Monday Original Content: Charles A. Tan on Book Piracy

E-book piracy is being talked about at the moment, and Charles Tan (in an article here reprinted from his blog) discusses some of the unconscious assumptions that go into the debate from the Western perspective, amongst many other things. Check out also Aliette de Bodard‘s very clear and concise take on the same, here.

eBook Piracy and Copyright in the Philippines

By Charles A. Tan

This past week, the “controversy of the week” happens to be eBook Piracy and Copyright. Troisroyaumes and Jamyee Goh have link round-ups in their corresponding websites.

I’m an author so I do want to get paid for my work, whether it’s print or electronic. However, I live in a country where right across the street, vendors are selling pirated DVDs (the fact that Blu-ray never caught on here–or have yet to–should clue you in as to the living conditions here) so to be naive about piracy is ludicrous. In an ideal world, people would compensate everyone justly but the reality is we don’t live in a fair society, nor is the distribution of wealth equitable. That’s not to justify piracy, but it’s there to shed light as to how the current practices and laws can be unfair.

Having said that, when it comes to the Philippines, I find the idea that authors are complaining about eBook piracy funny. Not because it’s irrelevant, but because there’s bigger fish to fry when it comes to infringement on copyright, at least in this country. The entire university ecosystem subsists on photocopying books and textbooks. Back when the Ferdinand Marcos was still president of the Philippines, it was legal to photocopy documents for educational/research purposes. 25 years after Marcos’s presidency, that’s still the practice today (although not necessarily legal to do so), mainly because there’s no suitable alternative. (On a side note, here’s an interesting paper on Copyright Protection for Philippine Publications.) For example, in college, I had an elective on “10 Books of the Century” which includes titles like Ulysses by James Joyce and The Stranger by Albert Camus. Because I wanted to do my readings the legal way, I tried obtaining these books. Suffice to say, I was only able to find half of them at local bookstores (and I did tour all three major bookstores at the time) and it cost me P5,000.00 (around $100.00). To give readers an idea of income in the Philippines, minimum wage here is around $8.00 a day, as opposed to an hour in America. The cost of the books I bought–which is only half that’s required by the class–is easily half a month’s wage, and that doesn’t yet include tuition (or the bigger problem that this is just one elective). Photocopying the said books is still expensive, but better than the alternative.

Over the course of blogging for the past few years, here are some assumptions I’ve encountered when it comes to books:

  • Don’t tell me to go to the library to find a book. There are virtually no public libraries here, and what scant libraries here (public or private) isn’t likely to stock the obscure book–fiction or nonfiction–that I’m interested in.
  • I can’t order books online because they require credit cards. While privileged people here do have credit cards, they don’t dole them out like they do in the US. Filipinos have to fight tooth and nail just to get credit card approval. (In my office alone, several co-workers have been rejected twice by the bank before finally obtaining a credit card.)
  • Even if I do have a credit card, ordering from a site like Amazon is costly, both in time and money. I don’t have free shipping and unless I’m ordering from Amazon Japan for example, it’ll take the good part of a month before it arrives.
  • Local bookstores are limited by their distributor (i.e. Ingram). In the event that their distributor is able to obtain the book, I’m paying a premium price on book orders, and it’s an inconvenient process. (Having said that, I do special order books from local bookstores, because the other three alternatives above aren’t feasible for me, and I don’t like piracy.)

The reason why eBook piracy is getting a lot of flak lately because, well, eBook piracy is familiar to privileged people (and let’s face it, the countries where there’s an economic infrastructure surrounding eBooks are the US and the UK; just look at how long it took Amazon to finally sell an “international” Kindle, or how long Apple started selling iPads elsewhere), unlike other forms of book piracy (not just limited to photocopying but publishing fake Harry Potter novels for example). It can also be monitored to some extent, unlike photocopying (although it’s probably fair to say genre novels aren’t prone to photocopying, especially something like A Game of Thrones, as buying the actual book is cheaper than paying to photocopy the paperback).

But if you want to talk about eBook piracy, let’s talk about it. From an author’s perspective, there was a local writing conference two years ago (apologies but my mp3 links to the recordings have expired) and one of the discussion was around the Google Settlement. One of the consensus was that we authors don’t want Google suddenly taking the rights to our works and then apologizing later (instead of asking permission in the first place) but at the end of the day, it’s the most efficient method of getting our works and our name out there. Related to this is the concept of piracy, and since a lot of authors here don’t really receive significant compensation (i.e. quit our day jobs) for our writing, Cory Doctorow’s adage of obscurity being the biggest threat to an author rings true.

There is also the practicality of fighting eBook piracy. The problem with the Internet is that once it’s out there, it’s almost impossible to take back. That’s not to say cracking down on illegal eBook distributors isn’t possible (it’s been done to a limited extent and there are dead torrent links), but between international laws (whether that of the pirate or their web host) and the difficulty in which authors enforce their own copyright (i.e. personally reporting each instance), it’s an uphill battle. There is one surefire way to make piracy work for you, and that’s the Doctorow model of giving away your work for free online as marketing  for your print book (which actually works for now but as Paul Cornell puts it in his third point, that’s betting against the future).

The problem with discussions of eBook piracy, or simply giving away your work for free, is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you’re popular like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, then it’s mostly a loss to you, since you’re not really after fame but income (to say nothing of the futility of stamping out each and every pirate). To obscure writers, like say a genre writer in the Philippines, it’s probably more of a gain, since we’re not popular enough in the first place to acquire a sufficient following to earn a significant amount from our writing. My friend Lavie Tidhar laments that his books aren’t being pirated and to a certain extent, piracy is a popularity metric; if no one is pirating you, then there’s little demand for your writing.

Another problem is the misconception that eBooks are some sort of “magic bullet”. For example, in local government, at one point, there was a proposal to equip public school students with Kindles to make textbooks “cheaper”, which is ludicrous considering the cheapest Kindle costs $140.00 (yes, actual price might go down if purchased in bulk), while the average price of a textbook here (mandated by law) is around P43.00 ($1.00). $140.00 might not be a significant amount in the US, but it’s definitely equal to a month’s worth of wages, and your average public student isn’t going to be reading 140 textbooks in a school year, to say nothing of actually paying royalties for the eBooks/textbooks (which the government currently doesn’t seem to address). (While on paper this might seem like a great long-term plan for education, there’s no guarantee that students will stay in school for all of four years in high school, and you have to take into account that you’ll be buying new devices every year for each incoming batch.) That’s not to say this proposal is absolutely impossible, but at this point in time when portable eBook readers are “expensive”, it’s not cost-effective.

That’s not to say Filipinos don’t read eBooks, or that they don’t download pirated books. I suspect majority of local readers of eBooks are doing it on either a PC (perhaps a communal one) or their mobile phone. But locally, the eBook market is paltry compared to the print market, which is still the bread and butter of most bookstores and publishers.

Now the other aspect of eBook piracy is customer frustration. Now yes, there are pirates out there who pirate simply for the act of pirating (and gaining some sort of fame for themselves). But there are also a group of pirates who pirate because publishers have certain shortcomings. There are consumers who’d buy the book from the publisher if these shortcomings were addressed, but because that’s not the case, they feel they have no choice but to resort to piracy. This may sound like me regurgitating old arguments why people download illegal eBooks, but let me put a developing country perspective on it.

  1. Is the eBook available? It seems like a fundamental question but not all books are converted to eBooks (or originally published as eBooks). Consumers can’t buy what’s not being sold by the publisher. Sometimes, these are out-of-print books. At other times, these are simply books that the publisher doesn’t want to release as eBooks (for whatever reason, whether it’s because they don’t have the license to do so, or because they don’t think it helps their business). I can relate with respecting copyrights and intellectual property, but some consumers feel that they want the said eBook, and so resort to pirated copies because there’s no other alternative that’s convenient*.
  2. Is the eBook available in my preferred format? Again, seems like a fundamental question, but the problem with the current eBook climate is that there’s no standard format. I hear the Kindle format is the most popular for publishers right now, but guess what, they don’t sell Kindles at retail stores in the Philippines.
  3. Is the eBook available in my country? Do you know why eBooks aren’t taking off as quickly in countries outside the US or the UK? Because they’re not being sold there. You’d think a borderless concept such as the Internet would ignore geo-restrictions but they don’t. I’ve heard lots of complaints that “I can’t buy that eBook because it’s not being sold here,” and at that point, point #3 equates to points #1 and #2.
  4. Can I afford the eBook? Suffice to say, not all nations are equal. This is partially solved by having different prices for different regions (which is the case with some software here in the Philippines) but this problem is interlinked with #3. You can’t price eBooks relative to countries if the rights to them aren’t region-locked (I don’t think publishers are interested in pricing books based on the lowest common denominator). It might also lead to problems of waiting for a local publisher to license the said book (which might be never), or just go for a larger geographic license (i.e. you can sell the book to everyone in Asia…) to one major publisher (possible but unlikely). I honestly don’t know how to reconcile this with #3.
  5. Can I purchase the eBook? What I mean by this is whether someone is actually capable of making the purchase. For example, I don’t have a credit card, so that automatically locks me out of registering at the iTunes store since it requires a credit card (as opposed to Amazon where I can register without a credit card, but I need to own one to make a purchase). One thing I’ve noticed when it comes to various developing nations is that they have different forms of micro-transaction mechanisms: prepaid cards, paying via mobile or landline credit, etc. To limit payments to just credit cards or PayPal is ostracizing the rest of us.
  6. Is the eBook properly formatted? One thing I’ve noticed about some pirates is that they “improve” an existing product: fixing alignment and line breaks in an ePub, adding bookmarks to a PDF, etc. Technically, there would be no market for this (aside from the $0.00 price tag) if the publisher did their job right but there are pirates out there who exist because of this void. This point, I’ve noticed, is the concern of people in privileged positions who have access to the eBooks, as opposed to us in developing countries where #1 – #5 is our main concern (on that note though, don’t publish an eBook that’s unreadable due to horrible formatting).

Having said that, this isn’t a pro-piracy post (I’m also an author after all). I just want to explain the context of circumstances, especially in developing countries which I live in. I can understand authors hating piraters (the people who distribute their books online). If someone interfered with my income, I’d be angry too. There’s a gray area though when it comes to people who simply download eBooks. If they buy your book after illegally downloading it, will you hate them as well? If they donate to your site, or review your book, etc.? There’s no universal–or correct–answer here. Some authors will rage–and perhaps rightfully so–that their book got downloaded, irregardless of whether the downloader eventually bought the book. Others will take context into consideration. I just want to warn that just because your book got illegally downloaded 1,000 times does not mean you would have gotten paid 1,000 times for that work (although yes, it is theft). Some readers, when forced with the alternative, will buy your book. Others won’t. There is no definite statistic (i.e. 10% of readers, 50% of readers, etc.). The only thing you can be certain is that that number is anywhere between one and 1,000.

*Piracy, at the end of the day, is a battle of convenience. I can, for example, order a book from the local bookstore, but if it takes a month for the said book to arrive, it’s inconvenient. There are also situations where it’s impossible to order it from the local bookstore (their distributor doesn’t carry the title).



8 thoughts on “Monday Original Content: Charles A. Tan on Book Piracy

  1. does not charge shipping anywhere in the world, so it’s better than Amazon in that regard.

    Also, apart from credit cards there are other “money” cards that are easier to get from a bank. There’re debit cards, where money is taken directly from your account, so the bank is not actually lending you any money. You can only spend what you already have. There’re also pre-paid or virtual cards, where you top-up the card with some money and you can only spend that much. This is specially useful to avoid online fraud. I guess convincing a bank to give you any of these cards is more difficult in the Philippines than it is in Western Europe, but it’s worth a try.

    I agree that Doctor’s use of ebooks as marketing tools can only work medium-term before ebooks are more read than pbooks and then only for someone with his profile: nerdy, copyfighting guru, etc

    A minor correction: Doctorow did not come up with the idea that “obscurity is a greater threat to writers than piracy”, it was Tim O’Reilly:

    1. Couple of corrections:

      Book Depository ships to selected destinations, not worldwide. It also charges different prices based on destination (and, as Charles points out, priced for a Western audience, or for a certain level of income). And debit cards are far from universally used, alas…

      1. Well, Bookdepository does say “Free shipping worldwide on all our books.” If they do not honour it, then it’s false advertising.

  2. A lot of great points here. I think the most grounded of the anti-piracy arguments I’ve read are more (correctly) directed at the US/UK/Australia/NZ/EU etc. If you’re not willing to pay for an e-book that which you pay for your coffee, there may be unintended consequences to mass action like this, e.g. fewer authors, fewer books, fewer publishers, fewer editors, fewer artists, etc.

    Question on pricing in the Philippines: if I went into a bookstore, what would a new hardcover fiction book cost?

    Side note: I really, really don’t think many (if any?) publishers or authors begrudge people who truly cannot afford their book when they copy it. It is those who can afford it, but choose to copy for free anyway because they have access to do so, which are making the very real difference.

    I don’t think you can block the access.

    For me, it has to be a plea of approval, an argument from the tragedy of the commons, rather than one of technological warfare.

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