Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The problem of piracy

With the explosion in e-books and electronic reading devices, more and more publishers are experiencing problems with illegal copies of their authors work being submitted to various websites.

An article in the New York Times cites the case of science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin, who found pirated copies of several of her novels on Scribd, including her best selling work, “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

Mr Le Guin and her publisher were quite rightly outraged. She quotes: “Who do these people think they are? Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?”

Of course this is depressingly familiar to music and film makers, who fought battles with illegal download sites for years before protection was put in place. Truth be told, this is one of the reasons why the publishing world held off with embracing e-books for as long as they did, for they realised what the implications would be; Google and their shenanigans are it seems, the tip of the iceberg.

If readers are determined enough, and know where to look, they will find a way to get these works for free. Such websites have it seems, ballooned in recent months with publishers forced to employ more legal staff whose role it is to sniff these sites out and get the offending material removed. As Russell Davis, author and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America quotes, “It’s a game of Whac-a-Mole, “you knock one down and five more spring up.”

Websites such as Scribd and Wattpad, which invite users to upload documents such as college theses and self-published books novels, have been the target of much grumbling in recent weeks, as illegal copies of many popular titles have also appeared on them. Trip Adler, Chief Executive of Scribd, said it was his “gut feeling” that unauthorized editions represented only a small fraction of the site’s content, but this is not the point, it should not happen at all.

Both sites appear to take issues very seriously indeed. Offending material is immediately removed, and filters put in place to identify such works as and when they are uploaded. I would like to think that the culprits are also banned.

E-books are still in their infancy, and so for the moment, piracy is not nearly as widespread as within the music industry, when sites such as the now legal Napster, threatened the entire industry. The benefit of this is that both authors and publishers can learn from this experience to go about things in the right way, to go after the sites themselves rather than those who use them. The idea is to start legal sites at the outset so that people get used to having to buy e-books, and the fact that these music sites are now so well established will ultimately help our cause. There are still some though who consider it their god given right to take what they want without regard for the law or those who create these works, who persist in using illegal sites and file sharing software. I used to get great satisfaction from listening to one of the men in my former job complain about the computer viruses he also downloaded from such practises.

It is vital that authors and publishers be adequately compensated for each use of their work, whether in electronic or printed form. It is not about getting rich (I fear that any author that thinks that is in the wrong job), but about being honoured for the work that you do, which personally I don't think is too much to ask.

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