Over the last couple weeks, I’ve seen some interesting Facebook groups and pages pop up, and the thing they have in common is that they had hundreds or in some cases thousands of members, and they had uploaded thousands of epub books for free download. Books which the authors hadn’t authorized to be given away.
There was a little bit of online hysteria about them, and I did the same as many people: reported the groups to Facebook for theft, in hopes they would go away. But ebook theft is an ongoing issue, and there’s a lot of talk about it, and I think it is time I addressed it here in a concrete way. So this may be a bit of a long blog entry in that I really want to address some of what I see as the bigger concerns around the issues of DRM, copyright and ebooks in particular.
Myths About Book Pirating
I want to start out by talking about what I see as some fairly common myths about book piracy. Many of these also apply to other kinds of copyright infringement as well.
People Who Download Free Copies of Books Wouldn’t Have Bought the Book Anyway
This is the number one response to piracy I see. The idea is this: the people who are out there downloading books for free wouldn’t actually buy the books in the first place. They just amass collections of ebooks they download, and maybe read them, and maybe they don’t. But they weren’t actual customers, and they wouldn’t have paid for the books in the first place, so the author didn’t lose any money because of it.
In actual practice, I’ve tracked my sales over the course of the last year. Every single day. And here’s what I’ve found. Yes, as far as I can tell, most people who love books are going to go buy them. But in each case when a new title has been released, sales dropped significantly after the books made it onto the main book pirating sites such as Mobilism, TUEBL and Mobile9. Can I directly attribute the drop in sales to those uploads? Not necessarily. But when I see someone on an internet forum post, “Can someone post A Song for Julia by Charles Sheehan-Miles” and someone else uploads it, then 250 people click the “thank you” button in order to get access? That’s a good sign that I’m losing revenue.
Look. I’m not some faceless corporation. I’m a guy with a wife and two kids who I have to come up with college money for. I work a full time job, and write in my “spare” time which is mostly by getting up at 4:30 every morning to write. This is something I love to do. It’s something I’d like to do full time some day. That’s not an option yet, but hopefully will be soon.
People won’t pirate if the paid product is easily accessible and priced low enough
This is a fairly common argument too. The idea is this. People wouldn’t go to the trouble of pirating books if they could only easily and cheaply get them from legitimate avenues.
But here’s the thing. I charge between 2.99 and 3.99 for my books, which I actually get between 30-70% of, several months after the fact. That’s not much more than a cup of coffee, and it’s a whole lot cheaper than seeing a movie. My books are available on every ebook platform and I don’t use DRM (more on my thoughts about DRM below). There isn’t a country in the world where you can’t buy my books, and my royalty statements from Apple and Smashwords and Amazon and Kobo prove it. You can’t get much cheaper and easier than that.
Pirating “Helps” authors by publicizing them
Yes, it’s true that giving away books for free does help, especially when you are starting out. Way back on January 1, 2008, I posted here on this blog that I was giving away my novel Republic for free, and it had 50,000 downloads in 3 days. At the time giving away a book for free was relatively new idea, and it got me some interesting ink and a lot of new fans and I was happy.
But here’s the thing. I chose to give away my book. Not you. Not anyone else. It was my book. I chose to give it away. That’s not the same as if someone else takes one of my books and uploads it on a torrent site or to Usenet.
If you want to help an author out because you love their books, go buy the thing already. Don’t tell yourself that by sharing it with 10,000 other people on some file sharing site that you’ve done them a favor. You haven’t. If they want it on filesharing sites, then the author can go load it themselves.
Why I Don’t Believe in DRM
Okay, so this leads to a discussion of DRM, or Digital Rights Management. If you’re not into the technical stuff, here’s the deal with DRM. It’s basically a way of encrypting a product so it’s tied to a particular device. All of the major ebook providers use some form of DRM or another, and most of them give authors the option to turn it on or off. I always choose to not include DRM.
Here’s why. If you buy my book from Amazon today, and next year you decide to switch to Nook or Kobo, you should be able to take my book, convert it, read it on the new device, and not have to buy it all over again. Simple as that. If you’ve bought it once from me, I don’t think you should be stuck to that provider forever. And all of the DRM schemes out there do just that. So it inconveniences legitimate customers. But it has zero deterrent effect on people who want to steal books.
The fact is that every DRM scheme out there right now is pretty easily cracked. With a simple google search you can get the plugins for Calibre which will strip the DRM from Amazon or iBooks or BN books. It takes 30 seconds. DRM is not a deterrent for theft. All it does is constitute a pain in the ass for people I don’t want to piss off: readers who love books.
What Can Be Done?
So, I’ve been thinking about options. The RIAA went after individuals who downloaded and shared torrents of music files, but you know what? That was crazy. There were cases where single moms with kids were sued for millions of dollars. If you’re a single mom with kids and you can’t afford the books and want to read them anyway? Drop me a line. I’ll send it to you for free 🙂 I mean it. I’ve done it, and I’ve made good friends that way, and I’ve sold more books that way in the long run. I’m not remotely interested in going after people who want to read my books.
What I am interested in is the service providers that make it possible to share books on a huge scale. And one of the biggest is an outfit called TUEBL, or the The Ultimate Ebook Library. TUEBL operates apparently out of Canada, but I don’t know where their servers are, because they use an obfuscation service called CloudFlare to hide their IP addresses. My books have been repeatedly posted on TUEBL, and even after multiple DCMA takedown notices and complaints, they continue to show back up there.
About TUEBL and the so-called Kopimism Church
Here’s some background on TUEBL. It’s operated by this outfit called the Kopimism Church. “Copy-me-ism.” Kopimism somehow managed to get the Swedish government to recognize it as a church, and then some joker named Travis McCrea who lives in Idaho incorporated his own branch of the “church” in Idaho.
What we know about the Kopimism Church in Idaho is that TUEBL is supposedly their ministry. McCrea claims that giving away other people’s intellectual property is his religious vocation. He’s so religious about it that his website threatens anyone who makes a DCMA complaint. He is the sole incorporator and sole member of the board of directors of this nonprofit. The website claims they have 501(c)(3) status, which in the U.S. means that donations to his “church” are tax-deductible.
We also know that TUEBL is one of the top 25,000 sites in the United States according to Alexa.com. To give some perspective, it’s ranked higher than the National Rifle Association (#28,779). This website gets a lot of traffic. And it runs ads from big companies: sadly Amazon and Audible.com, along with RackSpace, Ford Motor Company and more. So McCrea, TUEBL and his Kopimist Church are raking in cash from advertising and tax-deductible donations in support of his activity of stealing from me and other authors.
My Complaint to the IRS
I filed a complaint with the IRS today about this. According to IRS regulations, a church or religious organization is automatically granted tax-exempt status. However, in order to qualify for for that tax-exempt status, the organization’s purpose or activities cannot be illegal or violate important public policy.
Copyright infringement is illegal and violates important public policy. I contacted the organization and requested a copy of their IRS Form 990, which is a public record of any nonprofit’s tax returns. They are required by law to provide them. They didn’t do so. Their Form 990 isn’t listed on Guidestar or any of the other organizations which post 990s publicly. I suspect that McCrea never actually filed for 501(c)(3) status, nor has he filed the required tax forms. We’ll see.
Some more thoughts
Look, I’m not a crusader. I don’t want to spend time on this… I want to spend time writing more books. But someone has to put their foot down and say enough.
Here’s some things you can do to help prevent book piracy:
- Don’t download or upload pirated books. That’s simple.
- Ask your friends not to
- Support your favorite authors by buying their books. Simple
- If your books are listed on TUEBL, then file a similar complaint with IRS, or the Idaho Secretary of State’s office, which allowed McCrea to register his phony church
- The US copyright office has put out a public request for comments on problems facing small publishers and authors who can’t afford to hire zillion dollar lawyers to help with copyright issues. You can submit comments here. If you are an author or run a small publishing house, you should submit comments. Otherwise they’ll only hear from the big guys who can afford lots of lawyers.
Okay. I’m off my soapbox, and back to work on editing The Last Hour. Thanks for listening.