Anne Rooney considers the influence big organisations have on book piracy, and the ripple effect on authors, readers and the book industry.
Every now and then over the last 10-15 years, there has been a little flurry of panic and outrage as another author discovers there are free downloads of their book(s) available somewhere online. Seasoned authors point out that they can send as many take-down notices as they like, the sites will just ignore them and be unprosecutable because they are always under the non-jurisdiction of some bit of the cyberhinterland. Google some of my books and there are TEN THOUSAND links to illegal downloads.
I could spend my whole life sending pointless take-down notices, so I send none. Lots of those sites don't even have any books; they are just harvesting email addresses or depositing the digital equivalent of doggy dung, not in a plastic bag but on the gullible consumer's device. This style of piracy is part of the landscape. Like shops trying to stop shoplifting, it's a fight that will never be won, though we can possibly pick off a few of the more amateur attempts.
But this year has seen something rather different, involving large and generally respectable organisations from public libraries to the BBC.
Tackling ‘open’ libraries
The Internet Archive Open 'Library' (OL) has been scanning any physical book it can lay its hands on, uploading the files and offering them as a free digital 'loan' through its worldwide library. It's hardly the first attempt to make all books illegally available, but as it doesn't require the potential pirate-reader to register a credit card or any other details, it's probably more attractive to a wary book-thief. It also brazenly declares that it's legal under US 'fair use' rules. Firstly, it isn't — that's just a lie. (The Trump-esque stance of saying something untrue and browbeating people into believing it doesn't actually make it true.) And secondly, not all the world is the US. It most certainly is not legal in the UK. Boston Public Library (shame on them) have been providing physical books to OL to facilitate the theft and defended the practice to the Society of Authors. But it's still illegal.
Another, similar, illegal e-lending site appeared in March. With a little coy request that people don't upload copyright material it claims to have done its bit for protection, though of course it takes no notice if people do upload copyright material. And they are probably perfectly happy with that, as the site would have little appeal if all it hosted was books by long-dead people that have either vanished without trace or are available to own from Project Gutenberg.
"Like shops trying to stop shoplifting, it's a fight that will never be won, though we can possibly pick off a few of the more amateur attempts."
Even this is not the worst. At least these are contentious sites and although the public might be duped into theft by spurious and grandiose claims of legality and open access, they are still on the fringe of public engagement and discourse. The last couple of months have seen widely respected organisations — the BBC and LinkedIn — taint themselves.
The ripple effect
The BBC news website published a story (in distinctly admiring tones) about teachers live-streaming themselves reading entire picture books for their pupils to listen to at bedtime. Excuse me? Would that be the same BBC that kicks up an almighty fuss when bits of its programmes appear, unauthorised, on YouTube?
I have written to the BBC asking them either to take down the story or at least to amend it to point out that this is illegal copyright violation and harmful to the very writers and illustrators that the teachers presumably admire (or they wouldn't be using their work). So far, they are finding it tricky to resolve. Funny, that. If I were spotted encouraging someone to put unpaid-for goods in their bag at a supermarket and bypass the tills, I don't imagine the supermarket would find it tricky to resolve. I fully accept that primary school teachers may not realise they are breaking the law (though really, they SHOULD know how to use the tools of their job legally). But for the BBC to endorse and applaud criminal abuse is a sad sign of the times.
And LinkedIn. It has a service called SlideShare originally aimed at professionals with that PowerPoint malaise that means they are incapable of talking to more than one person at a time without breaking out in bullet points. If it were for $$geeks to share their 50 points about worthwhile investments or whatever, and they chose to do it, fine. But it's now full of 'slide shows' that are five slides 'about' a book with a link to an illegal download on one or more of the slides. Do LinkedIn care? No reader, they do not. If you wade through their intractable site and find the link to complain, they suggest you send a take-down notice to the original poster. If you write saying 'I don't want to hear your advice to send a take-down notice', they still suggest you send a take-down notice to the original poster. Again, it's a legitimate and respected company endorsing or turning a blind eye to crime on their patch — indeed, hosting it on their platform.
This, by the way, is why we need the new EU copyright legislation. It would make LinkedIn and their ilk liable for these infringements and so give copyright holders a one-stop shop to get stolen content taken down.
"The more stolen copies circulate, the fewer books publishers will be prepared to invest in producing"
Why does it matter? This is our work. We have spent a long time producing this work and are paid, on the whole, very little. Authors (writers and illustrators) are scraping a living. The more stolen copies of our work circulate, the fewer legitimate copies will be bought or borrowed from libraries and so the less we will earn. The more stolen copies circulate, the fewer books publishers will be prepared to invest in producing. Readers will lose out in the end. Quality books are expensive to produce; why bother if it's going to be stolen?
There is a wider issue, too, in that if we allow various types of criminal activity to be ignored, there is a thin-end-of-the-wedge effect. We've seen that with the kind of abuse certain groups of people are now routinely subjected to by offenders who don't fear any consequences, and possibly don't even see anything wrong in it. If a teacher violates copyright reading to her young pupils, where are those pupils going to learn respect for the property of others? And tomorrow's citizens really need to realise that digital property is still property as more and more property is digital every day. Those ££s in your bank account? They have no physical reality, you know. If you can steal my book, how is it different if I steal your digital ££s?
Piracy is not romance
Today's digital pirates cite the 'information wants to be free' mantra and claim to be doing public good. But information IS free – it's creative work that is not free. And they are doing public harm. It would help if people remember that pirates routinely slaughter the crew of ships in the Indian Ocean and other places, just to get their hands on some money. They are not figures of romantic heroism but straight-out criminal thugs. It would also help if we started to label the consumers of pirated goods as thieves, receivers of stolen goods, fences, and so on. Public broadcaster tells you how to do crime; network for professionals and thieves; primary-school teacher and stolen-book fence; doesn't sound so good, does it?
Image © ihorzigor / Adobe Stock
This blog was originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure on 9 May 2019.
About Anne Rooney
Anne Rooney writes non-fiction for all ages from five years to adult on a huge variety of topics and for all markets, from academic to mass-market paperback publishers. She also writes fiction for children, with a strong interest in emergent readers – both very young children, and teenagers with reading difficulties who need simple texts with age-appropriate content. Anne is Chair of the Educational Writers Group (EWG) committee.
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