Prepare to be boarded

[February 2012] I’m not sure I’ve ever been this busy before. At least as far as writing is concerned. I have a major deadline coming up in about 6 weeks and I’ve got the nose to the grindstone, working every waking hour, to get this book done on schedule. It’s fun, but it’s hard. There are distractions. I have to get the taxes done. There are TV shows I’d like to watch and books I’d like to read. All of that goes onto the back burner until April 1.

However, things arise that require my attention. Such as a recent advisory at the HWA message board that a site was hosting pirated copies of work. I checked out the site and yes, indeed, something of mine was there.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had people giving away (or, in this case, selling access to) copies of my work. I’m not an obvious target, but apparently these pirates cast a wide net. I filed a DMCA notice with the site (they provided a helpful template to do so) and within about 48 hours the offending content was gone. Just mine, mind you—the site still offers scads of books by names you would certainly recognize. [Addendum: after I wrote this article, I found a site containing two pirated anthologies featuring my work. DMCA notices filed. In this instance the response was that it would be “difficult” to remove the file, but they would try. Hmm.]

It’s a little like playing whack-a-mole, though. You bop it down in one place and it pops back up again in another. Thanks to sites like the now defunct MegaUpload, people have plausible deniability. They can upload the content anonymously and provide a link to it from some other equally anonymous site. When challenged, they can claim that they are just providing a link, not hosting the content. I’ve dealt with this before. I usually focus my efforts on the hosting site, since all the links in the world don’t mean a hill of beans if there’s nothing at the end of them. Every once in a while, one of the link providers will provide a shame-faced apology when challenged.

I’m sure there are people who are saying, “What’s the big deal?” This instance doesn’t represent a big financial hit for me. The work was originally offered as a give-away chapbook, for which I was paid in advance. It’s now available only as an eBook, and I do get royalties from this, though they won’t buy me a fancy dinner most months.

However, it’s the principle of the matter. This work belongs to me. If I want to give copies of it away, that would be up to me (and the publisher, of course). No one else has the right to do so. The situation isn’t the same as with a physical book, where a person can buy a copy and then do with it what they want—short of selling photocopies of it or scanning it in and giving away (or selling) the scans. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to resell your paperback or hardcover copy of a work. It is not acceptable to distribute an eBook. In effect, when you purchase an eBook, you are licensing it in much the same way that you license software. There are terms of agreement that you enter into with the author and the publisher.

I’m not going to get into the whole “piracy can be good for your career” argument touted by some authors. I don’t believe it anymore than I believe that leaving the jewelry store unlocked at night is good for business. Letting unauthorized people control the distribution of your intellectual property just isn’t right, regardless of any perceived “benefits.”

Writers are facing the same situation that musicians did a decade or more ago when file sharing services started robbing them of the royalties they relied on to make a living. There is a general belief that this situation has shaken itself out for musicians, that entities like iTunes and Pandora have legitimized online music distribution. All you have to do is hit Google, though, to see that there is a lot of music being illegally distributed on the internet. And now books, as well.

All we can do is go after the sites that are illegally distributing our works, one at a time. Whack that mole and wait for the next one to appear. I recommend putting Google Alerts to use so that you can find out when your name or a particular title shows up on the internet. That’s the main way I find pirated copies of my work. I’m too busy to go trolling cyberspace all the time, but when cyberspace comes to me, I act.

One sad fact, though, is that some of these sites are beyond my reach. If they dig in their heels and the server is located in some distant land, there’s little I can do about it. Hell, there’s little anyone can do about it—even the big authors with deep pockets and lawyers on retainer.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just throw our hands in the air and give up. We pick them off one at a time. People will always steal—and some offenders don’t even consider this theft, more the pity—but this is a kind of theft that we can stop some of the time, at least. Intellectual property is real property, with real value. And I have the royalty statements to prove it.

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