A Tale of Two Pirates

by Rich on July 9, 2011

Piracy on the internet is nothing new. With the rise in indie publishing, though, a lot of individuals and small businesses are running into what big publishers have known for a long time: Content piracy is easy and preventing it is hard.

I don’t intend to talk about the ethics or effects of piracy. Instead, I want to distinguish between two types of content theft and their different goals.

When most casual observers think of piracy, they think of people sharing files via downloads, torrents, or peer-to-peer networks. This is traditional piracy. The person sharing the content knows that sharing is illegitimate and the person downloading knows that downloading is illegitimate. There are a variety of motivations for the distributors:

  • wanting to share
  • wanting to increase their level of contribution to the system so they, in turn, can download more faster
  • using modified content as a way to distribute viruses (a form of economic motivation)

Regardless of intentions, participants on both sides know they’re in the middle of underground activity.

The other type is what I call counterfeiting. Here, the distributor takes someone’s content, repackages it, and tried to sell it through legitimate channels as his own. The Passive Voice Blog has an excellent account of one author’s struggle to get Amazon to pull an ebook where someone had taken one of her books, copied it, and sold it as his own work. The key difference from traditional piracy is that the buyers had a reasonable expectation that what they bought was legit, because Amazon was selling it. Retailer’s don’t sell stolen goods.

In counterfeiting, the seller’s motivation is clearly economic. They want to make money selling stolen goods.

The differences in apparent legitimacy lead to different prevention options. In both piracy and counterfeiting, “producers” can be subject to legal and procedural consequences (civil suits, sanctions by an ISP, etc.). It’s difficult and expensive to reach them, so for individual authors it’s impractical, but there is a mechanism. In traditional piracy, downloaders can be subject to the same sanctions.

With counterfeiting, the retailer can also be a means to enforcement. It’s not to Amazon’s advantage to be known for dealing counterfeit goods. Their interest in maintaining reputation (at least) can be used to push them into action against counterfeiters.

Retailer involvement against counterfeiters is important, since counterfeiters are highly dependent on retailers for the returns they need to make counterfeiting viable. If authors and publishers can push Amazon (and others, the problem isn’t unique to Amazon) to make counterfeiting sufficiently inconvenient, the counterfeiter’s motivation goes away. The down side is increased inconvenience to legit sellers. This is the risk management balance.

Against pirates, indies have little recourse. Major media companies and publishers don’t have an effective way to prevent it, and there’s no reason to think indies will have the resources or strategy to do any better. Counterfeiting, though, is different. Online retailers want indies’ business. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords (among others) have done a lot of work to court indie publishers. They want to promote indie publishing as viable and desirable because they rightly see a great business opportunity. Indies who encounter counterfeiting need to both work with retailers and keep public pressure on retailers to pull counterfeit works. Leveraging the retailers’ interest against counterfeiters will advance indies’ interest against counterfeiters.

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