The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Some Thoughts, Part Eleven – Piracy

Posted by BigWords on April 25, 2010

The debate of the moment, in case you haven’t been reading many blogs recently, is centered firmly on book piracy. There have been so many opinions already expressed (on both sides of the existing framework of the argument) that it would be the height of foolishness to attempt to continue the debate further. Having spent more than enough time on the matter of technology as the solution to many existing quibbles, I think it is more than appropriate for me to re-phrase the problems of publishing in a manner which has more potency than the simplistic theme of good versus bad (or legal versus illegal, or moral versus whatever…) which so many have waded into without examining why we got into this mess in the first place. I thank the publishers (who have every right to protect their investments), agents, authors, and readers who have already published their views, because without the wealth of opinion already available, this would be akin to shouting in an empty room. You guys have made the topic breathe, so I can now begin to smother the life out of the argument once and for all.

Firstly, everyone is to blame. If you haven’t done something to actively protect copyrighted works, or take down a website hosting illegal material, you are as much to blame as anyone. Even those who have stated that piracy (of any kind) is reprehensible, and who would never themselves download a title they did not pay for, are as much to blame for the current situation as those who are actively making such titles available. The main problem with digital publishing is not one of DRM-free titles, or the ready availability of titles online, or even the fact that way in which the basic business model of releasing books online has been liberally adapted from an industry which was driven to the brink of disaster by ineptitude, arrogance, ignorance and fear – the way in which publishers are ready to follow the music industry’s terrible example has led to the current situation as much as the way that manufacturers of e-book readers have fumbled on the basic requirements for a stable digital publishing landscape. In posting about e-books, I failed to address the problems of multiple formats as a serious issue; the current situation is the fault of every single individual who hasn’t stood up to the way things are done, asking questions which are so basic in their nature as to have surely been thought of before now.

Why can’t a reader handle all file types?

This isn’t a software question, it’s a marketing question. There is no reason that a universal reader couldn’t be created with multimedia-capabilities, though the fact that there isn’t an “ultimate reader” doesn’t seem to bother most people. This is, in part, the reason why piracy is taking money away from the e-book industry, with indignance at having to pay multiple times for different formats of the book (if a download all formats option isn’t included) fueling the rise in copied works. Some have even claimed that it is morally fair to do so, using roundabout logic to validate their belief that ownership of one format is equal to ownership of all formats.

Why, then, are there so many formats?

Money. And arrogance. The idea behind issuing various formats cannot be easily squared with the evidence that a fractured marketing base is bad for customers, yet we see book after book being released across multiple file extensions. This, as should be fairly obvious, is an unsustainable way of doing things. Does the way in which the music industry (with so many different file types) influence publishing to the degree that no original way of doing business can emerge? Are we so blind as to ignore the problems here?

Furthermore, the fact that there are still publishers who are willing to relinquish control of the e-books to a third-party (Amazon, for one) is something of a problem. The loss of control in how an e-book is sold is a big issue. If I was to lay the blame of piracy at one door, it would be the inconsistencies in format, DRM (which I’ll be savaging in a moment) and numerous other factors… Saying “It’s someone else’s problem is not an acceptable answer. Which is the main point of this post. Take. Responsibility. NOW. It isn’t much to ask that people stop laying their problems off on someone else, because I’m sure that the DMCA folks have better things to be doing – they are, after all, going to have better success with film and music content, which also raises the profile of copyright theft. E-books aren’t especially sexy for news reports, so tackling the theft of such material should be an opportunity for publishers to look at the alternatives which are open to them.

DRM (digital rights management), however it is implemented, is as much of a curse as it is a cure. There have been a couple of times in the past when I have had to illegally copy protected software to be able to use it in any useful way. When I buy something I expect it to work. I don’t want, for example, to sit around for three hours while a series of to-and-fro exchanges are made between my computer and the server which validates the software… And then, when you think the software is ready to use, it refuses to run because there is something (which is never explicitly stated) on the hard drive with which it is not allowed to co-exist. Annoying in the extreme, and royally piss-taking when the software costs more than my computer. So DRM is not the solution anyone wants. It may stop lawful consumers accessing material, but it does nothing to stop pirates ripping the text and sharing it via their preferred methods.

The Grand Plan For Writers, Agents & Publishers

  1. Take control of all sales in-house.
  2. Get rid of the competing formats
  3. Create e-books which open within their own reader software.
  4. Issue websites infringing copyright with legal notices directly.
  5. Take down websites which infringe copyright if they don’t comply.
  6. Begin proactively hunting websites which infringe copyright.

Take that in for a moment. Savor the thought that there could be a better way to do things. And, best of all, it will make the digital publishing industry stronger than the music and film industries have managed to be in regards to online theft of material. Tackling those point (in order) I will show that the solution has been around as long as the concept of e-books has – even longer, if you count some of the early open-on-delivery programs which appeared in the early nineties.

This is simple – stop passing off e-books to third-party sales. It is the publisher’s property to sell, so why are companies being allowed to capitalize on something they had no hand in making, no hand in marketing, and had the dumb luck to be permitted to sell. The vultures who take a cut of the proceedings are a major problem. How, for example, are the protections put in place to ensure payment is received, then audited? This, of course, is the responsibility of yet another company, further cutting into the royalties. All that is needed to sell e-books is a damn big server, a competent IT team, and a few websites to promote the book – cut out the middle-men, and the profit margin increases a touch.

The interim solution to multiple formats seems so simple. Get rid of the competing formats, so that the reading public has a chance to acclimatize to a standard format across all publishers. This would take some lengthy discussion regarding which, of the numerous formats available, manages to fulfill all of the requirements, but it would remove the weaker formats altogether. The people who are selling .txt and .doc files of novels ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for releasing such openly-redistributable formats. The no-protection status is a pain to deal with, and I would suggest that the sale of such formats is an immediate cause for concern for all. If such little attention is paid to the fragility of a title’s continued marketability in digital format, what other errors are the publisher making?

The next point is based on my experience with the cover-mounted CD’s of the nineties, which opened in their own Macromedia players. It’s an elegant solution to having control of content, and gets rid of the issues inherent in any particular reader not being able to open a specific file extension. It would also give rise to true multimedia projects as I have already outlined. This is the one area I can see being fought over endlessly, and I refuse to accept that such a solution cannot be reached via common sense. It would be better than the current messy solutions to inconvenient problems, approached by numerous individuals over quite a length of time. Here’s the crux of the current problem – we didn’t get to the status quo by design. Everything in digital publishing was attained by trial and error, and some brilliant ideas were dropped in favor of easier methods. We need to take back control of the technology.

The next three points are connected, so I’ll deal with them together – the pirates are out there. We stumble across pirated material when we are looking for other stuff, but they’re not exactly hiding, are they? They are, most of the time, very open about what they do. And yet the publishing industry – along with music and film counterparts – are behaving in an entirely reactive, rather than proactive, manner. It’s long past time since we should be behaving more along the lines of self-enforcers. Running off to daddy every time the bully steals your lunch money ain’t big, and it’s hardly (with so much evidence) working. A better way of dealing with piracy is to hunt down the people taking money from writers, rather than waiting for the inevitable “gotcha” moment where they are uncovered (given that they aren’t even hiding, the shock and awe is diminished, but still…), then the warnings, and the legal threats, and *yawn*

Pfft. There’s a stand waiting to be taken, yet nobody seems to take the hint… The websites hosting illegally-shared texts should be hit hard by publishers whose material is being stolen. That means doing “whatever it takes” to get them offline. If that means some illicit cracking, then so be it. The pirates are operating outside the legal framework, so it seems right that a “fight fire with fire” position would make sense. Legal and moral issues? The pirates don’t seem to be bothered by such trivialities, so publishers shouldn’t pay too much attention to the implications either.

There you have it. Everyone – yes, even you – can have the blame of piracy squared against them. It’s time to take responsibility for what belongs to us, and time to make sure that those who would steal the hard work of authors are made to feel hunted. Until the playing field is leveled – and the rules of the game are changed – the pirates will always have the upper hand.

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