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Attributor’s Flawed Piracy Study

Publishers Weekly posted an article talking about a book piracy study released today by the Attributor.  PW article is here; their link to the original article wasn’t working.  My thanks to Rich at Attributor, who contacted me with a link to their study results, including methodology, here.

From PW:

Publishers could be losing out on as much as $3 billion to online book piracy, a new report released today by Attributor estimates. Attributor, whose FairShare Guardian service monitors the Web for illegally posted content, tracked 913 books in 14 subjects in the final quarter of 2009 and estimated that more than 9 million copies of books were illegally downloaded from the 25 sites it tracked.

Anyone seeing any possible problems here?  Here are two that jumped out at me right off the bat.

  1. The $3 billion figure assumes that everyone who downloaded an illegal copy of the book would have otherwise gone out and purchased a legal copy.
  2. Attributor is a company specializing in anti-piracy solutions.  Hardly an objective or trustworthy source, in this case.

Please don’t take this as approval of illegal file-sharing.  I’ve made some stories available for free over on my web site (left sidebar), so I’m all for sharing some free fiction.  But when you upload a copy of one of my books to a file sharing site, you’re being a dick.  (Downloading a copy?  Lesser dick.)  If you don’t want to pay $7.99, no problem.  Go to a used bookstore.  Go to your local library.

That said, I don’t think piracy is the end of the world.  I just wish we could get more trustworthy data & discussion, and less dogma.

::Takes a deep breath::  So please feel free to talk piracy and file-sharing, but be aware that over-the-top extremism may be heavily mocked, regardless of what side it’s coming from.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 96 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)
Not only does it assume that everyone who downloaded a copy would have gone out and bought a copy otherwise, it also assumes that no one who downloaded a copy then went out and bought one in hardcopy. Or, for that matter, that none of the downloaders already owned the book, and downloaded a copy so as to have an DRM-free electronic version.
Jan. 14th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
Just as an aside I have bought all of Jim's Books that I can ( and even some that I shouldn't be able to electronically ) and I have removed the DRM on them just so I could read them. DRM doesn't stop piracy, it would stop me reading and buying the books if it worked.
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - autopope - Jan. 14th, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mrs_norris_mous - Jan. 14th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - autopope - Jan. 14th, 2010 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mrs_norris_mous - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 14th, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)
I skimmed through the actual report that the article linked to, and this bit from the executive summary really struck me: On average, nearly 10,000 copies of every book published are downloaded for free. I know they're definitely not an unbiased source, but this figure just seems ridiculously high when they're only measuring 913 books. Did they include translations in other languages, I wonder? What about files that were either typo'd or given misleading filenames to try to fool the anti-piracy groups? How many of the people downloading those books had already bought a legal copy and just wanted a backup copy in case something happened?

The only times I'm tempted to turn to piracy is when there is actually no legal way to get what I'm looking for. That includes things like out-of-print books, especially in my field (South Asian Studies; it's not as common as a lot of other area studies in the US, and things seem to go out of print or out of stock pretty quickly) and TV shows or movies that I would happily buy legally if they were released on DVD. I don't follow through on those urges, but it's incredibly frustrating to not have access to those things.
Jan. 14th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
With regard to out of print books, have you tried checking used book sellers? I highly recommend http://www.bookfinder.com, an aggregating searcher of 'em. It'll even factor in the shipping costs.
(no subject) - shanrina - Jan. 14th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 14th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
You'd think the anti-piracy people would've figured out by now that trying to claim every illegally copied unit as a lost sale just makes them look like idiots. It doesn't work when the music people do it, it doesn't work when the computer game people do it, and it doesn't work when the e-book people do it. They're devaluing anti-piracy efforts in general, and it's frustrating. It's one of those "Please stop being on my side" kinds of situations.

I'm at least as much against piracy as you are, and possibly moreso. All my published work is currently available in electronic format and only electronic format, so the speculative arguments about how many of the pirates will download an illegal e-book and then go out and buy the hardcopy don't apply at all to me and my fellow e-pubbed authors. At the same time, though, I still know that not every copy downloaded from a torrent site is a lost sale, and I'm not going to try to claim them all as lost revenue.

I'm against DRM too, for the reasons mrs_norris_mous gives. DRM has never stopped or even inconvenienced a single pirate; its sole function is to annoy and frustrate the honest customers who've handed a vendor money, because those are the only people whose copies have DRM on them. [sigh]


Edited at 2010-01-14 05:30 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC)
You know, that's a great point, and one that often seems to get overlooked w.r.t. the arguments about pirated copies leading to actual print book sales when there's no print book to be purchased. I hope that will be brought up and acknowledged more as electronic publishing continues to grow.
Jan. 14th, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
1. For that matter, if I did rely on libraries or used bookstores, it's also a loss to the publisher, since the same book is being used by multiple people. So, for example, if I pirate 'Goblin Street Blues', decide I like it, and then go out and buy a used copy or get a copy from a book-trading website, the publisher is still not getting my money*. Even if I check it out of the library, they might have one copy for many readers, which gives less money to the publisher than if everyone who wanted to read it bought a new copy.

I think I'd want data about things like how many readers on average did buy a book before/after downloading an illegal copy.

* Though it assumes that the print run was large enough that used copies exist -- there are a couple of comics that I can't find used (or new -- darn out of print books), unless I want to learn Japanese/French/German, or buy a 27-volume set of graphic novels when I need two.
Jan. 14th, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC)
One thing about buying used copies that few people realize: when you buy a used copy, you are depleting the pool of available used copies and indirectly creating an incentive to put the book back into print. It's not as advantageous as buying a new copy, but it DOES help, even if only incrementally.
(no subject) - beccastareyes - Jan. 14th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 14th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
i'm curious what level of dick you think those of us are who a. don't have the option of libraries etc. and b. buy what they end up liking.
Jan. 14th, 2010 05:53 pm (UTC)
1. The first chapter of all of my books is posted for free on my web site. How much more do you need to decide whether it's worth buying?

2. I don't know what "don't have the option of libraries" means.


Right now, your argument comes off about like so: "Sure, I shoplifted all of those candy bars from the store, but I went back and paid for the ones I liked!" Not an exact parallel, I know, but nothing to change my mind yet, either.
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jan. 14th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 14th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
Here is an open question for the crowd:

What do people think of the idea, as popularized Cory Doctorow, et al., that a certain degree of piracy actually helps book sales in the long run?

Me, I'm skeptical of this assertion for a slew of reasons.

1. The mileage will vary widely depending on what kind of readership you have. Cory's readers are largely tech-savvy, like-minded geeks who are that much more conscious of the long-term costs of not compensating someone for their work. I'd gamble that Cory believes it benefits him because of his specific audience

2. Because piracy is next to impossible to quantify, it's also not possible to directly attribute how much you gain OR lose to piracy. It's a black box.

3. Most people tend to pay for, rather than steal, product for which they fee close affinity with the creator. One of the reasons I get out to the cons and push my stuff face-to-face is to build precisely this kind of relationship. When the author himself is right there, signing your book, shaking your hand, chatting you up -- you're less likely to feel inclined to rip him off in any form. To that end, I'm of the opinion that piracy is at least partly due to disconnection, or sheer distance, between the consumer and the creator.

4. From what I've seen, the most widely-pirated books are not fiction but technical texts -- partly because they command such absurd prices, far out of proportion with the costs involved in compensating their creators. But I suspect this will lead to an entirely different rant so I'll stop there.
Jan. 14th, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
I do think "free" samples make people more likely to buy the product. But I am in the category that Cory would be aiming for.

3. Most people tend to pay for, rather than steal, product for which they fee close affinity with the creator.

I think this is important. I download the tv program "house", it is transmitted where I live. I could buy the old series DVD's but as its transmitted I could have recorded it so I don't feel as if I need to pay for it. However I have meet JMS and talked to him for quiet a while and I have bought my DVD's of Babylon 5 even though I have never watched them. I haven't met Joss Wheldon however I do buy the things of his I want to watch.
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jan. 14th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - laughingfalcon - Jan. 16th, 2010 07:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shanrina - Jan. 14th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 14th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
Instead of piracy, can we talk about restrictive electronic formats? Apple and Amazon are two big offenders with iPods and Kindles, and I'd be more charitably inclined toward both if they weren't so Microsoft-ish about the way they handle music and books.
Jan. 14th, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC)

Hit the Post Comment before I finished writing.

Anyway, I personally think that a little piracy isn't a bad thing at all; it's indicative of the response of supply and demand. Note the "little" in the comment; any environment that's rife with piracy isn't a good thing at all, as authors/musicians/what-have-you don't get paid for their work.

However, the notion of lost sales could easily be applied to libraries. Locally a politician who campaigned against the library's tax levy request did just that by saying that the library's DVD/VHS collection was unfair competition for the video rental stores. He could just as easily added music stores and book stores, if you ask me.
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 14th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)
Some pirates just love the process, the "I'm gaming the system" rush. My three Rovers books are available for free but include advertising in the side margins to suggest to the reader they should support the author and the publisher. I've had folks who copied those files, removed all the advertising and then uploaded the books on pirate sites. What was the point, people? The books were free in the first place. Somehow they felt they were thumbing their noses at us by removing the advertising. Ignorant. I'm good if folks want to take a test drive with some sample chapters. After that ya gotta buy the car to take it off the lot.
Jan. 14th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, naturally. Many people just love to buck the odds and see what they can get away with; for such people there is no cure and no real defense except being vigilant and making fools of them in public. :D
(no subject) - crazywritergirl - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 14th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
I don't disagree that half of the problem comes from the source of the statistics, and I'd like to add that you're right about the extremism. About ten years ago, I was researching E-book piracy (getting a call from Harlan Ellison asking me to poke around on Usenet a bit leads to all sorts of interesting observations), and I noticed one major factor that nobody else was considering. Back then, and even today, the vast majority of pirated E-books were of two types: science fiction/fantasy novels and technical and operation manuals for commonly pirated software.

Now, you could argue that this is the inherent bias of the Interwebs, where these are pirated because of the availability to the tech contingent of plenty of sources. That's a valid point, but remembering years and years of pre-Internet fandom that practically encouraged similar piracy of copyrighted materials, I suspect that a lot of it comes down to the superiority complexes often seen in fandom and in the tech community. Because of that, variations on the old Comcast "Stealing cable is a crime" notices not only won't work, but it'll turn off the people who'd otherwise listen to rational arguments.

(Back when I was still involved in fandom, I remember one jerk who took umbrage at anime videos being sold at local conventions, so he spent his time "educating the masses" on why he'd be glad to make free videos of the same shows that the dealers were selling. Not only did he not see the issues involved in his own actions, but then he took to berating these dealers for doing so...in public. Invariably, he was always kicked out of the conventions, where his strategy was then to call the police and claim that the convention rep who'd kicked him out had tried to molest him. By the time he was done with a particular show, he'd not only done nothing to stop the bootlegs, but he made sure that a lot of otherwise neutral individuals bought something from those dealers just to spite the little Cat Piss Man.)

The best option? What writers have been doing already: merely pointing out that "information wants to be free" doesn't pay creators' bills, and definitely doesn't give them added incentive to create more. (And to the dolts who argue "At least you're getting exposure," that works really well with the fresh new interns persuaded to work for free for months or years for the local weekly newspaper. You'll also note that almost all of those interns catch on after a few weeks or months and get jobs that can actually cover rent, and the only ones remaining are those sufficiently deluded to think that they wouldn't get a better deal anywhere else. After a while, the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in, and those venues and individual who figure their content and their entertainment should always be free get exactly what they pay for.)
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC)
I remember the Ellison USENET incident quite vividly, and in fact I made passing reference to it back in a column I wrote for my former day job: http://bit.ly/3fJaGO

I also remember the Cat Piss Man. Good lord.

I agree that at least some of the reason for those specific materials being pirated is the leanings of the userbase. That base of people varies depending on the environment. I mentioned earlier that right now the most common bootlegged print texts are college books -- it's something my father, a mining engineering professor at Columbia, has seen personally over the course of decades. For a long time there has been a black market for illegal Chinese copies of certain textbooks that could be stamped out for cents on the dollar. I'm hoping e-texts and open licensing of academic content does something about this in the long run, but it's not going to be easy to change the habits of both educators and publishers overnight.

The whole "information wants to be free" thing is, aside from a classic example of the anthropic fallacy, a nice way to retroactively justify behavior that would otherwise be contemptible. Most people do things first and find reasons for them later; such is how our worldview is shaped. If you're in with a group of people who have a "damn the man" and "free the bits" mindset, they're more likely to concur that you Did The Right Thing when you "liberated" that e-book from its DRM and posted it on a filesharing site. I'm not sure which is worse, the act itself or the sneaky excuses. (It's, as someone else in this thread said, a classic example of "stop being on my side".)

The last thing we should be doing is giving people that much more of an incentive to pretend there is no point in being compensated for one's work.
(no subject) - txtriffidranch - Jan. 14th, 2010 11:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 14th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
I did note that if you actually read the PDF available from attibutor on the site that in the fine print they say

"This study does not attempt to address teh issue of determining to what degree pirated books represent financial loss to the industry as it does not estimate how many free downloads might have otherwise resulted in a sale. .... Previous studies assume a one-to-one substitution, meaning all pirated material would have been purchased and thus the market value of pirates books is equal to the actual loss, though Attributor fees this is and overly optimistic assumption. This will be addressed in a future research phase."

So they are basically saying that all of their numbers are based on the market value of pirated goods. Still not a good representation but at least they own up to the discrepancy.
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
Agreed. I couldn't get to that PDF when I wrote the post, but I'm glad to see they acknowledged that issue ... though they still used the one-to-one ratio for their results.
(no subject) - celtic_catgirl - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Jan. 15th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
I bet you that somewhere, someone has tried to file that lawsuit.
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
I note that at the front of every DVD I get from Netflix is a warning that I am looking at a $250K fine and up to five years in jail for ripping off said content. Apparently the movie industry has a stronger lobbying presence in Washington than do we mere authors. Not that we need to send such idiots to prison, but there has to be some downside for ripping off a person's livelihood.
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
The lobbying power of Hollywood is generally a lot louder than the publishing industry, since H'wood burns through and reaps in a lot more money for any one given product than even the biggest-selling books. (When I talk to publishers these days, they tell me that most of the money to be made in publishing is not IN publishing; it's in ancillary deals like TV/movie rights for a book.)
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 14th, 2010 07:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
I look at this study, and the methodology, and I'm a bit bothered by what's going on, just in the study. I'm not as concerned about the source of the study; these guys are experts at what they do, but as anything else, consider the source. They've got a bias, and a reason to bias things up rather than down. But then again, that's the way it goes with statistics. Any researcher has to take the source into account, and no matter how hard they try, no source is unbiased.

It's the statistics that bother me, to be honest. This study doesn't break things down enough for me to consider it reliable enough to accept their findings. It gives gross (as in huge, not disgusting) categories without any kind of break-down of what kinds of books are in those categories. Science? Are they talking textbooks? Science journals? Books for people within the field, or for a more general audience? How many of each of those book types are being downloaded? That kind of information is critical to the next phase of the problem, as in stopping at least some of the problem. If the major downloaders are college students getting their textbooks for free, that's one issue. If it's high level professionals ripping each other off, that's a completely different problem. If it's textbooks, did the authors of the study pro-rate things accurately to reflect that many textbooks sold are used? Did they check to see if the major downloads were the current or previous editions?

Did the researchers break things down by age of book? Did they tally in books that are out-of-print? Did they tally in books that are beyond copyright? Do they see dramatic drop-offs of downloads for books that are 3, 5, 7, or 10 years older? Are there spikes for recently published books? Bestsellers? New software, hardware, discoveries, etc.?

If this study is just raw clickage, which it appears to be, then it's really not that useful of a study, at least from an academic pov, or even to make judgements about how much money is being lost. Their language is accurate: they're making PROJECTIONS and ESTIMATES, not giving hard numbers. This is a preliminary study; a lot more work needs to be done to check, double check, and expand on what they've done. If my students tried to quote this study as a primary foundation study for a paper about this topic, I'd be all over them about sources.
Jan. 14th, 2010 09:26 pm (UTC)
There's so many free public domain books anyway... people could just read them for free books. That's what I've been doing. It is actually really nice to read some old stuff.
I like to support the authors I enjoy reading. I don't mind buying books from them, even though I have little money... books aren't all that expensive. Heck I've bought my favorite books at least 3 times. (That is because I either lend them and they don't come back, or I read them until they fall apart.)
Jan. 14th, 2010 09:47 pm (UTC)
You have to fight piracy, if only to keep the "alternative source" more difficult to find than the legitimate sources.

Illegal downloading is like any other thievery: it is driven by convenience.

The vast majority of people value time and convenience over relatively small sums of money. If a person wants to download a book, they will go looking for it. If the easiest place to get it is a legitimate source that collects money, and the price isn't a budget-breaker, people will pay to download.

If a free-download source is forced to move around, or is unreliable (too many books removed, or messed-up copies deliberately planted), most people will stop using it. People don't want to be annoyed.

The people who will accept annoyance for cash-savings are few, and not likely to be paying customers to begin with.
Jan. 14th, 2010 11:19 pm (UTC)
I think at the end of the day, some people are just gits, and will give away someone else's work for free, just because they can.

I think you have the right attitude here. After all, piracy is stealing, and I wish it didn't happen, but there's not a great deal we can do about it. Just ask those nice folks at Google.
Jan. 14th, 2010 11:27 pm (UTC)
Google. ::Twitch:: Yes ... what was their motto again? "Don't be evil," right? Sounds good in theory.
Jan. 15th, 2010 06:58 am (UTC)
Wow, you are right, I hope that this is resolved at some point. Downloading illegally is soo wrong. :)
Jan. 15th, 2010 08:11 am (UTC)
I've worked in video games for nearly a decade. (Oh my. Has it been so long? Getting old.)
On the development side, we pretty much despise DRM. All it does it hurt legal customers, and does absolutely nothing to pirates.
This is why I like steam so much, actually. No disks, no checks, just 'Is it on your list? Great. Have fun.'
Anyways, Publishers, on the other hand, are obsessed with DRM and anti-piracy measures. Why? Because the money they pour into it looks good on quarterly reports. Makes them look good to investers.
Books will benefit from the same things games have... what's needed is an easy to use delivery system that anyone, anywhere, can buy books from, and can be viewed on a multitude of products. (Laptops, psp, smartphones, ect.)
and divorced from platform, ie, works on Mac, PC, heck, no reason it couldn't go directly to a smartphone with a similar interface.
And don't start on itunes. It's actually a rather restrictive, authortatian, and locked system. The shear amount of family tech support that devil-spawned delivery system generates for me (Cause I'm 'That computer guy' in the family.) is enough for me to wish harm on Steve Jobs.
Jan. 15th, 2010 10:50 am (UTC)
And don't start on itunes. It's actually a rather restrictive, authortatian, and locked system. The shear amount of family tech support that devil-spawned delivery system generates for me (Cause I'm 'That computer guy' in the family.) is enough for me to wish harm on Steve Jobs.

Every time I see the plethora of iWhatever that are designed to dock seamlessly with the iPod -and only the iPod- I'm reminded that Steve Jobs doesn't put a license plate on his car as he feels that it is beneath him.

I watch the Kindle, and fear that it will follow the same path to the ultimate detriment of the publishing industry.
(no subject) - damhan_alluidh - Jan. 15th, 2010 11:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 15th, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 15th, 2010 08:15 am (UTC)
Oh, yes.
'Imnformation wants to be free'
No, no it doesn't.
What it wants is a more direct path from creator to consumer. And publishers are scared of this.
Jan. 15th, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC)
Piracy which does represent lost sales
There are plenty of pirates who sell illegally copied ebooks, and their customers do pay for the bootlegged CDs and pdf files.

Just search for ebooks on EBay.
In particular, look for Vampires, or Romance, or Horror.

Pirates also sell ebooks on Wordpress sites, Facebook sites, Blogspot sites.

Some pirates ostensibly sell a box of physical books for $40 and throw in 100 or so "free" ebooks.
Jan. 15th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Piracy which does represent lost sales
I understand you were probably trying to post the link as an example of your point, but I've deleted the comment. I don't mind anonymous comments, but I don't want links to pirated books here.
Joseph Katz
Feb. 7th, 2011 12:28 am (UTC)
Problem with Penguin
I am an early adopter of eBooks. I've owned the Sony PRS-500 for 4 years and the Sony 300 for half a year now.

In that time I have purchased a lot of ebooks and downloaded a ton from my library (Chicago and New York). However, when a publisher wants the same price for a paperback as an ebook, I have to admit to getting upset.

To make matters worse, with Penguin, the don't allow bookstores to offer coupons on their books. This week Kobo offered 20% off ALL BOOKS. Yet when I tried to purchase The Stepsisters Scheme, I was told the publisher doesn't allow discounts.

Now I have three options. Pay $6.99 to Kobo, go to Borders and see if they have it in stock (if they don't I will probably purchase something else (NOT from penguin because honestly I am pissed). Look at local usedbook stores. (My library doesn't carry it).
Feb. 7th, 2011 12:56 am (UTC)
Re: Problem with Penguin
This seems a rather odd response to an old blog post. You of course have the right to feel whatever you choose. I'm assuming your upset comes from the old belief that since e-books have no paper/storage costs, then they should be drastically cheaper?

I've never had anyone tell me that DAW, my publisher, doesn't allow coupons or discounts. Heck, I've bought copies of my own work at a discount before, so I'm not sure where this is coming from.

Ultimately, you should spend your money wherever you want, and if you're unwilling to spend $X for a certain product then don't.
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Jim C. Hines

My Books


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