One of the biggest complaints from publishers (and indeed the wider media) when it comes to digitisation of the media, is how their industry is being ruined by piracy. The general attitude within the media is that piracy is always a negative, must be shut down, and must be slowed down by archaic Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems. But there are many ways of looking at this, and I would argue (as would an increasing number), that although bad in principle – piracy is not completely terrible.

Neil Gaiman has been one of the most high profile authors to take this approach. In the video below, which was recorded in 2011, Gaiman discusses how he was initially fearful of his work becoming available online, that his copyright was being stolen from him. But then he started to realise that places around the world where he was being pirated the most, he also began to see an increase in sales. Intrigued, Gaiman persuaded his publisher to make one of his books available online for free for a month – which resulted in sales going up by 300% the following month through independent bookshops.

Gaiman goes on to describe why he is no longer afraid of piracy, by explaining that he used to ask people in talks to raise their hands if they had a favourite author – to which most people responded 'yes'. Then he would ask them if they discovered this author by being lent a book, or by discovering it in a bookshop. He suggests that only around 5-10% discovered it in a bookshop. These are the people that now avidly follow the author, are the biggest fans, buy all his books, look after all of his books. But yet, they never discovered the author by buying one of his books in the first place. They were lent it. That is how they found their favourite author.
The point Gaiman is making is that the pirating of books is simply equivalent to the lending of books. These people would probably not have bought the book in the first place. But they have now discovered a new author, they have been recommended an author, they may even discover their favourite author for the first time. And they are considerably more likely to buy one of your books in the future – something which they probably wouldn't have done otherwise. Therefore, is it really a lost sale? No.

Many in the industry may consider this too simplistic a view. They argue that digital files are different to physical books, in that an infinite number of perfect copies can be created, whereas a physical book will wear down over time. This much is true, and there are some people that will probably always turn to piracy, no matter how much they like your books – but would these people ever really have bought your book? If the files are taken down, the sites shut down, the people sharing the files are brought to justice – will that person really go out and buy the book instead? No.

The main reason I can see that they wouldn't go out and buy it, is that someone else will upload the file not long after. It might be more tricky to get hold of, but they will still find a way of getting it for free, and are unlikely to pay for it. Meanwhile, publishers are spending millions finding people that infringe copyright, rather than taking the time to realise why these people 'steal' their content, and taking the time to work out how to make the most of their 'terrible' situation.

So let's turn this terrible situation around. Let's look at what piracy could actually mean for the industry:

  • The mean nasty pirate, Mr Pirate McStealerson, is bored one day. Browsing Twitter, he notices a friend has posted a tweet – "Check out @CaptainHook's book 'Piracy and the Internet' – a little tricky to get into, but really thought provoking stuff!"
  • Mr McStealerson normally really trusts his friend and the books he likes. But his Kindle just broke, and he has just received a new Kobo reader. While he has a Kindle Fire for movies and music, he doesn't like reading on it all that much, and because it is made by Amazon he can't get the Kobo app. Besides, the publisher has only made the book available via Amazon for £15, so he couldn't buy it for his Kobo anyway. And £15 is just too much for something he can't read on his eReader.
  • Mr McStealerson goes to Google and searches for 'Piracy and the Internet by Captain Hook ePUB'. The first result gives him a link to the torrent of the file, and he has downloaded it in less than a couple of minutes, for free. He opens up Calibre, and converts the file to a MOBI as well – this means he can read it on his tablet too when he is going to work. He has both files, on both devices in less than five minutes.
  • Over the next week, Pirate reads the book. His friend was right, it totally transforms his views on the subject matter. He rushes straight out to the shop and buys a physical book for his best friend, Dave, who loves reading this sort of thing – his birthday is coming up anyway. Pirate also decides to start a blog discussing the topic at length, and shares posts with his friends regularly. Five of them go out and buy the book, either in physical or digital form.
  • Captain Hook advertises a follow up to his book on Twitter. This time he has persuaded his publisher to make it available in all formats online, and for a bit less. Mr McStealerson buys the book straight away – actually, he had it pre-ordered a month before it came out! He also saw a limited edition print version advertised, and bought that before it came out too. He has also been involved in Twitter discussions with the author, and re-tweeted a lot of stuff about the book.
  • During the month following the launch, the book sells twice as many copies as the first book ever did. The first book was heavily pirated, and so is the second one. The authors' third book does even better again though. 
In this situation, is piracy really harming the author, the publisher, or anyone at all? Was Mr McStealerson ever going to buy the book? Have there been any lost sales? More people have bought the subsequent books. These people might never discovered the author, had they not discovered that first book through piracy.

The real result of piracy, is that the book has reached a much wider audience. One of the biggest battles in publishing is discoverability – anything that helps improve that situation, cannot surely be bad? Yes, piracy is bad in principle, in the fact that it is theft – and if too widespread would be detrimental to the industry – but piracy is a fact of the digital age. Piracy is pretty much proven to be unstoppable – so why should publishers spend so much time, money and effort trying to fight it. Wouldn't they be better off trying to make the most of it? Shouldn't the industry learn to use piracy to its advantage? I know which I would rather spend my time on.