May 23rd 2011
Google and Piracy: One Author’s Perspective
On Friday, a friend brought to my attention a blog post that was written by Richard Curtis, a big-name agent in the SF/fantasy genre. Curtis’s post was a response to an announcement earlier in the week by Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. Essentially, Schmidt said that Google would not make any effort to stop its industry-leading search engine from linking to sites selling pirated books, even if the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring them to do so. Curtis concluded that if Google was serious about this, it sounded a death-knell for publishers and authors alike.
I linked to Curtis’s post on my Facebook page, under a heading that read something like “Google Declares War on Publishers and Writers.” Many of the comments to my post expressed outrage at Schmidt’s declaration. But a sizable number of them did not. On the contrary, they said that Google was justified in refusing to do this and a few went on to argue that in fact e-piracy really didn’t hurt authors at all.
I was floored.
And so I thought I would bring the issue up here. I know that I’m going to tick people off with some of what I’m going to say. I don’t really care.
Piracy hurts artists. I say this as someone who is old enough to have made cassette tapes of my friends’ albums (Grateful Dead — Europe ‘72, Allman Brothers — Beginnings, The Who — Who’s Next, and a bunch of others that don’t make me sound nearly as cool . . .) in violation of copyright laws. I was wrong to have done it. I apologize. Because piracy really does hurt artists.
How? Well, let’s start with the obvious. If you illegally download a book or a song or a movie, or if you buy downloads from sites that you assume are legal (because some well-known search engine took you there, and well, doesn’t it follow that it must therefore be a legal site?) you are denying the artist a royalty on that sale. You are, in effect, taking money out of the artist’s pocket.
“But wait!” some will say. “You can’t assume that every illegal sale correlates with a lost legal sale. Some people, if they can’t buy something on the cheap from an illegal site, won’t buy it at all.” That may be true. There may not be a one-to-one correlation between illegal sales and sales lost. Doesn’t matter. Even if the correlation is three-to-one or seven-to-one or even ten-to-one, it is still money taken out of the artist’s pocket.
But more than that, illegal downloads and the like also have a negative impact on an artist’s numbers. (And here I will focus on the publishing industry, because that’s what I know best.) Again, it doesn’t matter what the ratio of sales lost might be. Lower sales numbers make it more difficult for writers to keep their books in print and to secure contracts for future work. We live in an age where the bottom line is everything to publishers. A writer’s future is only as secure as his or her most recent sales figures. When our numbers go down, our career prospects grow ever more tenuous. Decisions about whether or not to tender contracts for future books, be it in the same series or not, are based on the number of sales reported on recent books. So are decisions about the size of advances, how much money will be put into packaging and publicizing the books, how widely they will be distributed, the size of print runs, where and how books are shelved in a bookstore. In short, every single decision that will impact the success or failure of future volumes is tied to previous sales numbers. Only the most naïve observer could possibly think that piracy doesn’t hurt an author’s prospects for success.
Piracy-deniers will say, “But even if you don’t get the sale, you’ll have more people aware of your work. Name recognition helps authors; word of mouth is the best form of advertising.” Name recognition does help; word of mouth is crucial to our careers. But only so far as those things lead to legitimate, measurable sales. If my books don’t sell in a way that profits my publisher, I won’t get another contract. I can say, “Well, but lots of people know who I am! They might not be buying the books legally, but they are buying them. My name recognition is off the charts!” But that’s really not going to help me at all.
“The publishing industry is stuck in the dark ages. It has to adjust to the new realities of a digital marketplace. That’s what the music industry did a few years ago. Now it’s publishing’s turn. Until the industry changes, piracy is going to continue to take its toll.”
Yeah, I can’t argue with that one. And frankly it wasn’t my intention to. Because here is the bottom line. The industry might need to change, but it hasn’t yet, and in the meantime, piracy is illegal. Selling copies of my books that have been stolen or acquired through illegitimate means, is illegal. Buying pirated copies of my books is illegal. By making it possible for people to buy and sell those pirated copies, Google is abetting an illegal industry. And no matter how it is justified or marginalized or forgiven, nothing can change that. Piracy is against the law. And everything else is crap.David B. Coe
David B. Coe
David B. Coe is the author of eleven fantasy novels, including the books of the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands. He has also written the novelization for the Ridley Scott production of ROBIN HOOD, starring Russell Crowe, that is due out in May 2010. In 1999 he received the Crawford Fantasy Award, given annually by the IAFA to the best new author in fantasy. He has a Ph.D. in United States environmental history and lives on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee with his wife and daughters. Visit site.
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