Unlicensed Book Downloads and the Writer

(Anyone who is a big enough fan of my work to actually track down this blog is almost certainly not the target of this rant. But today, it happened one too many times.)

I had a little bit of writing time this morning before work. How did I spend it? Sending DMCA takedown notices. You can get my books for free. Even the brand new ones. They are frequently scanned and uploaded to file sharing sites, sometimes even before I get my author’s copies. I send out DMCA notices when I find them, if the host site is in the US.

What is the real impact of illicit book downloads on me as a writer?

Let’s get some of the bogus arguments out of the way.

The word piracy is ridiculous in this context. Theft is better, but that word implies scarcity. If you take a book I wrote from the store without paying for it, that’s theft. Electronic books are post-scarcity, in a certain sense. (The writing of the book is scarce, additional copies are not.) For downloading of electronic books without paying the publisher I prefer unlicensed or illicit, which aren’t perfect, but feel closer than any of the other popular alternatives.

I don’t like the DMCA, and I strongly disagree with its technological circumvention provisions. If you buy something I wrote in ebook form, I don’t care if you have a copy on every device you own or if you print it out or if you use the Kindle loan feature and get a friend to read it. If you buy something I write as a physical book, please loan it out, mark it up, photocopy key pieces and hang them above your desk, whatever. If you buy one of my physical books direct from my publisher, they’ll give you the ebook version for free, giving you the best of both worlds. But the DMCA takedown notice is the tool by which sites like scribd and tumblr accept notifications, so I use it.

So, what about my books? How does this affect me?

Writing a book is like staying on a diet. Every day, you decide you’re going to write instead of doing something else.

Writing books takes time. I have a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty good. I get the tools I need to do my work. I don’t have bogus meetings or daft cow-orkers. I get to choose most of the technologies I work with. Fearless Leader doesn’t call me in the middle of the night for bogus emergencies. I choose my hours. I have a private office for that couple of days a week where I condescend to grace the office with my presence. And on those days, Fearless Leader usually buys lunch. The hours are not ghastly, as in some companies, but it’s a full-time job.

When people say “Hey, did you see that show last night?” I say “No, I was writing.”

When the missus suggests I spend the evening watching movies with her, some nights I say “I really need to get some writing done.”

I just moved. My new office has floral wallpaper. I detest wallpaper. Even wallpaper without cheery climbing blue and red roses. It drives me batty. I could spend my free time for a couple of weeks and transform the room into an almost elegant techie’s office.

But moving has delayed my current books unduly. I know people are eagerly awaiting my next books. They tell me so. Repeatedly. At length. So I live with the wallpaper, and write.

I use SSH every day, but I don’t use every piece of its functionality. I’ve never needed to use a SSH VPN. To write that chapter of the OpenSSH book, I spent two weeks of “writing time” getting SSH VPNs working between Ubuntu, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD machines. I use OpenBSD daily, but I don’t use systrace. I use Apache, but OpenBSD just imported nginx. I have to figure out all of these things, and understand them well enough to explain them to you. More time.

If I just wrote fiction, I wouldn’t have to fanny about with packet sniffers and debugging logs. But fiction requires lots of research and preparation. The time is spent differently, but it’s still spent.

That’s time I could be hanging out with my family, or at the dojo, or with friends, or even watching some of the TV series I’ve never seen but that friends have raved about (Firefly, Buffy, X-files, whatever the current hit is). Instead, I’m writing.

I enjoy writing, but there’s a lot I want to write that’s much easier than technology books. And there’s a difference between writing something for myself, and writing something of sufficient quality that I can legitimately offer it to others.

The fact that my books can be fun to read doesn’t mean that they’re fun books. My books are meant to help you make money. Maybe that money is your salary, maybe it’s for your the company. Maybe the financial impact isn’t direct, but my goal is that when you finish reading one of my books, you will be more knowledgeable, more highly skilled, and a more valuable technologist. Transforming your skills into cash is your job.

Cutting out the people who help you improve yourself is downright disrespectful.

It’s been suggested that I put up a “tip jar,” so illicit downloaders can throw me a few bucks. Unfortunately, that ignores all the other people who go into making my books a success. My NSP books are professionally edited, copyedited, tech edited, and designed. I cannot in good conscience just cut them out. That would be just as disrespectful.

Losing money is unpleasant. But when someone says “I have so little respect for the year of your life that you spent working on this book that I’m going to give it away,” that’s downright insulting. Personally offensive. Disrespectful.

The greatest tool any of us have is enthusiasm for our work. Every time I find where someone has uploaded one of my books without permission, it drains my enthusiasm. Tonight, I really should finish up the tech edits on the OpenSSH book so it can go to copyedit. But I think those edits will wait. I’m going to dinner with the missus instead.

15 comments to Unlicensed Book Downloads and the Writer

  • I wonder… could you crowd source the sending of DMCA takedown notices?

  • I sympathize Michael. This very problem is just about the only compelling reason to have copyright assigned to a publisher; ostensibly they hunt for illicit copies and take them down since they own the copyright.

  • Joe

    Bummer. Sorry to hear that. Ebooks are cheap. I don’t get it. Please don’t let this deter you from future writing. Your OpenBSD helped me a lot.

  • I’ve called a few people out for illegally hosting PDF copies of our books on their own website. In their apology, the statement is usually something like “well, we liked it so much, we wanted to share with friends.” Then they take the PDF off their website. Then a few days later they tweet about someone else’s book being available on their site (so obviously at this point their apology is completely meaningless). I think in the future I’ll directly report to DMCA or take other actions. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • I spent several years working for Time Warner in my town, in various capacities including the handling of network abusers. I’d process DMCA requests that had come through Legal (i.e. correctly formatted) – most of them were movie studios making takedown requests. Rarely, they were individual authors of films or music or images making the request. I don’t like the DMCA, but it was literally the only tool these individuals had that could do _anything_.

    (Another note from that: Don’t bootleg Universal films. They were really, really diligent about tracking down that stuff; more than any other studio. It might be different now.)

  • Dan,

    Unfortunately, no. Only the copyright holder or their rights holder/agent (e.g., publisher) can send a DMCA notice. I have a template for each book, so I just fill in the recipient’s name and the URL and send it in.

    The best anyone else can do is notify the rights holder. Or mount a DDOS attack. Not that I’d encourage that.

  • Richard,

    The publisher can send the DMCA notice without owning copyright. The can act as your agent. JK Rowling’s publisher sends out DMCA notices for Harry Potter. Most publishers don’t bother, except for big-dollar texts. NSP sends DMCA notices all the time.

  • Joe, I’m still writing, not to worry.

  • ML,

    Some sites (e.g., Scribd, Tumblr) act quickly and politely.

    Other people need to learn some manners.

  • Micah

    I’ll buy your SSH and OpenBSD books once they’re out. Might be that the pirates are going to outweigh your paying readers, but we’ll do what we can!

  • Preaching to the choir here. I’m under the impression tech publishers don’t put a whole lot of effort into sending DMCA notices, though I may be wrong (just seems I’ve seen things that should be easy to take down that never get taken down). It’s a never-ending battle so not sure I blame them. Guess that’s not the case with NSP judging by Michael’s comment above, but there have been some threads on the private O’Reilly authors’ forum with authors complaining about inaction on taking down illegally hosted copies (though their response was they do police that to some extent, and to please report anything people find to their legal group and they would take care of it).

    US-based sites have never been a problem for me, including some that I’m sure get ridiculous numbers of take down notices but still respond within hours every time (Hotfile and others). But good luck for anything hosted outside the US, especially in eastern Europe and Asia, Russia especially. In my experience you have about a 10% chance to get something removed for anything hosted outside North America, western Europe, and Australia and New Zealand.

    Russia is especially bad, though language barrier is a contributor. I’ve enlisted the efforts of one of our Russian-speaking contributors to get things removed before with success one time and failure a handful of others. Hitting a better percentage than I am trying to write them in English (I’m 0% on Russian sites), but they have no respect whatsoever for copyrighted materials in most cases. That wasn’t a DMCA notice though, they don’t care one bit about those in Russia.

    For DMCA notices, you have to have legal ability to represent the copyright owner, so yeah it can’t be crowd sourced. You have to include something along the lines of “I swear, under penalty of perjury, that the information in the notification is accurate and that I am the copyright owner or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner.”

    I guess “authorized to act on behalf of the owner” could be vaguely interpreted, but I doubt it would fly to put out something like “anyone who sees my books illegally hosted anywhere has the authority to issue DMCA takedown notices” and let people have at. The publisher, if they don’t own the copyright, should generally be granted the right to act on behalf of the owner for those cases in the book’s contract.

    Irks me even more in my case since we’re giving away the software (pfSense) that the book covers, and I rely on that to make a chunk of my living. It’s part of why I can make a living working on the project. Yet people are happy to steal, or complain that the book isn’t given away for free, or in one case being enough of a jerk to email “I’ll just wait until I can steal it”…

    Being a technical book writer is definitely frustrating at times, and this is a big reason why.

  • Great post. And great additional comments.

    I sympathize too. I know exactly what you mean when you explain that writing requires sacrifices in other areas of our lives, and the whirlwind of emotion that comes when people are so lackadaisical about stealing the work. I’ve actually had readers of pirated books (on two SQL Server books mostly) send me thanks for the free ebook and then ask me technical questions related to the book content expecting me to help them. While those two books had good sales, the publisher chose not to publish editions for new SQL server certifications. I’ve often wondered if the decision would have been different if digital theft wasn’t occurring.

    I’ve self-published a couple of books and have specifically stayed away from releasing any PDF files at all because of theft. Alternatives like Kindle are great. Amazon has free applications available for just about any platform so people don’t even need to have a Kindle to read the book. However, even when I’ve reduced the price to $9.99 on the Kindle version some people still write and ask me for the PDF giving funky excuses about why they don’t want to use the Kindle version. I’m not quite sure what is going through their minds.

    Unlike you though, I’ve never sent out a DMCA notice. I think if I spent much time on pursuing it at all, I’d end up being depressed and frustrated and would spend a lot less time writing.

    I remember teaching several iterations of a private Server 2008 class to a group using one of my books. The company chose to reuse one set of books instead of giving each student a new book. No problem, but then one of the students asked if it was OK to copy the PDF from the CD and I said I’d rather he didn’t. He seemed incredulous until another student said “Dude. Think about what you’re asking. You’re asking the author of the book if you can steal it.” That comment did give him pause and I saw his eyes change indicating a shift in his perspective. I just don’t know how to get that message to so many others. “Dude. Think about what you’re doing. You’re stealing from the author.”

    In a Security+ class, the concept of piracy (unrelated to technical books) came up. I encouraged the discussion to try to understand the mindset of some of the people. One woman talked about an MTV Cribs show and how some of the musicians are just so insanely rich. She said bluntly that they didn’t deserve to have so much money so it was OK to steal the music. I wonder if some people think that about technical book authors.

    I held my tongue in the class, but for the record, technical book writing doesn’t make me insanely rich. And seeing you’re holding down a full time job, Michael, I’m assuming you’re not insanely rich either. I think if I had to figure out the hourly wage, it may be close to about $2.75 an hour :). Still, I love to write, share information, and help others get ahead. And, my break is over, so it’s back to work for me.

  • chris

    What is the difference between me buying your book the physical copy and lending it to 100 people and me buying your ebook and sharing the file with 100 people?

  • Chris, you cannot realistically share the physical book with 100 people, unless it’s on a library-style basis. Only one person can access a physical copy at a time. It’s self-limiting. Kind of like a kernel running under the Big Giant Lock.