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Lloyd Shepherd

The Pirate Sector

How damaging is book piracy? It depends whom you ask. An author who's just stumbled across an illicit copy of her work will be upset and full of anger. Over time these individual anecdotes of loss and outrage coalesce into generally received wisdom: that piracy is aggressive and pervasive and that it is bringing the book trade to its knees. Piracy is theft. Piracy is killing publishing. Piracy is taking food out of my children's mouths. How can I stop it happening to me?

The answer is simple: you cannot stop piracy. The illegal copying of the stuff we're now forced to call 'content' is an inevitable consequence of digital technology. Piracy is a side effect of the internet. But before we lose ourselves in helpless outrage, it's worth asking a simple question: just how big a problem is it? The answer may surprise you.

Look at the data that's available. Britain's communications regulator Ofcom has now produced four waves of its commendably detailed Copyright Infringement Tracker. Anyone interested in piracy should read it in some detail.

The most recent survey covers March to May 2013 and it suggests that book piracy, as opposed to movie or music piracy, is a marginal activity that barely registers in the data. Only 1 per cent of British internet users downloaded a book illegally in the period surveyed, and only 10 per cent of all book downloads were illegal (these figures include legitimate free downloads from services such as Project Gutenberg).

To put it another way, 90 per cent of the online book trade is made up of paid-for retail or legitimate free services. Pause for a moment on that figure. Can the physical book trade, with its libraries and charity shops, boast a figure that high?

This is hardly a piratical takeover and the British book trade is not crumbling in the face of it. According to the Publishers Association, UK publishers' sales across all formats in 2012 were up by 4 per cent on the previous year. Physical book sales fell by 1 per cent while digital sales surged by 66 per cent. Mapping the Ofcom numbers onto the Publishers Association figures suggests that in 2012 book piracy may have been equivalent to around 40 million (10 per cent of digital publishing revenues) out of total publishing revenues of 3.3 billion. And that assumes that each of those illegal downloads replaced a legitimate, purchased one.

Books, it is clear, are different to music and film, where illegal downloading is ten times more prevalent. Is there something different about the audience for books which makes piracy less of a problem? Yes. The book audience is older, it's more affluent and it's more female. Men download and share illegal material more than women; younger people download illegally more than older people. Older people, particularly those who are book readers, have the money to buy their entertainment legitimately and they probably don't have either the time or the inclination to poke around in the darker corners of the web for free books or to install the obscure and clunky software needed to download them. They'd rather plug in their Kindles, iPads or Kobos and forget about it.

What the British figures tell us is this: where legitimate e-books are widely available and easy to access, piracy barely registers. But this is not the case in other countries and raises a crunchier problem for any rational discussion of piracy. Russian book-sharing site Library Genesis offers a massive archive of almost a million books. The site describes itself as a 'scientific community targeting collections of books on natural science disciplines and engineering', but the purity of this mission is at odds with the titles that are available. The most commonly pirated Western fiction seems to be material beloved by computer engineers. A search for 'Terry Pratchett' brings up almost nine pages of results in a variety of formats; David Foster Wallace, three pages; Donna Tartt, barely one.

Markets such as Russia remain a problem for publishing. By some estimates, 95 per cent of e-book downloads in Russia are illegitimate. But the big players in e-books - specifically Amazon - do not operate in Russia and there is a paucity of legitimate titles available (perhaps only 60,000). I have no experience of downloading an e-book in Russia but I'd like to bet it's not as easy or convenient as downloading an e-book in Britain. In such an environment, piracy becomes the convenient option, not the outlaw one.

All of which raises an interesting question: if your book isn't being distributed in Russia but is being merrily downloaded there, how should you feel? Before the internet, such piracy (in physical formats) would have been invisible to you. Now you know about it, what should you do? Should you even be (secretly, of course) pleased?

Neil Gaiman, whose titles seem to make up a large proportion of all the books on Library Genesis, has said that piracy in Russia has, in fact, increased his sales there. In this light, there is only one thing worse than being pirated and that is not being pirated, at least in those countries where you're not receiving much distribution anyway.

Piracy, then, is unavoidable. This is not to say there are no weapons with which to fight back. One option might be the web service Muso, which will track whether illegal versions of your books are appearing and issue automated 'takedown requests' that, in most cases, are enough to have the illegal file removed. It's simple to use and seems to be effective.

But here is the dilemma: Muso costs 12 a month per author name, book title or publication. That puts a price on your appetite to confront the pirates and, for all but a small number of authors, 12 a month is likely to be a good deal more than is being lost from piracy anyway.

And that itchier question remains: if you find a copy of your book on a service such as Library Genesis, what do you do? Do you hit the 'takedown' button in Muso and get it removed? Or do you ask yourself whether it's better to be read illegitimately than not to be read at all? It is, at the very least, a question worth asking.


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This piece was the pulpit in the December/January double issue. Lloyd Shepherd is the author of two historical supernatural thrillers, The English Monster and The Poisoned Island, both published by Simon & Schuster. His third novel will be published in 2014.


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