and the owner still has it in his possession.

  11. @Juli – I would also suggest contacting B&N’s phone support. My Nook conversion from FW and eReader got “stuck” at 2 books out of almost 200. When I called, they unstuck it and the rest loaded within a few hours. I got 221 out of the 246 that I had. Two got linked up to the wrong book, and 23 were on the “could not bring over” list.

    I had already downloaded and converted them all back in 2010, but I’m glad to have them moved to Nook (even though I dislike their iPad app), because I now have clean ePubs for my Sony T1. Some of my original eReader conversions came out a bit clunky, especial word breaks.

  12. I think other might have said this already, but I think the Mallory Effect is a big reason. They pirate because they can. It’s there, so they take. Afterwards, they justify their actions with some of the reasons states.

  13. Paul St.John, I’ve taught literature to middle school, high school, and college kids, and most HATE to read books that are now out of copyright.

    Narrative styles have changed and simplified, and most readers find reading these books is like fighting their way through a field of thorns to get to the good stuff. I seriously doubt that free Gutenberg classics are fueling pirates’ love of stolen contemporary books.

    And as a professional writer who knows hundreds of other professional authors, I can say that few of us would do it for free if people stopped paying for it. First, if we can’t make money because people are stealing our works, it’s insulting. Second, to reach a professional level of writing, we spend years learning our craft, thousands of dollars on education, and so much time in front of the computer writing that we have to give up things others take for granted like going to movies, watching a game on TV, and sleeping a decent number of hours.

    And what we receive as payment for all that if no one payed for the right to read out work? Very little. I offer hundreds of articles and over a dozen short works for free on my blog and website. I get thousands of hits a week, and readers stay around to read more than one story or article. Do I get thanks? Maybe one or two a year. Do they bother to at least look at my books for sale? Almost never.

    Do you really think an author would devote their life to receiving so little?

    Sure, some newer writers might, but most of us won’t.

    What this means for readers is that they’d be stuck with dreck from amateur authors who have no reason to improve while the talented authors find something better to do with their time.

  14. Marilynn, I’d be very surprised if today’s readers were facing huge hurdles in digesting The Great Gatsby (available free, legally, on Gutenberg Australia), or 1984 (ditto), or The Iceman Cometh (ditto ditto) – I could go on. And if readers do face a daunting disjunction in narrative styles between the Gutenberg US archive and today, how much of that is due to the effect of copyright extension in the US? It does make a difference if you have only 50 years or far longer to cover, but whose fault is that?

    And I am not arguing that living writers shouldn’t be paid, and shouldn’t be entitled to the rewards of their work. But publishing companies should not be entitled to the proceeds of writers’ estates after their deaths beyond a reasonable limit which the US system has long since exceeded. Even in ebook format, publishers have plenty of ways to add value to out-of-copyright works, as anyone who has tried reading ill-formatted poetry off Gutenberg can tell you. They don’t need this kind of legal featherbeddding. And there is no sign of the Australian or Canadian publishing industries crumbling because of their respective copyright statutes.

    And as another professional writer who also knows hundreds of others (yes, me too), I can tell you that most have day jobs, and many write for the pure love of it. I don’t recall that Emily Dickinson struggled to earn from her pen. Or Kafka. Or Milton. If writers do want and need to be paid for their work, like for instance Chatterton or Baudelaire, of course they should be. But by your count, Dickinson, Kafka and Milton all count as amateurs. How much dreck are they responsible for?

    And if this all sounds too dated, look at Thomas Ligotti – supporting himself for years at an office desk and later as a freelance editor while he perfected a body of work that is unlikely ever to have enough mass appeal to support him, no matter what copyright regulations apply. But he’s kept at his writing for important personal reasons that have nothing to do with making a living from it. So does that make him an amateur who purveys dreck at the expense of professional writers?

    Repeat: I am not arguing about depriving living writers of their reward. I am not arguing about DRM. I am arguing about the geographical and temporal range of copyright restrictions on the work of dead writers – who of course aren’t around to enjoy the rewards anyway.

    Readers are going to be surrounded by dreck with publishers’ help or without, but the professional versus amateur distinction has nothing to do with it – and is deeply insulting to many fine writers who stuck to their craft while knowing full well they could never earn a living from it. And for all writers, pro or amateur, Amazon’s 70% royalty deal is a far better one than the traditional publishing industry 10-15%.

  15. Paul, copyright affects narrative style? Really?

    Narrative style is constantly changing. Not only has it changed in the last hundred years, it has changed in the last ten years. It’s becoming so lean I keep expecting it to start looking like stage directions for a play.

    Most readers aren’t patient enough to deal with older styles, and I’ve met very few students who don’t have trouble with narrative older than fifty years.

    If a writer wants to write with no hope of making money, God speed to him, but I can guarantee that it will get very old, very fast, as the first flush of knowing people are reading gets lost in the silence of the audience and the time sink that is sitting on your butt alone for hours at a time.

    I always recommend that, if a writer only wants to be read and wants an enthusiastic audience, she should write fanfic in a fanfic community. Otherwise, it’s hard to connect with readers and the lack of interest will break her heart or take away the fun of writing.

    Yes, most pro writers have day jobs. I support myself by teaching online most of the time. That still doesn’t mean that pro writers are willing to spend half their day, all their free time, and their health plugging away at a career that offers no cash back.

    I’ve had so many friends stop writing because the writing income wasn’t adequate, the spouse and the kids were neglected, the back and other body parts were falling apart, and the stress of writing 3-4 books a year while maintaining all the promotion, etc., necessary for a professional career was destroying them.

    And you expect most would do this for free?

  16. I’m sorry, Marilynn, but you’re not going to convince me that writers never go to movies or watch ball games. With all due respect, there are a lot of things a lot of people are passionate about and value greatly that don’t pay the bills. We all have to engage in that delicate balancing act between our livelihoods and the rest of our lives. Most of us do what we do and only hear ‘thanks’ a handful of times. Most of us have to give up our free time, at least sometimes, because of the dictates of our jobs. That is not special to ‘writers’ or to any kind of artist.

    Some writers will make a living at it. Some will make a hobby. That’s just the way it is. If you sell your work and somebody wants it, they should totally pay the price you ask for. But if you can’t convince enough people to do that so that you can pay your bills, that’s life. I do pay for the books I read. But I don’t owe a living to everybody who wants to be a writer just because writers are ‘special.’

  17. Joanna, I don’t expect to make a living, but I do expect that those who read my work get it free legally at a library or buy it, not steal it. Is that too much to ask for the pleasure I give people? That’s all that most writers want with a little respect thrown in.

    And, I’ve written for thirty years, some of my friends even longer than that, and we do give up a lot to write.

    Do you have any idea of the time and energy it takes to write a novel? In my faster days, I could write as fast as Stephen King, and it took me months, three to four hours every night, to finish a 100,000 word novel. Then there are the rewrites, etc. And where did all that time come from except by giving up other stuff?

    To be a writer that has the craft of a pro takes years. It’s the same as being a pro athlete except we do it with our brains instead of our bodies as we perfect our craft. Because I started in the days before the Internet and all the classes available, it took me thirteen years and about as many novels before I sold my first one.

    Sure, there’s pleasure in the creating, but there’s also the trade-off the lost time and relationships, the financial losses, and sheer crap I have to put up with jerks who haven’t a clue about what I do.

  18. Very valid reasons, I guess. Some people might think why they should be paying for an e-book when they can have it for free.

  19. FYI all, although slightly off topic – but it’s a pleasure to read anyway. This is Adam Nevill’s take on what it takes to become a writer:


    And in particular:

    “Forget about deals and careers for a moment, or even for a few years. The writing is what counts. I have a very old-school approach to writing because it’s the only one I know: read the canon of the field you want to contribute to, acquire the craft of good writing through practice, develop a voice. If it takes 10 years or longer, so be it. ‘Apartment 16′ took four years to write and ‘The Ritual’ another two after that. There was no deadline, deal or publisher waiting for either book, or even any readers besides my dad. And during most of that time, little had changed in publishing: No one was publishing horror in the mainstream beyond some series fiction in the U.S. and the big names from the 1970s. So why did I write them? Because I was driven to.”

    Marilynn, why are you getting defensive in a forum that is supposed to be about how to *stop* or minimize piracy, and ensure the optimum delivery of revenues from writing to the writers? I don’t see anyone defending piracy here. If writers, like publishers, can make compelling and competitively priced work for readers, it will get paid for. Amazon et. al. have made that terrifically easy. But clinging to the practices of the past, especially when these in fact work far more to the publisher’s benefit than the writer’s, is not going to help. Publishers’ and writers’ interests are not necessarily aligned.

  20. I found it interesting that you didn’t even bring up the reason I have free books from online and the reason Baen became the leading sci-fi publisher in the US from distributing free copies of electronic books: trying out new authors. I’ve bought entire series of novels written by an author I hadn’t read before because I got a free copy online. If making a novel freely available online “costs” you one sale but gets you dozens in return, then both the authors and the publishers benefit. All this is because executives (except the ones at Baen) are incapable of seeing online distribution for free for what it really is…the most cost effective form of marketing available.

  21. This is well worth adding to the debate – Antigua has been officially, internationally licensed by the WTO to launch a pirate website to distribute US-originated content copyright free.

    Personally I don’t think this outcome is in the interests of anyone in particular, even the government of Antigua. But it goes to show how academic the whole debate is becoming. If this goes ahead, as the Antiguans point out, it won’t even be piracy per se, as the internationally responsible licensing body has sanctioned it. More like privateering perhaps … ?


  22. Calvert, I didn’t mention it because it’s a huge can of worms I didn’t want to open. I know several authors who have deliberately uploaded their works to pirate sites and seen a large bump in sales afterwards. One author friend of mine, when he discovered his book was on alt.binaries.ebooks had this reaction “Now I’m somebody!”

    Yes, giving away content for free can be good marketing. However, with the surge in self-publishing, I think the effect is diminishing.

    Paul, I saw the Antigua article. Honestly, I’ve got mixed feelings about it, and I intend to follow the story and see what happens. But I do like calling it “privateering.” Sort of puts a different spin on it. And your point on publishers’ and writers’ interests is well taken. Lots of authors are seeing that and are jumping ship to self-publishing.

  23. Marilynn, nobody here (including me) is saying that it’s ‘too much to ask’ to be paid for the copies of your work that people use. What people *are* saying though is that it IS too much to ask to expect people to feel sorry for you if those copies you sell don’t represent enough to live on. The reality is that for most people, art is a hobby—at least, it starts off that way. If you can parlay it into something bigger, more power to you. But if you can’t and it remains a hobby, the question then becomes ‘do you love it enough to spend your leisure time on it just for the fun of it?’ And every aspiring artist must answer that for themselves. Personally, I enjoy it enough to write for fun, and whatever money I make at it is a nice bonus. But I balance my life too and if my productivity as a writer is less one month because I go on vacation or have something extra going on at work, that’s life. I would never ask anyone to feel sorry for me because I can’t spend as much time on my ‘art’ as I might wish to.

  24. Joanna, have I ever said that I demand to make a living at what I do? I’ve been contributing to this site for a number of years, and you’re welcome to go through all those comments to see if I’ve ever made this statement. A hint. I never have.

    All I ask is that I’m paid for what I do.

    Writing professionally is a crap shoot. Some make a great deal of money. Others have perfectly good writing careers and make a decent living. The rest of us are lucky to pay the writing bills.

    Some who aren’t making much believe enough in themselves they keep at it making a pittance in hopes of breaking out with a bestseller or movie deal. Some burn out and stop writing when the writing stops being fun and the business hell of writing becomes too much. Lucky others get a life.

    I always tell young writers it’s time to stop writing when the writing stops being fun because the downside of the profession and the minimal profit aren’t worth it otherwise.

  25. On the Antigua situation, the WTO has no legal right to suspend copyright laws since international copyright laws are part of the New Berne copyright agreement between nations. Good luck on this doing anything but making both parties look like posturing idiots.

    On Baen Books. I was on a panel on ebook publishing with the ebook guru of Baen Books in 2001 at Stellarcon. We had a very spirited discussion about the future of ebooks.

    Baen built its free ebooks program because they believed that no one wanted to read ebooks and after the first few chapters the reader would give up in disgust and buy the paper copy. This proved fairly accurate for a short time because paper sales soared.

    They also believed that ebooks would not mainstream until 2023 or later so they weren’t worried about losing ebook sales by giving away entire backlists of their authors.

    To say they were off by lots of years is putting it mildly.

    Their webscriptions service has worked well for them as well as their Baen’s Bar connection with their fans.

    But they have had to retrench because they were so wrong about the changes in the digital market that they must now move into the ereader market. To do that, they can no longer cut their prices because contracts with Amazon, etc., won’t allow them to. And they must raise their prices to allow for Amazon and other vendors’ cut.

    I have not kept up with their free books offered, but I doubt it is so generous as to offer an entire backlist of their writing stable because backlist is the lifeblood of most publishers.

    So, Baen’s choices were smart at the beginning but very wrong in the long term.

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