Book Piracy. It’s a crime.

You know when you go to the cinema and that screen comes up warning you against illegally recording the film?  Well every single time the screen lists the penalties, you know what goes through my mind?  A rapist wouldn’t get that sort of sentence!

It makes me mad.  But maybe that’s just me.

Out of interest I found out the penalties for downloading a movie illegally from the Internet.

Upon conviction in the Crown court the maximum term of incarceration in the UK for physical copyright infringement is 10 years and/or an “unlimited” fine.

Last year the average sentence for rape in the UK was 8 years.

It doesn’t seem right.

Not that I’m saying that piracy is OK.  I’M NOT.

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a pirated film in my life.  I don’t illegally download movies or music from the Internet.  This is not because I’m worried about a conviction (although perhaps I should be but it is because I know that if I’m getting something for free that should be paying for, then it’s stealing.  And I don’t steal.

When I was a kid I once walked half a mile back to a sweet shop because I’d accidentally taken two penny sweets (they were stuck together) and I’d only paid for one.  I felt that I had to go and give the shopkeeper the extra penny.

Part of me thinks I should be illegally downloading, just to thumb my nose at the idiots who think it is worse for a bloke to video a film while watching it than it is for him to rape.

Part of me thinks what’s the problem?  According to Forbes, Steven Spielberg’s worth is at $3 billion.  In addition to raking it in at the box office, every year he pockets 2% of the gross box office receipts from Universal’s theme park in Orlando ($30m).  If I downloaded his latest film illegally then I’d be taking the equivalent of a few of the pennies he drops down the sofa and never bothers retrieving.

I can see why people download movies illegally.

BUT … it isn’t Speilberg who gets impacted by piracy is it?  The fact is, if sales of the product no longer bring in money, studios have to save money elsewhere.  Who gets impacted by piracy?  The staff members who don’t get hired next time, the production assistant who has to do the job of three people because the studio has to cut costs, the editing team who have to produce a lower quality product because of budget cuts.

I still don’t think the penalties should be as stiff as they are, but I think we do need to stop this insidious culture of thinking that theft is OK if it’s done over the Internet.

This hit home this week when I was stolen from, when I found that Angel’s Fury was available as a free download on the Internet..

The gestation of ebooks has created an environment where suddenly we can have ‘book piracy’.

Again, I understand why.

Often I go on school visits and students complain about the cost of buying a book (the same students who would happily pay the same for two cups of coffee in a Starbucks, go figure) and of course, to an extent, writers suffer from the Speilberg problem.

Many readers (especially young readers) imagine that all authors are as rich as JK Rowling.  They think we receive £6.98 from the sale of each £6.99 book.  Often I get asked in school visits how rich I am.  When I tell students the truth about my income (I do try and be truthful in school visits, although I don’t like to put them off a writing life) they are often horrified.

A quick and dirty bit of (non-statistically valid, there are 32 responses) research among adults gave me the following information:

40% of people think that writers earn more per print book than they actually do (some think writers earn 40%).

Over one third think writers of the average book you can find in Waterstones (excluding the outstanding cases such as Rowling, EL James etc) earn an average of £25k per year.  A small minority think we earn up to £50k.

77% of respondents have downloaded free music from the Internet, 53% have downloaded films, almost one quarter, books.

One third would consider downloading a free book (although some of these may be imagining freebies offered in good faith by a publisher).

The fact is, however, that I earn less than 10% of the sale of each book.  My average annual earning since getting my first contract as a writer in 2009 has been less than £2000.

Books downloaded for free take money from my pocket.

But it isn’t just the pennies I’m missing (although I do miss them) what people who download books for free also do not realise is that authors depend on something called Nielsen to tell their publisher how many books they have sold.  The publisher uses Nielsen to tell them whether or not to do another print run of a book, whether or not to commission a sequel.  Whether or not the author is worth keeping on.

Every book downloaded for free from illegal sites is a book that does not appear on Nielsen.

If the Nielsen ranking says low book sales, then the author’s career is jeopardised.

One of the reasons for the slow sales (and consequent decision not to reprint Angel’s Fury) may well be the number of illegal download sites I have discovered my book appearing on (I have so far had it removed from three).

I have no idea how many copies of Angel’s Fury were read for free from these sites.  It might have been five or six, it might have been five or six hundred.  If those books had been bought they would have been added to my sales figures.  Angel’s Fury could have been going to another print run.

There is a lot of might there, but that’s the frustrating point.  I don’t know.

I don’t think there should be stiff penalties for people who download books for free – I understand why they do it after all.  And, in the end, how is it really different from borrowing the book from a friend?

But I DO think there should be stiff penalties for the owners of these sites.  They should pay PLR just as libraries do, but they do not.  They know what they are doing.  They are ripping authors off, destroying careers and potentially ruining lives.

  1. Many of these pirate sites make money from advertising, and I think a lot of the advertisers don’t necessarily know what kind of websites they’re advertising on. I’m talking about the ones using large services like Adsense, who aren’t excluding individual pirate sites because they’re just blanket-advertising everywhere. So in these cases it might be useful to contact these big companies, who may even be selling the kind of things that get pirated, to let them know what’s going on. I believe there are advertisers out there who are unwittingly funding this crime, because they’re too big and too unfocused to realise what all the branches of their organisation are doing.

  2. Great post Bryony! I remember when Lily Allen quit music due to illegal downloads and everyone thought she was being a diva. The film, music and book industry is a numbers game though and piracy means a lot of numbers are not being counted, which definitely has an impact on the artists themselves, as well as those working in the industry.

  3. Have you been following CJ Daugherty’s work on piracy of her books? She has chronicled the difficulties and successes of this on Twitter.

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