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Understanding Book Piracy

Posted on 2014-May-22

by Paul Salvette

Piracy Difficult to Avoid, a Growing Concern

When starting out a writing career, obscurity is the main enemy and piracy should not be too much of a concern. However, as indie authors become more and more successful, they may find that their eBooks are being illicitly copied. Many of our successful clients are very upset that their books are being pirated, and there’s unfortunately not much that can be done.

As a rule of thumb, any author who has a book in the top 1000 on Amazon can expect to have their eBook pirated. We are not talking about the mother of three lending her Kindle to her neighbor to read your book; rather, we are talking about your EPUB, MOBI, and/or PDF eBook being distributed through an unscrupulous website, illegally sold, or shared through the BitTorrent protocol (peer-to-peer sharing).

Luckily for publishers and authors, the industry has never suffered from a Napster-like disruption such as what happened to the music industry more than a decade ago, whereby the majority of consumers would expect creative content for free. Most people still expect to pay something for an eBook, unless the author is doing a promotion or the book is a classic in the public domain. Although, you have to keep in mind that eBook files are typically small in size compared to audio and video (novels are typically < 1 MB). So transfer across the internet is quick, and hundreds of eBooks can be bundled onto an illegal DVD.

Let's take a look at some of the methods of piracy so you can understand what you’re up against.

Unscrupulous Websites

Some file-sharing websites are pseudo-legitimate but have numerous problems with content being shared illegally. Kindle Direct Publishing had some issues several years ago but these have been largely addressed. Scribd is one example where anti-piracy efforts have been a bit… meh. It started out as a file sharing site but now it’s gotten into eBook subscriptions. Writer’s Beware had a detailed post about piracy problems with Scribd, and many indie authors were furious when Smashwords began aggregating to Scribd without prior consent of authors. Some sites make no bones about it and are straight up distributing copyrighted material: eBookee and Tuebl are two examples.

Illegal Sales

Illegal sales of copyright material are somewhat rare in developed countries like the USA, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, etc.; however, it is a huge problem in developing and middle-income countries (like our home base: Thailand). You can go to just about any market in Thailand and buy illegally copied DVDs and software for about $3–$5. It's out there in the open among the other stalls and crackdowns only occur when the police want to save face with some of the Western embassies. Many celebrities visiting Bangkok pose with their pirated material to create some interesting meta humor.

Pirated software is very common, and the authorities will only issue fines when politically-connected companies, like Microsoft, are hurting from piracy. It would be unheard of in Thailand (or any middle-income/developing country) for someone to be fined for pirating an indie author’s eBook.

Another form of illegal sale that is common is counterfeit books: you see this a lot in Vietnam and China. Counterfeit print books are reproduced on shoddier paper and binding and sold throughout the country. The price is typically much, much lower than the authentic print counterpart.

Torrent Sites

Torrents are by far the most common ways to illegally obtain copyrighted audio, video, and eBooks. The BitTorrent protocol works by not having a file stored on some central server, but rather having a group of “peers” sharing a complete or partial file, uploading and downloading simultaneously. Once you download a BitTorrent client like uTorrent, your computer can immediately join as a peer. The torrent files that contain the information about the illegal file and the network locations of the peers with that file can be downloaded from a number of sites such as Kickass Torrents and The Pirate Bay.

Example of all Nora Roberts’ eBooks in one torrent file on Kickass Torrents

It's important to understand that the torrent itself isn't the illegal file, but rather the BitTorrent protocol obtaining a complete version of the illegal file through a number of different peers around the world. This makes legal recourse very challenging.

DRM/Watermarks are Marginally Effective

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a way to encode an eBook to prevent it from being copied from device to device. It basically encrypts the eBook and an authorized connection between the device the eBook is on and a server is required for the user to be able to access the eBook. So if the eBook is copied to some other device, the file cannot be opened. There are three different DRM schemes for eBooks: Amazon’s (for Kindle eBooks), Apple’s Fairplay, and Adobe’s DRM which is used by Nook and Kobo (this is being upgraded later this year). When you publish your eBook at these platforms you can choose whether or not to enable DRM for your eBook. It is important to note that Smashwords does not use DRM.

While DRM may sound okay to prevent piracy, its effectiveness is questionable. Like putting a cheap lock on the front door to your house, it’s just going to stop honest people. DRM has actually been cracked for years with Apprentice Alf’s plugin for Calibre. If someone wants to remove the DRM on your eBook, it is not a difficult task. Additionally, for legitimate users who may want to copy an eBook to a different device, they cannot (unless they crack the DRM).

Another anti-piracy measure is watermarking, which the vendors haven’t really adopted yet (Pottermore was a notable exception). For every single eBook that is distributed, a unique piece of metadata is placed in the eBook that identifies when the book was sold and who it was sold to. That way if the eBook ends up on a torrent site, it would be easy to determine who the culprit was. Using watermarks also has the added benefit of not creating headaches for honest readers who want to transfer the eBook they own from their own device to another device they have. However, the question remains what action would be taken if someone pirated your book—put them in the stockades? What if they live in another country?

Strategies for Dealing with Piracy

There will always be eBook piracy—it's just an occupational hazard in the publishing industry. Some people just ain’t gonna pay for their eBooks. However, some people might be on the fence between stealing your book and paying for it. The technical solutions for anti-piracy aren’t the greatest, so let’s examine some other strategies for dealing with anti-piracy.

Collective Solutions

These solutions for anti-piracy would require a collective effort on the part of content creators and vendors, so they not might be something you could do personally. We just wanted to throw them out there so you could have a look and maybe get a community-wide discussion started. We welcome your thoughts.

Make being an indie author cool: When I was younger, my group of friends and I wouldn't dare own or listen to something from a “corporate” record label for fear of being ostracized as a poser. Additionally, cult-classic movies that could be classified as “indie” like I Spit on Your Grave and Eraserhead were considered very cool and having seen them gave you instant credibility. Unfortunately, there just hasn’t been the same type of culture for indie published eBooks. Although, with the help of book bloggers, interactive authors, and voracious readers, this attitude is slowly but surely changing. It might help to compare buying from indie authors to “buying local.” Local movements have gained much traction among the affluent in recent years.

Charge for eBooks on a sliding scale: One of the reasons piracy is so common in middle income and developing countries is that people just don’t have that much disposable income. Since the costs to produce an eBook is the same whether you sell 1 or 1,000,000, it may be wise to consider selling eBooks at a discounted rate based on a country’s GDP. So in more developing countries in Southeast Asia (e.g. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar), an author could price their eBook at $0.99 rather than $2.99 as an example. No vendor allows this yet, but in many cases it would make business sense, since an author would get many $0.99 sales rather than a few $2.99 sales (and the rest getting pirated). In fact, the opposite happens at Amazon, where many developing and middle-income countries actually get slapped with a $2 surcharge.

Individual Solutions

Here are a few solutions you can try yourself to see if it helps curb piracy.

Being interactive and friendly with readers: While there will always be those who pirate, being a friendly author may help convince people to not steal from you. Psychologically, it is much more difficult for someone to steal from someone they know to be a good person rather than a faceless organization.

Experiment with price: You can try lowering the price of your eBook. Often eBooks priced out by the publishers (usually $9.99 and higher) are very susceptible to piracy. David Gaughran talks about this extensively.

Use a service like Muso: Muso is an interesting service that monitors various torrent sites and websites for your copyrighted material. If you sign up with them (please note that it is a paid service), they can help remove pirated material from various sites.

Keeping Your eBook Files Secure

While dealing with piracy is challenging, there’s a couple security measures when you work with BB eBooks that can help in the fight against anti-piracy. Please let us know if you are one of our clients and you have any questions or concerns.

EPUB and MOBI files are for vendors and personal use only: When BB eBooks provides you with your EPUB and MOBI files of your eBooks, we recommend not distributing these through email to friends, fans, and reviewers. None of the editions we make have DRM (you can apply the DRM after you publish through the vendor). If you need an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) for book bloggers/reviewers, please let us know and we can add some wording on the title page to indicate that the eBook is for review only and any other precautions you deem necessary.

Do Not Distribute your POD Interior: the POD interior is only intended to go to the print-on-demand vendor (i.e. CreateSpace or Lightning Source). If a book reviewer requests a PDF, we can provide a PDF ARC that doesn't include the page numbers and can’t be reproduced as a counterfeit book.

Additionally, we have some concern at BB eBooks about transferring the eBook formats to you through email and relatively unsecure protocols like DropBox. We will be announcing a new, secure, and easy way for us to transfer your files in the near future. Thanks for bearing with us.

Label: Self-Publishing

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