When INTERN and Techie Boyfriend were trekking in Nepal, the heaviest thing in INTERN’s pack was a copy of Vikram Seth’s 1500-page A Suitable Boy, recommended by several clever and tasteful readers of this blog. That book was the size of a dorm room mini-fridge—INTERN could have survived in the Himalayas for weeks just by licking the ink. Attempts to sneak it into Techie Boyfriend’s pack resulted in immediate discovery and expulsion.
So when INTERN spied a fellow trekker reading a Kindle at the tea house that night, she accosted him immediately.
“How d’you like that thing?” INTERN said, helping herself to a chair at the table.
He looked up, smiling. He was a blond-haired sales and marketing type from somewhere in the southeast. His face spoke of leadership seminars and rugy.
“It’s great!” he said. “Ever since I bought it, I haven’t paid for a single book.”
“Oh, like you’re reading classics on Project Gutenburg?” said INTERN. She had met a butcher, once, in small-town Oregon, who read Dickens on his Kindle when business was slow.
Sales and Marketing beamed.
“No, there’s these websites where you can download new books the same way you download movies.”
INTERN’s expression shifted from friendly curiosity to suspicion. Her formidable eyebrows knit, and she leaned forward on her elbows.
“You mean you pirate them.”
He nodded, unaware of INTERN’s growing wrath*. “Yup. I figure the Kindle’s paid for itself about three times over already, just from all the money I’ve been saving on books.”
He took a sip of his Everest, giving out a yelp of surprise as the bottle shattered in his hands, the beer spilling all over his Kindle, which began to hiss and smoke and then melt into a puddle of black plastic and metal on the wooden table.
“What? WHYYYYY?” Sales and Marketing shouted. “Why did you do this, INTERN? Why me?”
But INTERN was already stalking away, her laser gun clinking softly at her side.
E-book pirating makes INTERN mad for obvious reasons: INTERN is a writer and has many writer-friends. But it’s a sheepish, ambivalent kind of mad: after all, INTERN downloaded music in college (though she has since sworn off it) and still enjoys the occasional ill-gotten movie (but does using your friend’s Netflix account now and then really hurt anyone?). Come to think of it, there’s probably a program or two on her computer that wasn’t strictly paid for (but it’s OK if it’s from a giant corporation, right?)
Laser gun fantasies aside, the truth is that INTERN can’t summon up as much righteous ire for people who download pirated ebooks as she would like to. Because she understands only too well their justifications. In a culture where “everybody’s doing it,” you feel like a sucker for paying for something everyone else is getting for free. Eventually, you get so used to getting that something for free that you feel downright outraged when someone asks you to pay for it.
“I’m not paying seventeen ninety-nine for a friggin’ album,” you sputter, as if someone told you they were going to start charging you three dollars a night to sleep in your own bed.
Somehow, it’s started feel like you’re the one in the right, and the music business is the greedy interloper trying to snatch back something that “should” be free.
INTERN and Techie Boyfriend have a younger friend, a real scrappy kid who isn’t above stealing a bottle of wine or a bike part here and there. One day, Techie Boyfriend asked him how he psyched himself up to steal something. Didn’t he feel guilty?
“No, man,” said the kid. “You just need to believe you deserve to get it, and it’s easy.”
How do people who wouldn’t steal a book off the shelf at Elliot Bay justify downloading pirated ebooks?
Digital products (like ebooks or mp3s) are like a big outdoor concert. You and your friends want to see the bands, but you don’t want to buy a $35 wristband, so you sneak in. Who does it hurt? It’s not like there’s a finite amount of music. The paying customers don’t get any less because you snuck in. As for the band? Well, if you hadn’t been able to sneak in, you wouldn’t have bought tickets anyway, so it really doesn’t make a difference either way.
Whereas stealing a physical book reduces a finite amount of books on the shelf by one, ebooks and other digital forms seem infinite. Stealing one doesn’t appear to reduce the stock—so how is it stealing? Besides, you wouldn’t have bought the book anyway…(or is that bullshit? Maybe you would have bought the book in 1980, but now you feel entitled to it for free. Better not think about that…)
How big an impact will ebook pirating have on writers and publishers over the next few years? And is there any way to preserve a mindset of book-buying in a culture that sees digital theft as harmless?
As someone who has seen her own work available for download on a torrent site, INTERN will be watching the ebook revolution with some wistfulness. But as a person whose own hands have been far from clean, INTERN can’t deny her own culpability in creating the culture that put it there.
How concerned are you about ebook pirating? Have you seen your books on pirate sites? Can authors do anything to reverse the tide? Will the benefits of ebook sales outweigh the losses of ebook pirating? INTERN wants to know!
*At this point, you may be wondering if INTERN invented this anecdote simply to serve the purposes of this blog post, but INTERN can assure you that so far everything she has related is 100% true. The culprit’s favorite book in the entire universe? “The Four Hour Work Week” by Timothy Ferris. Which should tell you something about his aspirations. *sniffs snootily.*