This past holiday season, hundreds of thousands of e-readers were given as gifts, spurring a massive explosion in the number of e-books flying off virtual shelves that shows no signs of stopping. Many of these new owners have discovered websites where e-books can be downloaded for free -- legitimate websites, like Project Gutenberg or Google Books, as well as "pirate websites," file-sharing sites where copyrighted content is made available to readers without the author's permission.
The Cost to Authors
Lost book sales can't be quantified, making it impossible to calculate the full cost of e-piracy, but the sheer number of illegal copies available for download gives an idea of the scope of the problem. At one file-sharing website, users have uploaded 1,830 copies of three books by a popular young adult author. Just one of those copies has had 4,208 downloads. On the same site, 7,130 copies of the late Michael Crichton's novels have been uploaded, and the first 10 copies have been downloaded 15,174 times.
Even if only a fraction of the downloads from this and dozens of other file-sharing websites represent actual lost sales, they still translate into a staggering amount of royalties that have been stolen from authors.
There's another cost to authors besides lost royalties: time. Many file-sharing websites will remove unauthorized material, but only at the instigation of the copyright holder. Multiple copies require multiple takedown requests. And, even after an illegal copy of an author's work has been removed, the book is often simply reposted by another user.
An Uphill Battle
Author Lesley Livingston's solution has been to create a "stock template DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998) cease and desist letter" to combat the theft of her work. Every Saturday, she spends "a glorious hour or two sending [the letters] to site admins."
"I put Google Alerts on all my book titles, and that pops some pirated copies," says Julie Kramer, author of the award-winning Riley Spartz mystery series. "When I first started sending them to my publisher a couple years ago, they were outraged. But now it's so widespread, I don't think they can keep up with it."
An executive editor at a major publishing house agrees: "Our legal department has a lawyer on retainer whose job is to slap a cease-and-desist on any site featuring an illegal copy of any of our books," he admitted. "That usually gets it taken down, though it usually pops up again somewhere else. With the growth and spread of e-books, it's clearly going to be an area that we'll need to be watching very closely. What we'll be able to do about it is another question entirely."
Why So Difficult to Control?
One of the biggest problems with literary piracy lies in its decentralized model. As Ian Barker, a novelist and editor at PC Utilities magazine, explains, "Torrent sites are basically nothing more than an index. They don't actually host the files that are available to download. These are on dozens -- even hundreds -- of different PCs belonging to individuals."
To make things even worse, the files themselves are often distributed across multiple computers: "Torrents work by splitting the file up into pieces and downloading it in sections, which are then reassembled on your machine. When you download via a torrent you'll seldom get all of the file from one source; it will come from several locations at once."
Websites offering pirated e-books also evolve quickly to stay ahead of publishers. One advises users: "In order to assure stability for the community, we will be slowly adding alternative/additional ways to access [name of website]. Additional TLD's, (Domain Extensions) IP access, etc. This is to ensure that there could never be interruption to our service."
Getting in the Way of a Great Relationship
Traditionally, authors and readers play on the same team. Authors create content and readers read it in a mutually beneficial relationship. But e-piracy has put readers and writers at odds by offering content for free. Some authors accept the existence of illegal copies as an unavoidable cost of doing business, but for most, the bottom line truly is the bottom line. Publishing is a business, and authors whose titles don't sell well aren't offered follow-up contracts.
Meanwhile, their existing titles will likely go out of print, further degrading their bottom line. And while authors now have the ability to publish their out-of-print titles electronically themselves, such self-published e-books are still subject to piracy. Either way, there's little doubt that the widespread availability of illegal digital copies affects their income.
This causes a moral crisis for some e-pirates. "I've debated [scanning and uploading] some newer authors and books," one admits, "but I would need to ... resolve the moral dilemma of actually causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love."
But most file-sharers see themselves as a community. They believe they offer a useful service, and their hackles go up when authors and publishers take steps to shut their websites down. After one site bowed to pressure and removed their e-books section entirely, hundreds of users bemoaned the loss. One posted a warning: "One word to the Publishers and Authors who created original trouble -- Do whatever you want you cannot Stop readers from getting free Ebooks. You people don't stand a chance against [the] entire Internet. As Long as [the] Internet is alive, we readers will continue to share Ebooks."
And authors continue to battle the pirates.