E-Books: Two Sides of the Coin

These days it is necessary for me to take note of debates about the effects of ebooks on the publishing industry. I therefore took the time to read recent posts by Paul Cornell and Gary Gibson. They take very different positions. Paul explains how illegal downloading is theft, and is killing the ability of creative people to make a living. Gary explains that piracy has always happened (though in the past we called it things like “second hand bookstores” and “libraries”) and always will happen.

Now Paul is a good friend of mine, as are Lou Anders and John Picacio who supported him in comments. And as someone trying to make a publishing business cover its costs (not make any money for myself right now) I have a great deal of sympathy for what they say. Equally, however, I find myself in agreement with much of what Gary says. This is not a simple matter. I shall now make a fool of myself by trying to navigate these difficult waters.

Firstly I have to say that some of what Paul’s commenters said is very odd. How can someone simultaneously complain that published ebooks are of very poor quality and that there is no cost to the production of an ebook? Really, there is a disconnect there.

On the other hand, Gary is right. Much of the current rhetoric against “piracy” by big corporations is aimed at exactly the sort of behavior that second hand bookstores and libraries indulge in. Your modern media company wants every consumer to pay for every work that they consume, in every different format that they consume it, preferably each time that they consume it. As far as Amazon is concerned, you don’t buy books from them, you borrow them, and they can take them back any time they want. Yet you are expected to pay as much as you pay to own a paper book, sometimes more.

Because of this, we are all pirates in some way or another. One particularly annoying example is that in the UK it is still illegal to copy a CD that you own to a computer disc, either for backup, to play from your PC, or to download to an MP3 player. Anyone in the UK who has done this is a pirate. Mea culpa. And, as Gary says, things that used to be perfectly legal to do with paper books are held up as terrible crimes if you do them with ebooks. This is unhealthy, and I’ll come back to it later.

The problem with what Gary says, however, is one of scale. A given copy of a book can only be resold to one person; it can only be in one library, and loaned to one person at a time. A pirate copy of an ebook can be downloaded by thousands of people, and potentially cost thousands of sales.

Here, however, there’s another problem. Someone like Paul tends to see every pirate download of his work as a sale lost. Equally the defenders of illegal downloading see every pirate as someone who would never have bought the work in the first place, and is therefore simply an additional reader. The truth, inevitably, is somewhere in between, but we’ll never know exactly where because a) it can be very different for different books; b) it is very hard to measure; and c) because this is Internet debate we are talking about, no one wants to take the middle ground.

So on the one hand people are pirating books and feeling OK about it, while on the other desperate industry professionals are trying to persuade them that they are doing something morally wrong and should stop. Here’s where things get really murky.

Remember what I said about “unhealthy”? Here’s the problem. Lovers of authoritarianism like to push the line that the law is the law and that breaking it is always wrong. That, however, doesn’t really work. Copyright law was not handed down from on high on tablets of stone, it was written by humans, and like anything else to do with running human society it requires negotiation and agreement to work.

Modern societies have all sorts of laws, some of which are more successful than others. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many children are killed, we can’t stop drivers from breaking the speed limit. We can’t even stop them from driving when drunk. Heck, we often can’t even get effective prosecution of people who kill through driving when drunk. Everyone (except possibly Jeremy Clarkson) knows it is bad, but vast numbers of people think it is OK when they do it.

For a law to be successful it has to be accepted as reasonable by the vast majority of people in the society in which it is being applied. If you try to criminalize actions that people think are only sensible, if you try to criminalize things that used to be perfectly legal using older media, people are not going to respect that law. They are going to think that it is OK to break it, and they will break it.

Back in the Middle Ages large portions of farm land were owned communally and any local person had the right to graze animals on them. Through the 17th and 18th Centuries (roughly, I’m not an historian, so please excuse my lack of detail) much of this land was enclosed by rich landowners. The country people were very unhappy about it, but in the end they lost and many of them ended up moving to towns and working in factories. Something very similar is happening now. We used to be able to own books and movies. Big media companies want to put an end to that. They want ownership of entertainment to reside only with them, and for us to have to pay them every time we want to be entertained. This is making people very unhappy, and disrespectful of the laws that media industry lobbyists are busy pushing though various national legislatures.

It is hard to say what will happen in this fight, but history, sadly, is not on the side of the little guy. What’s more Julian Assange, bless his little anarchist socks, has just given national governments all over the world the perfect excuse to try to clamp down on Internet use in the name of “national security”. You can bet that the media industry lobbyists are rubbing their hands with glee.

So what can we do about this? Well keep an eye on what our governments are doing for starters. But that’s hard. After all, as every anarchist knows, no matter who you vote for, The Government always gets in. We can, however, vote with our credit cards. We can make a point of buying books if we can afford it, not pirating them because we can. We can try to buy books that are not protected by DRM. Even if you have a Kindle you can buy DRM-free books as long as you don’t buy from Amazon. Buy books direct from the publisher, or from stores that sell DRM-free. (Yes, that does include mine, but it also includes many others.) Buy direct from the author.

In addition I think we need to think long and hard about how the creation of art is funded. It is tempting to think that the idea of full-time writers who make books that individuals buy has always been true and always will be true. The novel, however, is a relatively recent invention, and other forms of art don’t work that way.

When the creators of The Illiad or Beowulf sat down in some great hall to perform they didn’t require a ticket from everyone who attended. Some people may have thrown coin, but the poet’s wages were probably paid mostly by the local lord. Great musicians like Mozart and Beethoven didn’t live solely off the proceeds of concert tickets, they had wealthy patrons who commissioned them to create new works. Even today, very many science fiction and fantasy authors have day jobs that keep them from poverty, or have a spouse with a day job who can pay the mortgage. And when someone like Anthony Gormley creates a work of public art, it may be paid for out of local government taxes, but it would never happen if every person in the street had been asked to stump up their share.

The whole process of funding art is very complicated, and it seems that in many cases the better you are the less likely your work is to be understood or liked by the bulk of the population. Sometimes the public will buy books by the likes of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman in huge quantities, but often what they really want is the new Dan Brown novel, or the next installment of Wayne Rooney’s biography.

I don’t pretend to have any answers here, but I’m pretty sure that demanding that everyone who wants to consume a particular piece of art should pay their fair share of the cost is only going to result in lowest common denominator art. If we want better art to thrive, then those of us who appreciate it have to find ways of financing it ourselves. If the government is not prepared to do so, and in this country at least arts funding is being brutally decimated, then we have to do it ourselves.

14 thoughts on “E-Books: Two Sides of the Coin

  1. One reason I don’t own an e-reader:
    As far as Amazon is concerned, you don’t buy books from them, you borrow them, and they can take them back any time they want.

    if you try to criminalize things that used to be perfectly legal using older media, people are not going to respect that law. You are very right.

    This is something we need to address here as well – if we can’t get the gov’t to realize that art & music are part of a civilized education, then we need to find private patrons on the order of Paul Allen and Bill Gates to donate to a fund for arts and music.

    1. It is rather depressing, if you are trying to make a business selling ebooks, to have people write off the entire industry simply because Amazon are unpleasant people to do business with. Not all ebooks have DRM. Not all ereaders are the Kindle. Kindle owners don’t have to buy all of their books from Amazon as many publishers will sell the books direct.

  2. Libraries and 2nd hand bookstores don’t make millions of zeros copies for anyone who wants one.

      1. Yet you seem to brush that argument aside. The fact is that while not all of the copies result in lost sales, a given percentage of them are. In that case it’s fractional theft, but theft nonetheless.

        Furthermore, the fact that someone never had intensions of buying a book doesn’t give them the right to just take a copy of the book. If that’s a valid excuse, then nobody should ever be paid for their music or their writing.

  3. Very sensible views, once again. Even though I don’t pirate music or books (I don’t have time to read all the interesting books I already have, and there are enough reasonably-priced, drm-free ebooks for me to buy, and good music is also plentiful, plus I like buying and owning cds), I always get miffed when someone claims that 1) piracy is equal to theft and 2) every download is a sale lost. I just feel those people haven’t gotten on board with today’s reality, and actually feel a bit sorry for them, because I think it is more likely they will be left behind when more tech-savvy people find ways to thrive financially.

    I guess I’m a bit more optimistic about the opportunities technology gives people to “fight the man” than you — I don’t think the governments will be able to shut down the newfound freedom of the Internet — although some will surely try, and things might get worse for a while before getting better. But, just like piracy, freedom of the Internet is not something that would be easy to take back once it is “out there”.

    I’m totally with you about those of us with the means to do so putting our money where our mouth is, and supporting out favorite creators’ efforts to make money with digital goods. Last month I think I spent more money on ebooks and ezines than physical ones, and I’ve even bought e-books I really didn’t want that much (and even some I already had a free copy of) just to show my support to someone putting a drm-free ebook out there and encourage them to do it again. (I consider drm’d things rentals, so I won’t be paying much for them. I don’t have anything against renting — I rent streamed movies, for example — but I won’t pay to someone who claims to sell something to me when the stuff will be “mine” for only as long as their drm servers stay up or they change their minds about offering said stuff).

  4. For years something that has always p’d me* off is the ‘stealing is wrong’ adverts on the front of a perfectly legally bought DVDs and then to be told that I could be prosecuted in a totally different country for doing so.

    You know what that made me feel like? It involves ‘f’ing charming’ and ‘I’m glad they appreciate my money’. At least the last few films I’ve seen in the cinema have now started thanking me for supporting the film industry by paying an eye watering ticket price for watching.

    And most of the time I’m happy to do it. I’ve seen films like Inception and Tron: Legacy that were best experienced in that environment though I’m probably happier spending the £20 on a DVD.

    Partly the piracy issue is one of value like ‘I don’t know if it’s worth paying for so I’m going to download it as I found it via google’ or ‘this person has sold a million copies they ain’t going to miss one copy’ but more it’s probably ‘I’ve heard about this oh f’ it I might as well add it to the 139 other downloads I have going going’

    So I really can’t agree with Paul that a download is a lost sale as it’s probably been downloaded by someone with a harddrive so stuffed with other things they’ve downloaded they’ll probably never read (watch/listen to) it.

    And the other problem is that publishers (and book retailers) can’t keep a constant and understandable price on their products – or if they do change the value of their products for different demographics it doesn’t feel balanced.

    To me publishing needs to collectively make me feel like the £5/10/15/20 I’ve spent is the right price for the book I’ve bought. The best way of doing this is producing less books and putting more resources into selling the ones they do produce better products.

    There are too many books coming out which makes the value of a single book mostly worthless as publishers seem from the outside to be cranking out books like some sweat shop in China.

    *I would rapidly add that I’m trying to channel the slightly bookgeek obsessive who loves books but is also drowning in things to consume and these aren’t 100% how I see it.

  5. I’m not conversant in English copyright laws, but according to American law, it is perfectly legal to resell, trade, or loan a paper book because of “The First Sale Doctrine.” This states that you can resell, etc., a book because you are selling the paper, binding, and ink, not the contents of the book.

    Despite people’s contentions to the contrary, the buyer of the book never owns the contents, he is only leasing it in the same way he is leasing it in digital form so there is no difference between a paper and digital book in that sense.

    A digital book can’t be resold, loaned, or put up on the web for free because it is the contents, not a physical thing, and only the copyright owner can do that.

    1. That’s ingenious, but if you want to sell a Kindle second hand, or any type of computing device for that matter, you are supposed to strip off any software on it, unless you also sell on that content (passing on or destroying any copies that you may have). And if any of the books on the Kindle were bought from Amazon you can’t sell them on because you don’t own them.

      That in turn suggests that the only legal way you can sell a book second hand is if you black out all of the content so that the buyer cannot illegally receive the content as well as the paper and ink. But do I see this happening? Do I see people clamoring for second hand bookstores to be closed down because it isn’t happening? No, I do not.

      It is legalistic hair-splitting like this that causes people to lose faith in copyright law, and as a result think that it is OK to break it.

      1. Cheryl, what “The First Sale Doctrine” means is that you don’t own the contents in the paper book. You can’t make a copy of it and print your own books to sell–this can be done cheaply in some countries, and you can’t use the text to create a graphic novel, a computer game for sale, or a movie from it. It is perfectly legal to sell the contents intact, however, as part of the paper, binding, and ink.

        I would hardly call any of this legal hairsplitting, and these laws have been around since the introduction of copyright, but, because of the advent of desktop publishing and the Internet, publishers and authors have to enforce it.

        Digital publishing and the ease of creating digital text from paper text has, by necessity, created a whole new set of copyright laws to fight the wholesale piracy of copyrighted material.

        If you are interested in learning more, I suggest you click on the blog link attached to my name, then click on the copyright label on the left side of my blog. I have various articles written in laymen’s terms about copyright and the various issues involved, and each article has links to the government laws and legal articles if you’d like to go to the sources.

        And with a Kindle or any other ebook reader, it is legal to sell a Kindle with the contents included, in the same way as it is legal to sell a used paper book, but, if you try to add books to it after you’ve bought the used one, you’ll be blocked from the site because of anti-theft software which is there to make stolen Kindles of no value and to protect the original owner’s credit card.

        You’ll have to delete the contents and reload the software before you can reregister to buy new books.

        Those of us in publishing really need to educate ourselves in these issues, and take a good hard look at our prejudices. Piracy isn’t just a few people sharing ebooks, or a few jerks posting books online. It’s organizations and individuals who make money from the stolen material through selling CDs on eBay, selling subscriptions and advertising on the various pirate sites, etc.

        A lot of these pirates with their sites are talking a lot about how noble they are for taking on the evil corporations, but they are pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from their sites.

        Meanwhile, the vast majority of the people being hurt by this aren’t those “evil” corporations, but the writers who are struggling to make some profit and the small publishers who offer a wider range of reading material than the homogenized big publishers with their big name authors.

        I need to finish our Christmas meal so if you’d like to learn more, I suggest my blog articles, this website


        and this Yahoogroups, AuthorsAgainstE-BookTheft .

        You can also contact me via my blog or website if you have questions.

        1. Ah, that makes a lot more sense than your original comment, though you might want to read the Kindle EULA, because it doesn’t give you the right to sell the content. Indeed, the way it is written if you even loan the Kindle to a friend you are in breach of the terms of use.

          That’s not a copyright issue, that’s Amazon’s terms of business.

          I absolutely agree with you that the main issue is the ease and scale of piracy. It is causing a very serious problem, and people are making a lot of money out of it. But I suspect that educating the public about copyright law, no matter how well done, is not going to solve the problem, especially if they think that rights they used to have with paper books are being taken away.

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