Publishers Steal

Or at least they used to, according to a post by Greg Sandoval, “How Piracy Built The US Publishing Industry“. Some of the great publishing houses we know today, such as HarperCollins, got their start by stealing from Dickens and many other UK writers. A publisher would go over to the UK, ship a popular book back to the states, and start printing with the author receiving nothing, except fans of his book.

In the case of Dickens there was no system for licensing international material, and obtaining a book from another country would be extremely difficult as it would require a lengthy boat trip both ways. The only way many in the Americas were ever going to read him at all were if American publishers reprinted the books, and given the time and expense required to obtain the source material, it’s at least understandable why they left the authors out of the profit sharing.

But today piracy is a serious problem, and one the US and other countries have been vigorous in pursuing. Among the more recent examples was UK publisher Hachette (those Brits don’t have any luck do they?), actively pursuing sites that were putting their content up for free and making money on ad revenue or premium subscriptions to that content.

This is a tough one to unpack. I’ve talked before on the blog about how piracy can build an audience for a work that might not otherwise exist, but on the other hand piracy provides avenues for people to obtain content they DO have access to, they just don’t want to pay for it.

This brings to mind a similar situation I wrote about a number of years back for a Computer Science Ethics class, Anime Fansub. Fansub used to be prohibitively expensive, it cost 50-100 dollars to obtain source material, and video dubbing and subbing technology only allowed for low quality VHS. Around the time I was in college, though, technology improved to the point where fansubbing groups could produced DVD quality material for free. With the right software and even a fairly low-end computer, anyone could be a fansubber. At the time, I wrote about how this practice far from hurt the anime industry, it actually helped it to grow. Shows that would have been thought to be abysmal failures in the US, turned out to be smash hits because of the early community of people who obtained the material for free, promoted it to their friends or clubs, and bought the content when it was actually licensed. The fansub community created buzz about shows that could be commercially successful, and provided access to those who were interested in older content that was otherwise unavailable.

The key reason for the success of this model was the “gentlemen’s agreement” that whenever a show became available in the US, the fansubs came down and the people who had them supported the original by buying a copy. This is very similar to the argument Coelho made with his book. Nowadays, the content providers have learned from this model and are making many of their shows available for free and streaming only weeks or days after they air (most commonly on Hulu). This has made fansubbing a much less necessary practice, and one that might now interfere with legitimate channels for content. For shows that are still unavailable, it’s a practice that might still work, but the industry has changed. Anime no longer needs fansubs to be able to judge what is popular and what can make money.

The key takeaway from this is that models have to continuously shift. Just how US publishers no longer pirate UK writers, practices like fansub and other “pirating” have to adjust as things become legitimately available. Fans of the material have a role in this too. When legitimate channels come along, fans should support them and cease other channels of obtaining material. One area where this is applicable to ebooks is digital library lending. Right now this is still an area that publishers seem less willing to fully embrace, but I think if enough users stopped pirating ebooks and started borrowing them that publishers would take notice.

I think a lot of people “pirate” because prices are too high or because material is unavailable. If you make material available and affordable, people will buy.

Note: For fun I have posted my original paper on Anime fansub. You can read it here. It was on the web for a while and a Google search will *shudder* uncover several people who used it as the basis for their own articles. People actually listening to me is scary.

1 Comment

Filed under Books + Publishing, Trube On Tech

One response to “Publishers Steal

  1. Here’s a link to an article someone wrote on fansub based on my original paper:

    Another Google search uncovered one of my favorite unfavorable reviews:
    “wow this is something dumb morons should read ..”

    Oh, well 😦

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