Nearly two months before the May 2014 pub date for We Were Liars, a few fans had already found illegal copies of the young adult novel on the Internet—and tagged author E. Lockhart on Twitter with their critiques. “I realized my readers needed a reminder,” the author says of this cavalier attitude toward piracy. So she tweeted, “Hey dudes. Don’t download #wewereliars or any other books illegally. Here, Ms. @OfficiallyAlly explains why.” Then she linked to fellow YA author Ally Carter’s 2010 blog post, “E-piracy: yes, it’s wrong. And yes, it hurts.”
Teens are not the only readers with access to pirated content, of course. But to some observers, it makes sense that people who have grown up downloading music, movies, and other media would acquire books the same way. “This generation has this idea that they should be able to have content for free,” says Crank author Ellen Hopkins, who has already spotted copies of her August 2014 release Rumble on sites like Torrent Crazy. “They don’t think about what this means for an author.” Indeed, two years ago, John Green wrote on his Tumblr that hundreds of people send him notes to say they illegally downloaded one of his books, “as if they expect me to reply with my hearty congratulations that they are technologically sophisticated enough to use Google or whatever.”
It’s impossible to calculate exactly how much revenue YA publishers and authors are losing to Internet pirates. According to information provided to the Association of American Publishers by a number of its members two years ago, U.S. publishers across all categories lose $80 million to $100 million annually to piracy. And that estimate is likely too conservative. This year alone, Muso, one of many piracy-protection companies, has removed more than 580,000 illegal files for its publishing clients. “Even at a low estimate of 100 downloads per file—apparently the average file is downloaded 300 times—that is potentially almost 60 million downloads,” says Chris Anderson, Muso’s client manager for publishing.
Of course, not everyone thinks “sharing” sites are bad. Proponents call themselves champions of “open culture” and the “common good.” And Little Brother author Cory Doctorow responded “yes” when PW asked him recently whether he still believes, as he told the New York Times in 2009, that free versions of books—even unauthorized ones—entice readers. “There’s a real tension between freedom on the Internet and protection,” says Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer for HarperCollins, which employs the piracy-protection company Digimarc to find illegal copies of titles like Veronica Roth’s Divergent.
How do unauthorized digital copies of books end up being shared? The short answer: easily. Before J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore began releasing e-versions of the Harry Potter books, pirates tore off spines and scanned pages to make PDFs, then posted them online. The latest method is to break digital rights management (DRM) locks on e-galleys and other electronic copies—a quick web search yields instructions.
Author Jackson Pearce says e-copies of her 2012 YA novel Fathomless appeared before its pub date, and though she doesn’t know exactly how they got out, she suspects that pirates may have nabbed the book from NetGalley. But she doesn’t blame the digital service: “I’m glad NetGalley exists,” she says. “It’s a pity that illegal downloaders are also glad such places exist.” For its part, NetGalley permanently blocks any member who abuses the site, says company president Susan Ruszala. “There’s always a balance between accessibility and security.”
There are three general methods of downloading pirated digital content: peer-to-peer file sharing, called “torrenting,” via sites like The Pirate Bay,
KickAssTorrents, and Torrentz; cloud storage “cyberlockers,” such as Megashare and TUEBL (the Ultimate E-Book Library); and online reading sites, including Kiss-OfVampire.com and OnRead.com. “Online storage is cheap and easy to access, and Internet speeds are now so quick, even on a mobile device,” says Anderson of Muso, which charges authors rates from $19 a month for a tool that searches for and removes copyright-infringing files from the Internet.
Another perceived upside to illegal downloads is their ease of use, with readers not needing to key in a credit card or library card number. “One mouse click, and the product is instantly available to read,” says Anderson. “The legal equivalents are often cumbersome and inconvenient.” (The rise of Netflix-like services for books may counteract that perception; see “Subscription Prescription” below.)
“A Sense of Entitlement”
Why do consumers who wouldn’t otherwise steal think piracy is okay? For one thing, they may not see it as theft. Heather Brewer, author of the Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series, says young readers have told her, “I had no idea that was stealing.” On school visits, Ask the Passengers author A.S. King says she’s seen all hands go up when she’s asked, “How many people here have downloaded free music?”
Some fans even email authors to ask where they can get no-cost copies, or tweet at them with links to illegitimate sites, writing, for example, “Great new A.S. King book—free!” says King. Initially, the author vowed to look for illegal downloads every weekend. “I think I lasted three Saturdays,” she says. “I don’t have the time. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything I can do about it.”
Jackson Pearce says that some downloaders seem to feel a “sense of entitlement,” a sentiment echoed by Erin Bowman, author of the Taken trilogy. After posting her antipiracy views on Tumblr, she says, she heard “over and over” from pro-piracy readers, “You should be happy people are reading your books.” But, as Devine Intervention author Martha Brockenbrough puts it, “The plumber gets paid. The dentist gets paid. Who does work and doesn’t get paid?”
Another wrinkle: readers may not realize that some hosting sites are frauds. “Many of these sites go to great measures to disguise themselves as legitimate and authorized,” says Andi Sporkin at the AAP. “Some dress themselves up to look like not-for-profit libraries and solicit ‘donations.’ ” Others, such as ePubPDFbook.com, masquerade as aboveboard stores with shopping carts, and typically sell YA books for $1.50 to $5 (ePubPDFbook.com lists Cassandra Clare’s bestselling City of Heavenly Fire for $1.90). “That means that readers who would otherwise never pirate a book could do so unwittingly,” says Sea of Shadows author Kelley Armstrong.
Authors say they would like to see more discussion in schools, libraries, and bookstores to raise awareness. “Digital content is still intellectual property that is copyrighted, just like a physical book,” says Bowman. “And piracy is illegal, end of story. Justifications for why someone might choose to do it don’t change the fact that that person is still breaking copyright law.”
Pirating sites get away with distributing material they don’t own in part because the U.S. Copyright Office administers, but does not enforce, the law. In Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act was introduced in the House in 2011, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act was introduced in the Senate the same year; neither passed.
Still, the Copyright Office plans to expand its public outreach to schools, universities, and other groups through its new Office of Public Information and Education, created in February. “Unfortunately, there is a presumption frequently among the young that because it’s on the Internet, it must be free—I already paid for an Internet connection, so haven’t I paid someone?” says William J. Roberts Jr., director of public information and education for the Copyright Office.
And it’s difficult to shut down violators, who often head to nations with less stringent copyright rules. “There always seem to be havens for thieves and pirates to head to,” says Roberts. “There is no universal copyright law that governs the operation of all countries.”
Given the overwhelming amount of “shared” material—“It’s like trying to catch Niagara Falls in a teacup,” says author Kate Messner—what can publishers do to staunch the flow? In May, Messner offered one scenario, when she tweeted, “The world would be such a better place if everyone who downloads pirated books would just get a library card instead.” Lockhart agrees, telling PW, “People want free books, and somehow they don’t understand that they can get them from their library.”
Admittedly, this has become easier only recently. Today, all of the big players license e-books to libraries, but as recently as 2012 only three major publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, and Random House—did. “Publishers did not want to sell to libraries because they thought free lending would replace sales for the e-books,” says Carrie Russell, director of the American Library Association’s program on public access to information. “The piracy issue was much less important. However, we have said that because e-books are available in libraries, we offset some of the piracy concerns. Libraries encourage users to borrow books instead of pirating them. There’s no data [indicating] that library-borrowed e-books are pirated.”
Despite the improvement in availability, a recent Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection report said the most frequently cited factors for low e-book circulation were limited title availability, a long wait time for e-books, and popular titles not available for library purchase.
Outside the U.S., access can be even more limited. One of A.S. King’s Twitter fans, an 18-year-old in the Philippines, said in an email exchange with PW that she downloads at least 40 free books a year through TUEBL, partly because the titles can be difficult to find in libraries in her country. She says she never purchases e-books but occasionally buys her favorite print books. “Downloading stuff from the Internet can be done so freely I’m not even sure if people my age or people younger than me are aware that this is illegal,” she says. But after a recent Twitter conversation with King, she adds, she feels guilty. “Her books helped me figure out so many things about myself and everything around me, and I owe her a lot,” she says. “Here I am, together with thousands of people, stealing money from every person who made this book possible.”
Authors and publishers can also teach readers about intellectual property and copyright. “We should be educating teens and adults on the impact of their theft on writers’ livelihoods, and we should be talking about valuing creative work,” says author Melissa Marr, who has sent more than 2,000 takedown notices, most of them for her Wicked Lovely series, in the past two years. “And let’s call it what it is. We live in a culture where pirates are romanticized. No Jack Sparrow here. They are thieves. They steal digital goods, and if we stole their digital paychecks, they’d be pissed off. So the argument that it’s not ‘real theft’ because it’s digital is absurd.”
Those affected by piracy are not entirely helpless. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a 1998 amendment of the Copyright Act of 1976, rights holders can request takedowns of infringing material. To help in this endeavor, many enlist the services of piracy protection companies, which use algorithms to find illicit copies and send DMCA takedown notices, with links to specific URLs, hosting sites, Internet service providers and search engines. Established piracy-protection companies such as Digimarc and Muso are members of Google’s Trusted Copyright Removal Program, which means that within a day or so, they can get violators’ links removed from search-engine results pages.
Even so, Google, in a September 2013 report called “How Google Fights Piracy,” cautioned against relying on such efforts. “The right combination of price, convenience and inventory will do far more to reduce piracy than enforcement can,” noted the authors of the report, which stressed the importance of removing the “means by which pirate sites make money.” (Google prohibits publishers from using its AdSense program to place ads on pages that contain pirated content.) Along these lines, piracy-protection companies and law firms, hired by publishers, contribute to the advertisement of industry lists of domain names for websites with pirated content, says Gareth Young, senior Internet investigator for Covington & Burling, an international law firm that publishers hire to defend them against copyright violations. Such lists make companies aware that their products are promoted on sites that may be undesirable.
Although takedown notices are no panacea—“There’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game; with each site that goes down, another one goes up,” says Digimarc director of product management Chris Shepard—a June 2014 study suggests that they may have a tangible benefit. Using data for just one company, the e-publisher Rosetta Books, economist Imke Reimers found a more than 15% increase in sales for e-books under piracy protection (in this case, provided by Digimarc).
In addition to takedown notices, new, more high-tech deterrents are rolling out. This month, Digimarc is launching invisible watermarks on individual e-books with “select partners,” Shepard says. Another approach: for Wild, author Saundra Mitchell’s July release written under the name Alex Mallory, HarperCollins put a time lock on the e-galley so it expired one month before publication. (The longer a file is available, the more likely it is to be shared, says Restivo-Alessi.)
Mitchell notes that one file-sharing site shows via a counter that users are downloading 800 copies a week of her previous book, Shadowed Summer. Such figures can be misleading, however, says Blair Elefant, senior relationship manager at Digimarc. File-sharing sites that may not even have the advertised file available for download sometimes inflate numbers so users think their files are virus-free and of high quality. Increased user traffic, in turn, can help lure advertisers and increase a site’s revenue stream.
It wouldn’t hurt, says Restivo-Alessi, for publishers to remind readers that a “free” e-book may come with potential hidden costs, like a virus-infected computer. The industry needs to communicate the risks more, she says, “so that people start to think, ‘I might be saving a few bucks, but do I really want to risk spending $100 or $200 [on repair] and losing my existing content in the process?’ ”
As part of their antipiracy efforts, some publishers, such as HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, have signed on with Netflix-like subscription companies like Scribd ($8.99 a month for unlimited reading from participants’ titles) and Oyster ($9.99 a month). These services automatically bill customers monthly, counteracting some of the complaints about how cumbersome it can be to obtain books legally.
“If you make the content more available at a very compelling value, you really reduce the amount of pirated content people are looking for,” says Andrew Weinstein, v-p of content acquisition at Scribd, where popular YA titles include books like Kiera Cass’s The Selection and Lauren Oliver’s Pandemonium and Delirium. With “low barriers,” says Restivo-Alessi, teens might say, “This is already paid for. Why would I want to go pirate?”
The fact remains: no single effort is going to stop Internet piracy. “It would be great if we could all have a Hands Across America moment and stop it, but I don’t think amount of public awareness could make a dent,” says Ally Carter, who doesn’t believe piracy can be eradicated completely. “For every person who replies to me when I post something with, ‘Oh, my gosh—I didn’t know there was something wrong with it,’ there’s someone who says, ‘I was in another country, and it wasn’t available, or my library doesn’t have that book—or some other excuse—and therefore what I did wasn’t wrong.’ ” Still, pirate sites can be weakened if people can’t easily find them through Google searches; if companies refuse to advertise on their sites; if lawyers come after them; if authors become more vocal, especially via social media, about the damage done; and if most readers just say no to downloading illegal copies.
For her part, Fallen author Lauren Kate tries to avoid “being too hard on the Internet,” which, she says, also helps people discover books. “For me, the obvious solution is to focus my energy on creating a beautiful product that people see as valuable enough to buy.”