Are authors really losing out to ebook piracy?

I read a great deal of noise from authors concerned about theft of their ebooks online, and it seems to be one of the primary fears they have about DRM-free (Digital Right Managed) electronic distribution. But if illegal ebooks prove to be anything like old-school internet warez distribution, I believe authors can worry a little less.

In those primeal internet years, well before peer-to-peer technologies such as torrents were developed, ugly entities called warez sites sprang up to distribute illegal copies of software, games and serial numbers one might otherwise have to pay for. Hackers became crackers (mostly from mainland Europe I seem to remember), specialising in breaking through each new level of software piracy protection. Geeks would hoard thousands of applications on bulging, expensive hard drives, boosting their community status by boasting “ownership” of PhotoShop 2.0 less than one week after its release. (I am talking about everyday internet users here, not organised software “pirates” who burn duplicate disks and print fake boxes.)

Warez were downloaded simply because they could be; because they were there. Sure, some illegal copies were used, sometimes commercially, but the vast majority – and I’m talking from my personal experience with geeks from that time – were downloaded purely for status and by individuals who would never have purchased the paid version in the first place. They downloaded, installed, played for an hour or two, then shoved them onto an archive or backup disk (remember computer hard disks were both small and hugely expensive). It would be simply impossible for any individual to utilise the vast libraries of collected software for any real gain.

The majority of deliberate software piracy I came across working in the design industry – which utilised what might be regarded as the prime piracy targets: Adobe, Quark, et al – came from companies with multiple computer workstations but only one or two legitimate serial numbers.

I remember freelancing for a regional but prestigious design company, just after Adobe introduced network serial number checking. Each workstation had its ethernet network cable connector deliberately routed around the front of the computer. Before booting Photoshop, I was instructed to disconnect the network cable to prevent the software sniffing other copies with the same serial number on the network.

More ebooks than ever

It is not hard to find ilegal download locations for individual books or even collections of thousands of books. Such downloads are not limited to ebooks, you will find countless converted scanned printed books, too.

I believe the warez mentality of the early internet prevails here.

[aside]those downloads are made by individuals who would never have purchased the book in the first place…[/aside]

Authors and publishers may be facing the prospect of many thousands of copies of their books illegally downloaded, but I believe the vast majority of those downloads are made by individuals who would never have purchased the book in the first place. Consider this: if you download a hundred books, how many will you actually read? How many would you have purchased if the illegal download option had not been available?

Are authors losing revenue? Of course, but I do not believe the level of lost revenue from illegal file sharing is as significant as the publishing industry, and many authors, insist.

The situation is very different for DVDs, movies and audio books. These media types can be viewed or listened to whilst working, for example. It is no stretch of the imagination to appreciate that it is far more likely downloaded movies will be watched than downloaded books will be read – purely because of the time commitment.

Online vs offline

I continue to believe the vast majority of genuine readers – by that I mean individuals who select a book because they wish to read it rather than simply “own” it – will continue to purchase the majority of their book collections, even with the growth of reading devices.

The internet gives us a distorted view of the world: geeks are the mainstream. (Though where an author’s audience consists of a majority of geeks, perhaps they have greater cause for concern than if the audience is generally over 65 years old.)

As authors and publishers, we must use our energies in educating readers about the nature and benefits of books in whichever format – particularly regarding their pricing (that’s a whole other story) – and not waste too much energy worrying about illegal distribution amongst the ethereal audience: individuals who would never read our books at all if forced to pay for them.


  1. March 16, 2011

    This is an interesting topic to bring up. It’s such an ongoing debate amongst artists about where they will get their money for their work if everything is available for free. The main issue is that the cost of certain things, especially software, is so high that normal people can’t afford it. There needs to be a way of offering something extra when something is purchased legally as opposed to downloaded illegally.

    • Neil Dixon
      March 18, 2011

      You’re suggesting that people should be enticed and rewarded not to steal, rather than be simply accept that it is wrong?
      Perhaps governments should reward its drivers for not breaking speed limits, or hand out goodie-bags for not holding up jewellery stores.

  2. March 18, 2011

    I’d like to think you’re right, Neil. The problem is the sheer scale of piracy at the moment is breathtaking (my publisher issued ten takedown notices in the past few days). People are now posting requests for stolen books online ( and ‘rewarding’ those who provide them.

    A few weeks back I sat next to a middle aged businessman on a plane who pulled out a Sony ereader and started reading. As we got off I engaged him in conversation and he said one of the great things about it was it mean he could go to sites and get current books ‘for free’. He was no geek, honest, but sadly there wasn’t time to take that conversation any further.

    The damage may be small. I don’t know. But if readers at large get the idea books can be got like this for nothing — as they did with mp3 files in Napster days — we will be hit, big time. There’s no point in going after the hardened pirates. But as you said I do think it’s worth reminding decent, book-buying members of the public that piracy is a bad thing.

    Of course it may be that the degeneration of the ebook market into 99cent homewritten, unedited specials forces commercial publishing to follow suit, with much more dire consequences. But that’s another story…

    As for the argument that we have to offer ‘something extra’… sorry, don’t get it. Book prices in the UK and US are 30-40% cheaper than they were a decade ago, and royalty per copy has diminished at the same pace for authors. We’re supposed to take a pay cut of that magnitude and offer some ‘added value’? Like what? Offering to come round and mow the lawn?

    • Neil Dixon
      March 18, 2011

      There’s no doubt the publishing industry is going to have to suffer through this current upheaval, just as the music industry did. Though still recovering, the industry is still around, people are still making musi and millions – it’s just not as easy as it once would.
      I can only comment from outside the Publishing business, but from here the ground ahead looks very similar.

  3. July 12, 2011

    Thousands of Copyright protected ebooks, which means any not in the Public Domain, are being sold on auction sites as part of CD bundles or shared via Torrent sites. The nature of the Internet makes ebook piracy extremely difficult, if not impossible, to police. It’s a vast digital ocean, so perhaps we have to accept the fact that there will always be pirates and that authors have to allow for the fact that some of their intellectual property will be stolen in this way.

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