There Be Pirates in These (Cyber)waters

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Over on his blog, sci-fi author Peter Watts laments copyright infringement of his excellent novel, Blindsight.

Watts has made much of his work available for free via his website, under a Creative Commons License. Readers can download four of his novels, including Blindsight, and multiple short stories here, provided that they don’t use the downloaded material for commercial purposes or alter its content. However, an unknown perpetrator has decided to take piracy one step further. They’re offering an unauthorized “annotated” copy of Blindsight for purchase via Amazon, i.e. selling Watts’s novel as their own, and presumably making money off it. Fans who bought the novel to support the writer ended up financing a fraud instead.

Fighting internet piracy feels to me like a pointless endeavor, or at least not one worth getting worked up about. Both my novels were available on pirate websites within days of publication. I sent Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices to the web host, but to no avail. Like fighting the mythical Hydra, for each removed link, two new ones seem to pop up, and the site’s servers are hosted outside of the reach of U.S. legal jurisdiction. Hiring a lawyer wouldn’t be much more effective, and legal fees would quickly outstrip any proceeds from the sale of my work. Being pirated is in fact the cheaper option.

Far be it from me to pass some sort of moral judgment on cyber corsairs. I was more amused than irritated when I found my work being shared. In a strange way, maybe even a little flattered – it was almost like I’d joined the ranks of “real writers”, whose work is worth pirating.

Piracy is not exactly a victimless crime, but neither is it the apocalyptic pestilence that will spell the end of publishing as we know it. Overall, fans are pretty good about supporting their favorite authors, and most people are capable of making the connection that no sales (therefore no cash in said authors’ pockets) equals no books further down the line. Especially so in small press circles, where the vast majority of us write as a hobby and have real jobs. A handful of reviews, even from people who paid nothing to read your work, could have a more positive long-term impact on your visibility than a handful of sales. Peter Watts is of the opinion that making Blindsight available for free “saved his career”, and claims that sales tripled afterwards.

But my experience did give me a new perspective on the issue. If an anonymous writer with two largely unknown novels to his name merits the attention of these online ne’er-do-wells, I can’t begin to imagine what the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of this world have to deal with, or how often. A while ago, someone was (allegedly) selling their own novels, through several major online retailers, under the name “Stephen King”. I’ve read reports of other authors having their stories pirated/plagiarized and sold online (Laird Barron comes to mind). With a deluge of traditionally and self-published works hitting the virtual shelves every week, it’s easy to get away with these hit-and-run tactics before any due diligence can be carried out.

Back to Peter Watts and his pirated (stolen) novel. Amazon seems to have taken the work down, after Watts complained and a number of users flagged the product via one-star reviews. There might be a lesson to be learned here, but probably not. Copyright infringement is a grey area, particularly in international law, and even if there was a way for Watts to build a case against the perpetrator, it may not be worth the trouble. For the time being, there seems to be no real remedy for piracy, other than fan loyalty and building one’s brand as an author.

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