Why I was fu­ri­ous when my book was pirated

Au­thor Robert Colvile ex­plains how the elec­tronic black mar­ket threat­ens au­thors’ liveli­hoods

The Sunday Telegraph - - ARTS - Robert Colvile is the au­thor of The Great Ac­cel­er­a­tion: How the World Is Get­ting Faster, Faster (Blooms­bury)

There are two things you do when your book gets pub­lished. First, book­mark your Ama­zon page, for ob­ses­sive check­ing of sales rank­ings. Sec­ond, set up a Google Alert, in case any­one is talk­ing about it. Or, as it turns out, steal­ing it. A cou­ple of weeks af­ter be­com­ing an au­thor, I got an au­to­mated email: a free ver­sion of my book had popped up on a site called Dai­lyU­ploads.net. A few hours later, my in­box pinged again. It was of­fi­cial: I’d been pirated.

The re­ac­tion came in sev­eral stages. First, out­rage: they’re pi­rat­ing my book! Next, a cu­ri­ous kind of pride: they’re pi­rat­ing my book. Fi­nally, pure baf­fle­ment: why are they pi­rat­ing my book? At the time, the Amer­i­can edi­tion – the one that had been copied – was 309,607th on Ama­zon. This wasn’t giv­ing the pub­lic what they wanted: it was giv­ing them what they didn’t even know ex­isted.

My mis­take, it turned out, was to imag­ine the pi­rates as an­glers, pluck­ing the juici­est ti­tles. In fact, they’re trawler­men, sweep­ing their nets across the pub­lish­ing sched­ules. When I talked to other au­thors, they all had sto­ries to share.

If you buy an eBook on­line, it will come in a for­mat that can’t be shared. But there are free soft­ware tools that sim­ply strip those pro­tec­tions away. The re­sult­ing files are dis­trib­uted across the in­ter­net – not for profit, but out of a con­vic­tion that peo­ple should be able to read what they want with­out pay­ing for it, just as they should be able to watch films or lis­ten to mu­sic.

And like ev­ery­thing else, it’s speed­ing up. In 2008/09, ti­tles took 19 weeks to hit the elec­tronic black mar­ket. This year, Lloyd Shep­herd, a Bri­tish au­thor of his­tor­i­cal thrillers, pub­lished his fourth novel – and found a “box set” of all four avail­able for down­load within 72 hours.

My sec­ond Google Alert, for ex­am­ple, led me to a site called Mo­bil­ism, where you could find any book you dreamed of: The Next Pan­demic by Ali S Khan, The Mayo Clinic Cook­book by Alice Hamil­ton, White Ea­gles over Ser­bia by Lawrence

Dur­rell, Vi­o­lin for Dum­mies by Kather­ine Rapoport, Duty and Honor by Tom Clancy, Ori­en­tal­ism by Ed­ward Said, Night­mares and Dream­scapes by Stephen King, A Sum­mer at Sea by Katie Fforde. And those were just from the past 12 hours.

There were thou­sands of ti­tles – pro­tected by the tis­sue-thin le­gal de­fence that the site does not host il­le­gal ma­te­rial, merely al­lows users to post their own links. The up­loader of my book, “mon­eyguz­zler”, had posted al­most 20,000 times since 2013.

So who are these pi­rates? When Shep­herd re­ceived the dreaded Google Alert, he went on to the fo­rums to find out what mo­ti­vated them.

“The peo­ple who are do­ing this sys­tem­at­i­cally have got some very odd jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for it,” he ex­plains. Many in­sist that in­for­ma­tion should be free. Oth­ers have “a sense that writ­ers are wealthy and pub­lish­ers are wealthy, and there­fore they’re en­ti­tled [to steal from them]”. In fact, as Philip Pull­man, the pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety of Au­thors, has pointed out, they’re poor, and get­ting poorer – some­thing Pull­man di­rectly links to piracy.

How bad a prob­lem is it? Shep­herd found that many of the pi­rates are those who can­not get the rel­e­vant ti­tles in their own coun­try. There are also in­di­ca­tions that piracy can ac­tu­ally help sales, by spread­ing word of mouth.

But most of those within the in­dus­try see it as a threat. The UK is rel­a­tively law-abid­ing: ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment re­search, only 1 per cent of UK in­ter­net users are read­ing eBooks il­le­gally, com­pared with 9 per cent for mu­sic or 6 per cent for films. But, says Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Pub­lish­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, this still amounts to 7.2 mil­lion ti­tles a year, or about 10 per cent of eBook sales. In­trigu­ingly, un­like film or mu­sic thieves, UK book pi­rates tend to be be­tween the ages of 35 and 55: “These are not spotty teenagers sit­ting in their bed­rooms who can’t af­ford a book,” says Lot­tinga.

Pub­lish­ers need to play a con­stant game of Whac-a-Mole with the il­le­gal sites, he adds, be­cause the more con­ve­nient it is to down­load il­le­gally, the more peo­ple will be tempted. “Right now, the prob­lem is con­tained,” says dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing ex­pert Michael Bhaskar. “It’s frus­trat­ing, but not life-threat­en­ing.”

That’s prob­a­bly true. But I still felt a sense of raw fury when I no­ticed Mo­bil­ism staff plug­ging a pre­mium, paid-for down­load ser­vice. The fi­nal in­sult was that they signed off with a plea to sup­port soft­ware de­vel­op­ers by pay­ing for their work. Their work – but not, it seems, ours.

‘Pub­lish­ers need to play a con­stant game of Whac-a-Mole with the il­le­gal sites’

More than seven mil­lion eBooks are read il­le­gally in Bri­tain each year

These ti­tles are among the tens of thou­sands that can be found through sites such as Mo­bil­ism

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