Pirate LogoThe Pirate's Dilemma


“What will you do when someone pirates your book?”

Pirate’s Dilemma mock ups

Some Pirate’s Dilemma cover concepts designed by Ji Lee. I really liked the idea of ripping off the covers of successful business books (such as the Freakonomics, The Tipping Point and The Long Tail rip offs pictured) But book stores told us it would create myriad logistical headaches, so we went with the yellow jacket instead, which was no bad thing.

“What will you do when someone pirates your book?”

I get asked this question more than any other when I’m talking to people about The Pirate’s Dilemma. It’s a good question – I’m in the business of selling intellectual property, piracy is something I should be concerned about. On the other hand, it’s also a silly question. I say this for two reasons.

Firstly, I think this misses the point of what The Pirate’s Dilemma is all about (which is fair enough, because not many people have read it yet – but it’s out in 12 days, save those xmas book tokens!). The subtext of this question is the assumption that I argue that all piracy is good, and anyone should be able to pirate anything at anytime, so why should my book be any different? Live by the sword, die by the sword right? But this isn’t the argument I make at all. Yes, pirates can create new markets, signal trends and develop innovative ways to reach new audiences. But the real point of The Pirate’s Dilemma is that piracy is a double-edged sword.

Piracy is often bad, and we should fight pirates when they are not adding any kind of value to society. But if society gets behind pirates, because somehow they are adding value to the way we do things, like creating a new more equitable way for artists to distribute music (Hi, Internet!), or creating a simultaneous-release model in the movie industry (Hi, my local Chinese take-out place! Hello again, Internet) then the only real choice is to compete with pirates, not fight. If there is demand for this new way to do things, and it really is adding value to society, it will happen despite what the law does or doesn’t say. In these cases we should elect to legitimize and legalize the innovation instead of criminalizing it.

The second reason it’s a silly question has more to do with the history of piracy in the book industry. One of the most worrying things about it in the West is there really isn’t very much piracy happening, which should indeed be worrying to publishers because the greater threat, as Tim ‘O Reilly so eloquently put it, is obscurity. Maybe this is because the cost of making a hard pirate copy of a book yourself is higher than buying a bound edition, the cost of printer ink being what it is, and people still prefer hard copies (I expect this will change as better screen densities and things like the Kindle take off).

There isn’t much piracy in the book industry, but authors who do give their works away for free seem to benefit from doing so. One of the world’s most successful marketing and business authors, Seth Godin, did a Radiohead with his incredible book Unleashing the Idea Virus way before the phrase “did a Radiohead” meant anything to anyone. Science Fiction writer and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow gives all his books away for free. “I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out” he wrote in Forbes last year, “and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.”

Books spread ideas and sell authors, but authors don’t just make money from selling books. In fact a lot of, if not most, non-fiction authors make more money selling ideas than they do from selling books. Like the music business, the real money is in the live industry – speaking, consulting and so forth. If people pirate my book, I’m sure my publishers won’t be too happy, but it could very well help sell physical books. It would almost certainly create more “live” opportunities for me.

This isn’t the case for all authors – I do worry piracy could damage the world of fiction where there are less obvious revenue streams for authors, although if there is one thing pirates are good at, it’s eking out less than obvious revenue streams. But in my case the answer to this question is straightforward:

I’m not going to do anything.

I don’t see pirate copies of my book as a problem. My publishers might, and they will do as they see fit, please don’t take this as an invitation to pirate my book, because it isn’t. But while there isn’t any evidence that this would be bad, and some that suggests this might be good, I just can’t see the point in trying to stop it. I assume it will happen at some point because of the subject of the book. That being the case, I’ll be more worried if it isn’t pirated, because I’m competing with 120,000 other books that will be released in 2008. Obscurity is by far the greatest threat here.

2 Responses to ““What will you do when someone pirates your book?””

  1. Beats Says:

    well said. I want to order the book right now but amazon doesn’t give free super saver shipping under $25 (book costs about $16.50 right now) and they don’t have the shure earguard replacements that I want in stock to bring my total up :)

    I tried to find a free ebook copy that I could read for the time being, but I can’t find it. Anyway, I want people to see me reading it as much as I want to read it! It’s like a cool fashion accessory and it makes me look smart while reading it in a way that Maxim can’t

    looking forward to reading it on my impending trip to SE Asia

  2. Chris Kindle Says:

    Just came across your blog on Google. Interesting post, you bring up a few good things to think about. Good luck with the blog.

E-mail It