The Pirates of Publishing: A View from the Crow’s Nest

The new face of publishing?

I am a pirate, sanctioned by publishers to engage in piratical activities and collect information for the benefit of the publishing community. During the last year and a half, I have worked with Magellan Media Partners on collecting data for a study on The Impact of P2P File Sharing on Book Sales. In the course of my research, I’ve talked with many people in various areas of the piracy community and as a result have been able to create a list of observations about the nature of piracy, how it can be a useful tool, and what publishers can do to minimize overall risk.First, it’s important to understand that you can’t stop piracy. For logistical as well as practical reasons, piracy will continue to exist well into the future. That doesn’t mean that publishers should surrender to the notion that they no longer have any control over their content. Instead, they should be shifting their perspective from a policy of stopping to one of understanding. Consider the pirate community a market whose needs you have not met. Pirates are consumers just as surely as a customer who buys a book at the local bookstore. The difference between the two is that one consumes by purchasing a product while the other acquires the product through other means. Understanding why is paramount to rethinking some standard publishing practices. Getting something for free is certainly one reason people engage in piracy, but it is by no means the only one. So, let’s take a moment to address a few of the concerns of the market:


Many in the pirate community believe that copyright laws have become too strict and serve to hamper rather than promote the advancement of arts and culture. A perceived imbalance in the current copyright law is one of the major platforms of the Piracy Party, a political movement that has been growing rapidly since 2006 and has active membership in over 30 countries, including the U.S.

There are several alternatives to traditional copyright, such as Creative Commons or Copyleft. Content owners shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with different ways of providing content to their audiences. Publishers should also be willing to open up dialogue with piracy advocates to address the issues.

Fair Use

In a 2008 study by American University’s Center for Social Media, the issue was raised that efforts to prevent piracy could hurt Fair Use, wrongly marking many consumers as guilty of copyright infringement and thus branding them pirates. This is an argument that many in the piracy community have voiced. It is clear that the law has difficulty catching up to technology and it makes content owners nervous, pouncing on every perceived infringement for fear that if they don’t they will lose all control over their content. A recent example of this occurred in the UK, when the Performing Rights Society, a group that collects royalties for the music industry, threatened to fine a shop worker for singing while she worked. Incidents like this only serve to paint copyright holders in a negative light. Increasingly, consumers are coming to the conclusion that piracy is fair game because the courts and the publishing community are impossibly restrictive.

One of the biggest things that content owners can do is try to be objective about fair use and recognize that fans of a product want to use that product and spread the word.

Digital Rights/Restrictions Management (DRM)

All those controls publishers put on digital content to prevent sharing only serve to inflame their consumer base. From a pirate’s perspective, there is little reason to pay money for a product that restricts, tracks or in any way hampers your ability to use it. Barnes and Noble recently announced the Nook. One of the most touted features of the Nook is the ability to share your e-books with friends. This feature was something that customers had requested because it was lacking in other e-readers. Publishers, however, rushed to severely restrict the capabilities of the lending features. A book can only be lent once, only for fourteen days, and you have no access to that book while it is being borrowed. But even with those restrictions in place, it appears that some publishers aren’t going to participate in the program. While DRM may have been intended to protect copyright holders’ rights, it has consistently become a tool to restrict consumer use of a product by creating a barrier.

Solutions vary, but the most effective on many consumers’ minds is to simply do away with DRM altogether.


It is easy to forget sometimes that the market has become immediately global. The old method of selling foreign rights and releasing products in other countries long after they’ve become accessible in the U.S. just doesn’t work. The internet makes the consumer’s needs immediate. If it still takes six months to release a book in another country, there is a good chance that your audience has found it elsewhere. So, piracy in this case becomes a matter of expediency. To stem this, publishers would be wise to work towards simultaneous release in global markets.

Piracy is challenging the core principles of how media companies do business. Like it or not, changing technology and the needs of the consumer are vital industry influences. Publishers need to stop viewing piracy as a threat, but rather as an indication that they need to do a better job of understanding their customers.

by William Johnson
Master’s candidate, M.S. in Publishing, NYU-SCPS


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