My Battle With E-Pirates

Brian Taylor

June 19, 2011

When a collection of new essays I edited for an established university press finally came into print, four years ago, I assumed that my responsibilities for it had ended. As I recounted in an earlier column, I had navigated through numerous problems in preparing the book for the press, so imagine my surprise when I recently discovered a new difficulty.

A popular file-sharing Web site was offering pirated electronic copies of the book. Someone had stolen a copy of the e-book version and uploaded it to the file-sharing site. Now it could be downloaded free by anyone.

I was startled for several reasons. First, the retail price of a print copy of the book is $90, and the official e-book version is $74, so its free availability online seemed an obvious disincentive for anyone to buy it. Second, as I described in another column, I have mixed feelings about open-access scholarship. Several years earlier, an open-access project of mine had been plagiarized and printed in a commercial "closed access" book, and now my commercial closed-access book was in some sense made open-access to everybody—again without my consent. Third, even I—the editor—didn't possess a copy of the official e-book version, yet there it was for everyone else.

But was the piracy my problem? And was it really a problem?

According to the file-sharing Web site, the book had been downloaded 123 times in the past month. I was impressed that there could be so much interest in the text, which covers a relatively minor figure in philosophy. Could the pirated copy of my book be generating interest in an obscure corner of my field? If so, maybe this piracy wasn't such a bad thing.

I would like to believe that my edited volume has made a real contribution to the world of scholarship, and here it was circulating more rapidly that I had imagined. Maybe there would be some professional benefits from an expanded audience for the book, as more scholars might become aware of my work and cite it in their publications.

On the other hand, financially, the piracy seemed to be harming both the publisher and me.

I had never expected to make much money from editing the book. Shortly after publication, however, the checks started arriving. In accord with my original contract with the press, I received $600 for editing the volume, but that amount was quickly supplemented with an unexpected $900 when the press sold the translation rights to another publishing house. Even though the hardcover version of the book hasn't yet sold well enough to trigger royalties, the official e-book has, and, just last month, I received $100 for royalties on the electronic edition. Since the e-book version looks as though it will continue to generate money for me in the near future, its piracy appears to threaten my pocketbook.

I confess that those relatively small financial perks have not been negligible to me, as my university hasn't given raises for several years. My income alone supports my wife and three young children, so we have been experiencing some lean living in recent years. The checks from my publishers have paid for a car repair and quite a few boxes of diapers.

Another element in my deliberations was my high regard for my publisher. I think well of it, not only because it is one of the oldest and largest university presses in the world, but also because it took a chance on me—a young, unknown scholar—by issuing the contract for the book. In my judgment, the press should be rewarded for that risk, and it deserves to be compensated for its expenses in designing, advertising, and printing the book.

Furthermore, the press recently another took chance on me, as it just published my first single-authored book. That seems to contradict the commonly held view that only people with connections, or with the finest academic pedigrees, have access to the best publishing venues. In short, I am grateful to the press for its development of scholars like me, and I want it to flourish financially so that it may continue to develop them.

In light of those considerations, I e-mailed my editor to ask whether the publisher's legal-services department had a procedure for dealing with e-piracy, and sent along the Web address of the pirated copy.

A lawyer for the press replied quickly, and his main points surprised me. He began by noting that while Web piracy is a problem for all publishers and authors, there is no direct proof that the piracy of any book leads to a decline in sales of the print version. His e-mail noted further that the circulation of pirated copies can in some cases lead to increased overall sales, as the pirated copies create a buzz around a work. Nevertheless, the press expressed confidence that it could have the book removed from the file-sharing Web site, which had cooperated quickly in the past with other takedown requests from the press. The e-mail concluded with a lengthy description of the publisher's commitment to fighting piracy, but it added that most download sites are "not easy to get at."

Indeed, within two days, a download link to my book was replaced on the file-sharing Web site with a brief message: "This content was removed at the request of [Prestigious University Press]."

In that short time, however, I had become increasingly ambivalent about the situation. Had I just harmed the sales and the scholarly circulation of my work by having the pirated copy removed? The lawyer's had implied that possibility. Was the press's viewpoint an academic appropriation of the proverb "There's no such thing as bad publicity"? I noted that in comparison with other academic presses, my publisher was far more generous in allowing previews of its books on its own Web site and other online outlets.

I thought of a way to test my hypothesis that the press had adopted a somewhat relaxed view on piracy: I went back to the file-sharing Web site and did a simple search for books published by the press. Surprisingly, hundreds of books appeared, just as mine had, and all of them were there for immediate free downloading. Surely the press had to know of this online trove of its books. I assumed, therefore, that it wasn't sending out takedown requests unless authors contacted it with complaints.

If my hypothesis was correct, the press's approach appeared to be a middle position in the traditional divide between open-access and closed-access scholarship. The profit-generating side of scholarly publishing remained in place, but the press appeared to give minimal concern to the electronic proliferation of its books for anyone with an Internet connection.

In some significant sense, the traditional distinction between publishing open-access and closed-access works was becoming irrelevant. Surely, if it wanted to, the press could spend a few hours sending takedown requests for all of its books to this popular file-sharing Web site.

I decided to examine the evidence more closely. Few of the company's textbooks appeared on the site. Most of the available books listed were expensive scholarly monographs and edited collections that would normally be purchased by research libraries rather than individuals. The press may be protecting only its textbook operations, on the assumption that pirated textbooks would cost the company a great deal of revenue if students stopped buying their books for individual use.

Even though I can claim victory in my first salvo with e-pirates, I now wonder whether engagement was a mistake. I recently checked the open seas of the Internet by typing the title of my book into browser with the words "free download," only to discover hundreds of sites purporting to offer my book at no charge. I picked one of them randomly, and a just few clicks later, an electronic copy of my book appeared on my computer screen.

It was too easy. In my conflict with e-pirates, I've decided to withdraw from battle, at least for a while.

Clement Vincent is the pseudonym of an associate professor of philosophy at a university in the Midwest.