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The Authors Guild Shows That Piracy is Not a Major Issue, Still Wants to Break the Internet

5554707242_5f0d34c0f1_bLast week The Authors Guild sent an open letter to Congress, asking that the DMCA be changed so that ISPs shouldered the responsibility for keeping pirated content off the web (rather than copyright holders, where it belongs).

When I covered the story, I addressed the point that the proposal was unworkable in and of itself, but it turns out that I missed a key detail: that piracy is a relatively minor issue to the book industry.

This came to my attention when I was reading Joe Konrath’s excellent fisking of The Author’s Guild’s letter. His take downs are always enjoyable, and he went into far more detail that I.

For example, he cited this sentence and questioned its accuracy, validity, and supporting evidence:

The publishing industry as a whole loses $80 to $100 million to piracy annually, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Piracy estimates like this are generally pulled out of someone’s hat (or a part of their anatomy) so I usually ignore them, but this is one that deserves our attention.

When we consider it in terms of the size of the industry, we learn that piracy is not a serious issue.

You see, the AAP said that the US publishing industry was worth $28 billion last year. When compared to the total size of the industry, TAG’s claim of $100 million lost to piracy is a rounding issue, and not a serious concern.

And while we’re on the topic, this is also a lesson in why one should fact check one’s sources.

While TAG may cite the AAP as the source, the piracy figure did not come from the AAP. It has been attributed to the trade group in the past, but accoridng to AAP spokesperson Marisa Bluestone, the Association of American Publishers never released this figure. It’s not their data, and they’re not going to vouch for it.

In short, the TAG is using a made up number from an unverified source to make a claim that piracy is a huge problem when in fact their figure says the opposite.

This is on par with most piracy estimates I have read over the 6 years I have been a blogger, so I’m not surprised.

Piracy can’t actually be measured. Instead, the estimates are made up out of whole cloth, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. It would be like trying to count the number of items you don’t have in the room with you; there’s no way to measure it.

And as for fighting it, well, one could proactively fight against it, like the AAP wants. Or one could regard it as a problem to be solved rather than fought.

For example, there’s the view that piracy is a sign of an under-served market. Netflix cottoned on to that idea a while back, which is why they now use piracy stats to decide where to expand next. And while not everyone is willing to agree on this point, history has shown that the level of music piracy in a country drops shortly after Spotify expands into that market.

I, on the other hand, don’t regard piracy as a problem to be solved. Instead, I lean towards Neil Gaiman’s view that piracy actually helps more than it hurts:

But no matter how you slice it, The Authors Guild wants to screw up the internet to solve a problem which they can’t prove is a serious problem and which you can’t even get everyone to agree is a problem.

The Author’s Guild’s solution is worse than the non-problem we have now, and for that reason alone it should be opposed.

image by ShardsOfBlue

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dave July 17, 2015 um 2:05 pm

The $100M lost could never be substantiated, but it also glosses over a point not mentioned as often as it should be: the majority of folks who read (listen to or view) pirated material are very likely people who never would have bought it at prevailing prices.

Still, I somewhat wish that piracy could be proven to be a serious loss, then perhaps ebooks would fall to price points that actually reflect their cost of production and real value to the purchaser and thereby encourage more sales. As an actual purchaser I have to put up with the added burden and cost of DMR, that’s truly annoying.

JC July 17, 2015 um 7:38 pm

Ironically, after I posted a comment on the last post regarding this issue, the stuff I couldn’t previously purchase in Audible because of Publisher Geo Restriction crapola and which I ended up downloading via torrent are now available for purchase. Hm. I wonder if someone’s actually paying attention to comments or if this is a glitch and those titles will go away again or not. I know something similar happened with Audible a few months ago where geo restricted titles suddenly became available for a short period before being locked up again… Whatever. I purchased the 'legal' copies for the titles I torrented a while ago.

See, it’s simple. Make content available legally and people will procure them legally. Focusing on the people who pirate content is pointless because most of them never had any intention of buying (therefore can’t be counted as a lost sale). Focus on making content easily accessible to all markets so the people who want to buy content legally can do so. Why is that so hard to understand? Because for me, personally, I’d rather purchase content from a credible retailer rather than navigating the virus and malware infested pirate sites because of Trad Pub and other media companies clinging to the outdated and irritating practice of geo restriction.

Abhishek k July 17, 2015 um 11:04 pm

what about the future piracy of "educational ebooks" not many are fond academic material that they will be happy to pay for it, students are poor and under loan pressure. Also "content sharing brotherhood" is very strong in colleges camous no need for any torrent like service.

JC July 18, 2015 um 6:23 am

I spoke too soon. The stupid "We’re sorry. Due to publishing rights restrictions, we are not authorized to sell this item in the country where you live." is back in Audible. I tested it by adding titles to my Wish List which up until yesterday was showing that message but suddenly didn’t.
Now they’re unavailable again. Gee, thanks, publishers. I thought you’d actually gotten your heads out of your asses. I guess not.
Put a frigging end to GEO RESTRICTION. There is no good reason for doing this especially when there are no local publishers in this region who are going to release these titles.

David Gaughran July 18, 2015 um 6:55 am

I can’t decide between these two possibilities:

(a) All these guys actually know what’s going on. They know piracy isn’t any kind of real threat, that there is nothing you can really do about it anyway, and that it’s not worth bothering with. But they also know that fear of piracy can keep authors in line.

(b) They actually are this stupid.

David Gaughran July 18, 2015 um 7:03 am

(Not referring to authors' individual stances on piracy. IMO, an author is entitled to protect their work (or not) in any manner they see fit. It’s their work.)

Joe Konrath July 18, 2015 um 12:13 pm

Not referring to authors’ individual stances on piracy. IMO, an author is entitled to protect their work (or not) in any manner they see fit. It’s their work.

Entitled? By law, or by some innate morality?

I find current copyright law to be woefully out of date, and detrimental to society as a whole.

I think it would be wrong if someone began to make money off my work by plagiarizing it. But file sharing? That’s different. And it really shouldn’t matter what I think of it, because it’s happening without my approval anyway.

SOPA is the wrong approach. The way to compete with piracy is via cost and convenience. And, eventually, copyright reform.

This is a high level conversation I want to have. Railing against Authors Guild nonsense doesn’t involve any thought; the AG is flat out wrong. But talking among high-minded authors about the purposes and effects of modern copyright law is a conversation that can raise the bar for everyone.

David Gaughran July 18, 2015 um 3:29 pm

I’m talking more on a personal level. If an author wants to add DRM to their books or waste time sending DMCA notices to "pirate" sites, then that’s their business. I think it’s a waste of time and I think it would behoove them to approach piracy differently, but it’s their own time they are wasting and it’s a free world.

However, if they advocate for a SOPA-like approach, that’s forcing a "solution" on everyone else that’s worse than the current (non-)problem, and that’s something I will stand up against.

The whole thing is a farce. The publishers were duped by the security companies into being afraid of piracy and implementing DRM – years after the music industry abandoned it.

And in a wonderful illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences, that DRM-focused approach build the walls around the Kindle Store garden much higher, preventing publishers from experimenting with things like selling direct and subscriptions and bundling and all sorts of other things they could have tried instead of moaning about the companies that are actually innovating.

Joe Konrath July 18, 2015 um 12:06 pm

I just said the same thing about Authors United in my blog comments, David.

Are these folks clever, evil, and intentionally misleading, or are they whipped by Stockholm Syndrome and morons?

Turow was a smart guy. Preston is not.

David Gaughran July 18, 2015 um 3:34 pm

I think Preston is knowingly engaging in propaganda. He can’t be this dumb. The complete lack of willingness to engage in any kind of debate is pretty revealing. He’s also quite good at it, has one snappy line in each different interview that he knows will get a lot of airplay and uses highly emotive language.

It’s fertile ground for him, the softening up has been going on for years, the constant drumbeat of anti-Amazon future fearing stories coming out of the usual places: The Bookseller, Publishers Weekly, etc.

This letter was particularly amusing when he wheeled out self-publishers as victims, when all of this groups with "Author" in the title have never once said anything about the horrible stuff going on at Author Solutions (there’s that "Author" word again, eh?).

Joe Konrath July 18, 2015 um 8:40 pm

He’s also quite good at it, has one snappy line in each different interview that he knows will get a lot of airplay and uses highly emotive language.

He’s parroting. Parrots are smart, for birds. But memorizing a few buzzwords doesn’t mean Polly should spearhead a group for author activists. Eventually he’s going to do something so embarrassing during an interview that he’ll retreat to his shack for a few years.

I’d love to debate Preston.

fjtorres July 18, 2015 um 7:20 am

Monkey see, monkey do.
The AG saw that RIAA and MPAA rant and rage about piracy so they figured that a bit of SOPA lobbying would reinforce their lapdog loyalty with the publishers at a time they’re yapping about contract terms.
Wouldn’t want their masters to bring out the rolled up newspaper, after all.
If they’re not careful, somebody might get blacklisted…

Tiffany Mcleod July 18, 2015 um 12:38 pm

To say that those who pirate would never purchase is unfair. It’s more likely a sign that prices are to high. $20 for an ebook? I think not. You can’t price an ebook like a hardback and expect people to buy it. Truth be told, lots of people weren’t happy about paying hardback prices for new books back in the old days either. If they could have found a photocopied version for a few bucks, they would have. The internet simply makes it easier for the consumer to subvert ridiculous market prices. I don’t mind paying for content when the price is reasonable and it doesn’t come burdened with crap like

Anthony Pero August 6, 2015 um 1:04 pm

I didn’t read anyone say that. I read that there is no way to validate that. I read someone state an opinion that a pirate was unlikely to purchase the file in the first place, but that same comment was pointing out that there is no way to justify those numbers thrown about, because you can’t count a pirated copy as a lost sale, because its NOT a lost sale. There is no physical copy to lose, and no way to know if the pirate would otherwise have purchased the file.

But for the record, there are studies out there that have determined that the vast majority of pirated media never even gets consumed. Its collectors collecting for the sake of their collection. These people would definitely have never purchased the file. So, yes, it CAN be stated with reasonable certainty that most pirated files would not have been purchased.

8 Ways For Authors to Waste Their Money | The Digital Reader November 26, 2017 um 3:41 pm

[…] Piracy is a scourge, right? Not according to Neil Gaiman, who regards it as free marketing, or Baen Books, a publisher that gives ebooks away and sells the rest DRM-free, or The Authors Guild, whose data shows that piracy isn't a serious problem. […]

Di. B November 27, 2017 um 12:55 pm

Maggie Stiefvater would beg to differ with y’all about the cost/impact of piracy, and whether pirates would buy books. Her experiment showed a very different result…

Nate Hoffelder November 27, 2017 um 12:56 pm

Yeah, but does she have any data to show us, or just an unverified anecdote?

BDR November 28, 2017 um 11:06 am

One word: Usenet. As long as it exists, they can do all the "studies" and issue all the takedown notices they want.

It won’t matter. By its distributed nature, Usenet *can’t* be stopped and it’s basically an Amazon bookstore alternative. Amazon music store and Amazon movie store, too. Just about anything and everything that anyone wants is immediately available. Posted anonymously, distributed throughout the world, available anonymously.

All that this piracy hand wringing does is alert folks that alternatives are available and it’s like free advertising for these sources. Ironic, isn’t it?

The Authors Guild Rehashes Bogus Author Income Survey as a "New" Report | The Digital Reader February 21, 2020 um 5:15 pm

[…] What The Authors Guild wants you to do is focus on the 0.01% so they can wring their hands over the poor, beleaguered authors. I am not sure what The Authors Guild gains by pushing this narrative, but it is as false as TAG's claim that piracy is a major problem (when in fact their data shows the opposite is true). […]

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