Should I Stop Authoring and Start Pirating?


Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly writes about Piracy on O’Reilly Radar When Authors Ask Us About the Consequences of “Piracy”. He quotes Nat Torkington:

Fantastic! There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, and unless you see sales dipping off then I don’t think there’s anything you *should* do about it. The HF books work really well as books, so at best the torrents act as advertisements for the superior print product (not often you can say that with a straight face). At worst most of your downloads are going to people who wouldn’t have bought the book at cover price and who will, if they enjoy it, rave about it to others. [emphasis added]

So long as the royalty checks are strong, take BitTorrent as a sign of success rather than a problem. A wise dog doesn’t let his fleas bother him.

Everyone should go out and pirate my books. BitTorrent is a sign of success. Success for whom? For the author? Not this one. Piracy brings up some foundational issues that make me question the entire idea of ever signing another publishing contract which yields any rights for future electronic distribution.

Publishing is an Exchange: Freedom for Distribution

When I sign a contract, I’m agreeing to let the publisher distribute the book. I agree not to go out and print the book myself or distribute the thing online. Even though, if I published the work online, I’d get ten times the audience, the ability to get real-time feedback on what content works and what content doesn’t, and I’d be able to build a real community around the effort possibly recruiting others to contribute and edit. My books are available on Safari, but it isn’t like I get access to a Google Analytics account that’ll tell me what content works and what doesn’t. O’Reilly has a community site called O’Reilly Network, but it isn’t particularly vibrant, nor does it do a great job of book promotion. (Update: I’m trying as much as I can to change this.) You publish with a publisher more for credibility and distribution than anything else. You give up quite a bit of freedom to distribute the content yourself.

Stopping Piracy is a Fools Errand, but…

When one of my books is pirated, I no longer have any say in the content or format of the book. When the book is pirated, my gut instinct is to send a note to the lawyers and ask them to send a cease and desist order. Nat and Andrew are right, there really is nothing you can do about piracy, you can’t stop Torrents, and unless you work for the RIAA and you are evil, you shouldn’t try. I’m very much aware that piracy increases the distribution of the title, and because I’m not motivated by royalty money, I, like Nat, have a similar view. Piracy ain’t that bad, but if someone out there is free to pirate, and if my publisher isn’t going to go after them aggressively, then, well…. why should I bother continuing to sacrifice my own freedom to distribute the content myself?

Don’t get me wrong, I have no “beef” with Nat or Andrew. I think Andrew is great. He’s is one of the primary reasons why O’Reilly has a reputation for great content. But, Nat’s response is frustrating for this author, because, it is essentially saying…

…Only Authors Have to Respect Publishing Contracts…

As a content creator, it makes me wonder why I don’t just distrbute (pirate) the content myself. It also makes me wonder why O’Reilly doesn’t just give away the content for free in a slightly less produced form. If the presence of a pirated version of the book doesn’t affect sales, then I’d like get in on this and start having some more control over the pirated content. I would love to start distributing some of content I’ve produced online myself. If they can pirate, why not I?

Go back to the idea that you, the author, sign a contract granting O’Reilly exclusive distribution rights. You have to respect that contract, if you didn’t you would be sued by your publisher. You would be in breach of contract. So what happens when your book is past the prime in terms of sales, and you want to update the content…. sorry, you can’t. The book is still under contract.

A Concrete Example: A Dying Book

Let’s take a title like “Jakarta Commons Cookbook”, it was a successful title by my standards, I can’t tell you how many books we sold, but it was enough to generate a flurry of great feedback and some continuing interest in Jakarta Commons. (I think it sold maybe a 6-7 thousand copies, maybe more, I didn’t really keep track.) I wrote this book as a resource for the community, I hoped that it would be the first edition in a line of many editions which would be easy to produce and relatively cheap to edit. I had a picture of a book which would have a multi-year lifetime – an update every two years.

I’ve asked them for permission to update the title, I even have authors lined up who would help with the effort, but it isn’t on O’Reilly’s list for a second edition. Hell, I’d even be interested in coding a Web 2.0 collaborative recipe creation site around the thing. People like Henri have stepped up and volunteered to help/take the thing over. But, every time I’ve asked for permission, I’ve been met with silence. No one has said, “No, we’re not going to update Jakarta Commons Cookbook”, no one has said, “Sure, we’ll update that in a few years”. Meanwhile, technical content becomes less and less relevant every single year, and the effort to update the title increases over time. I understand why they don’t, the sales figures don’t rise to the level of a second edition. Or, at least, that’s my guess.

The problem here is that the book has been pirated already, there is a copy circulating online. If I started getting involved in the piracy of the book myself, I wouldn’t be affecting sales (at least not print sales), but I would be in violation of my contract.

So…

…if O’Reilly Media looks the other way when a book is pirated, then why should I bother honoring the contracts I sign with them for every book they publish? I understand the sentiment, but I’m not particularly excited when I see someone take a liberty which I sacrificed to my publisher. While I’ll admit that piracy can help sales, I’d be happier if I hadn’t yielded online distribution rights to “the pirates”.

I’m not writing this to be difficult, I’m writing this to illustrate the sort of Faustian bargain that writers get into when they cede online distribution rights in an age of piracy.