e-book piracyAnalysts estimate that hundreds of thousands of e-readers were given as gifts this holiday season, spurring a massive explosion in the number of e-books that will likely be hopping off virtual shelves. Barnes and Noble reports that the deluge has already begun, as "nearly 1 million e-books were purchased on Christmas Day alone."

In the coming months, many of these new owners will discover websites where e-books can be downloaded for free. While some will gravitate toward legitimate websites like Project Gutenberg, or Google Books, others will use "pirate websites" – file-sharing sites where copyrighted content is made available to readers without the author's permission.

The Cost to Authors

Lost book sales can't be quantified, making it impossible to calculate the full cost of e-piracy, but the sheer number of illegal copies available for download gives an idea of the scope of the problem. At one file-sharing website, users have uploaded 1,830 copies of three books by a popular young adult author. Just one of those copies has had 4,208 downloads. On the same site, 7,130 copies of the late Michael Crichton's novels have been uploaded, and the first 10 copies have been downloaded 15,174 times.

Even if only a fraction of the downloads from this and dozens of other file-sharing websites represent actual lost sales, they still translate into a staggering amount of royalties that have been stolen from authors.

There's another cost to authors besides lost royalties: time. Many file-sharing websites will remove unauthorized material, but only at the instigation of the copyright holder. Multiple copies require multiple takedown requests. And, even after an illegal copy of an author's work has been removed, the book is often simply reposted by another user.

An Uphill Battle

Author Lesley Livingston's solution has been to create a "stock template DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998) cease and desist letter" to combat the theft of her work. Every Saturday, she spends "a glorious hour or two sending [the letters] to site admins."

"I put Google Alerts on all my book titles, and that pops some pirated copies," says Julie Kramer, author of the award-winning Riley Spartz mystery series. "When I first started sending them to my publisher a couple years ago, they were outraged. But now it's so widespread, I don't think they can keep up with it."

An executive editor at a major publishing house agrees: "Our legal department has a lawyer on retainer whose job is to slap a cease-and-desist on any site featuring an illegal copy of any of our books," he admitted. "That usually gets it taken down, though it usually pops up again somewhere else. With the growth and spread of e-books, it's clearly going to be an area that we'll need to be watching very closely. What we'll be able to do about it is another question entirely."

Why So Difficult to Control?

One of the biggest problems with literary piracy lies in its decentralized model. As Ian Barker, a novelist and editor at PC Utilities magazine, explains, "Torrent sites are basically nothing more than an index. They don't actually host the files that are available to download. These are on dozens – even hundreds – of different PCs belonging to individuals."

To make things even worse, the files themselves are often distributed across multiple computers: "Torrents work by splitting the file up into pieces and downloading it in sections which are then reassembled on your machine. When you download via a torrent you'll seldom get all of the file from one source; it will come from several locations at once."

Websites offering pirated e-books also evolve quickly to stay ahead of publishers. One advises users: "In order to assure stability for the community, we will be slowly adding alternative/additional ways to access [name of website]. Additional TLD's, (Domain Extensions) IP access, etc. This is to ensure that there could never be interruption to our service."

Getting in the Way of a Great Relationship

Traditionally, authors and readers play on the same team. Authors create content and readers read it in a mutually-beneficial relationship. But e-piracy has put readers and writers at odds by offering content for free. Some authors accept the existence of illegal copies as an unavoidable cost of doing business, but for most, the bottom line truly is the bottom line. Publishing is a business, and authors whose titles don't sell well aren't offered follow-up contracts.

Meanwhile, their existing titles will likely go out of print, further degrading their bottom line. Even if authors dodge that worst-case scenario and continue to publish, there's no doubt the widespread availability of illegal digital copies affects their income.

This causes a moral crisis for some e-pirates. "I've debated [scanning and uploading] some newer authors and books," one admits, "but I would need to...resolve the moral dilemma of actually causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love."

But most file-sharers see themselves as a community. They believe they offer a useful service, and their hackles go up when authors and publishers take steps to shut their websites down. After one site bowed to pressure and removed their e-books section entirely, hundreds of users bemoaned the loss. One posted a warning: "One word to the Publishers and Authors who created original trouble - Do whatever you want you cannot Stop readers from getting free Ebooks. You people don't stand a chance against [the] entire Internet. As Long as [the] Internet is alive, we readers will continue to share Ebooks."

And authors continue to battle the pirates.

Karen DionneKaren Dionne
is the internationally published author the environmental thrillers Freezing Point and Boiling Point. Karen is also the cofounder of Backspace, and serves on the board of directors of the International Thriller Writers. Visit Red Room to find out more about her books and to read her blog.

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There is a huge problem with this article. It ignores reality. If you were able to totally able to stop the piracy, sales would not go appreciably, much less the wild claims made by the writer of the article.

The reality is the people using piracy sites would either borrow the printed book from a friend, get a friend to loan them a copy through Amazon, or similar legal sharing arrangement, get it from the library, or obtain access to a legal copy some other way that didn't involve paying for the book.

Before e-books became an issue, I had to give up reading due to hearing issues. That makes sense if you are familiar with certain hearing conditions. I wouldn't use a piracy site to download anything that I did not own a hard copy of. I predicted, and warned others, about illegal downloads long before the RIAA came up with its bully tactics.

The fact is simple. These people are never going to buy the book with or without the availability of piracy sites, period. So, the publishers aren't losing out on sales that never existed in the first place. Before piracy sites sprouted, they would have gone to the library, borrowed a friend's copy, and any number other of "Free" legal methods of getting the book without paying for it.

The publishers are pricing themselves out of business, not the piracy websites. Why should you pay almost as much, or worse, more, for an e-copy than for a hardback copy? Their lame excuses don't cut it. I would love e-copies, but when I can buy a hardback copy for 1/3 - 1/2 the cost of the e-book, the e-book gets the boot. I use textbooks for school and the e-textbooks are pretty much as bad as regular e-books. I can rent a textbook for 1/4 to 1/2 the cost of an e-textbook. If the instructor allows it, I can legally get an international version of $230+ textbook for $40-45, which often includes 3 day shipping from overseas.

It's only a matter of time before the tables are turned and a class action, or government, lawsuit against the publishers for monopoly price setting, illegal price fixing, or similar charges hit them.

September 04 2012 at 11:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

the greatness of the internet to triumph over the insane idea of copyright!Ideas need to be free.

January 09 2011 at 1:28 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to hello's comment

Ideas are free. It is the unique expression of an idea that should be protected. Why should creative artists not be rewarded for their work? Persons doing any other work can expect to be paid whatever was agreed before they started.

January 09 2011 at 8:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

see http://mises.org/daily/3864 for more information.Nuff said

January 10 2011 at 11:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That might be the law as it stands and I do not condone what people are doing and I have not ever bought, sold or put on one of those websites any of the ebooks I ahve, but I can see where people who buy the ebooks say that they should be able to do with what they want with the ebook once they have bought it.

I understand it's frustrating for authors but authors need to understand how frustrating it is for the readers and buyers of these ebooks. We are paying almost the same amount of money for a digital copyas would be for a paperback of a book that we have no right to do anything other than read it.

Either the law changes and makes it harder for people to publish the ebooks on pirate sites or stop writing ebooks until somehting is done. But I'm sorry the problem is there and authors know this, to complain and complain about it and put out ebooks at the same time seems a bit ridiculous when they know it's going on and is going to keep going on.

January 08 2011 at 1:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to bookreader3454's comment

There is a difference between selling the copy of the paper book that you purchased and making a photocopy of the book that you purchased and selling THAT. In essence, that is what putting an ebook up on a file-sharing site is doing. If you sell your copy of a paper book, you no longer have that book. If you put an ebook up on a file sharing site, you still have your book, and everyone else now has a copy of that book.

January 08 2011 at 10:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

You make a fabulous point, bookreader3454 but the situation is more complex than many observers might realize.

Some authors sold "all rights" to publishers before e-books were on their radars. They might only be getting 4% or 15% of e-book sales, the same as for their mass market print.

Those authors cannot be called hypocrites or ridiculous for complaining about piracy if they earn the same for legal ebook sales as for legal print sales, and receive nothing for shoplifted print books and nothing for illegally "shared" e-copies. Publishers make the decision about the sale and marketing of e-books, but some publishers leave it entirely to the authors to deal with piracy.

Other authors (J K Rowling for instance) never sold e-rights at all, but pirates scanned her books, created e-books, and "shared" them, anyway. If she were to complain, she is hardly a hypocrite or ridiculous for complaining.

Many authors do not "complain and complain" in public. Many authors have no idea what is going on, or the extent to which it is going on. Unfortunately, going on strike is not an option for most authors.

January 09 2011 at 8:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I actually don't agree with anything said in this article. When I buy a book, either ebook or paper back book, I should have the choice to sell, trade or share it with others because when I bought it, It became my copy to do with what I please. If authors are losing so much money I would suggest stop selling ebooks.

January 08 2011 at 12:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to bookreader3454's comment

Ah, bookreader3454,

You have every right to dislike what the law says (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) but as long as the law stands, it must be born in mind.

The reason that e-books cannot be shared or re-sold is because "copyright" trumps traditional first sale rights. What you purchase is the right to read the copy that you paid for, not the copyright.

Copyright belongs to only one person: the author. They have the right to create copies or not, and to control who publishes the book. When you buy a paper book, you may not go to the copyshop and photocopy it, so that you have two of it. When you sell or lend a paperback, you no longer have the copy that you purchased.

With e-books, it is possible to buy one copy, and share it with several thousand other people who have not paid for it. That sort of sharing seriously affects the copyright owner's right to make money from the legal sale of her books.

January 08 2011 at 12:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

rowenabeau the law is an ass! And the river of life is showing it up for what it is. Truth doesn't need to be defended,only the false needs to be defended by artifical constructs,like patent and copyright laws.

January 09 2011 at 1:37 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Thank you for a great article, Karen. Project Gutenberg isn't as infallible as many believe. Mistakes are made, as explained on Richard Curtis's ereads.com site concerning PG's mistaken use of some of Greg Bear's works.

One issue you didn't touch on is the fact that some people believe that if a novel is available "free" on a file sharing site, it must be in the public domain (which is absolutely not true) and that it is therefore legal (which it is not) for them to snag the books, burn them onto CDs, and sell them on auction sites.

If a deal looks too fantastic to be true, it is probably dishonest. It would be a most unusual author who would give away her copyright, and allow strangers to sell her e-books for pennies in competition with her publisher's legal sales on legitimate e-book retail sites.

January 08 2011 at 10:24 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply