Thursday, January 20, 2011

Essay: eBook Piracy and Copyright in the Philippines

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).


Laurel said...

This is a great post. Thanks so much for both the perspective and taking the time to elucidate what's going on outside our borders. I live in the US and have had the piracy debate with other writers. The prevailing attitude is "Stealing is stealing. It is wrong, plain and simple."

If a US college kid with a trust fund has a Kindle full of books he downloaded for free just because he could it is NOT THE SAME as his Indian counterpart, who can't get an $8.00 book without paying $30 in shipping and waiting for six weeks. Yep, they're both stealing. But one of them is doing so out of malice and the other out of desperation.

fantaghiro23 said...

Really great essay, Charles. I like the developing country perspective, which I haven't read anyone tackle yet.

I don't download ebooks, out of a preference for print, but I do understand the argument of convenience for us here. If I really needed a book pronto and it wasn't available locally, I'd take the pirated ebook, especially if the ebook price is too restrictive.

Fish Monkey said...

These discussions do overlook that copyright law DIFFER from one country to another, and assuming that they are the same elsewhere as they are in the US is the height of arrogance. Not to mention, Western intellectual property laws as they exist today are deeply problematic: originally the concept was designed to stimulate creation of artwork and new inventions by allowing author/inventors to profit from them for a limited time; now it seems that they are becoming a tool for the authors/inventors to squeeze every last drop of profit, often at the expense of he less privileged elsewhere.

Mike Allen said...

Excellent and enlightening post, Charles.

Mel u said...

I live in the Philippines also-I was glad to see you explaining to the rest of the world that we do not have actual libraries-if we want to try a new to us author we must either borrow the book form someone, often not possible, buy the book or we can if we find it down load a pirated copy of an e-book-I have seen works online recently that seemed to me not to be in the public domain-they were by coincidence all short stories I wanted to read-my only legitimate way to read them is to buy an entire book to read one story-I do not know how these stories came to be on line I just know given a free e book over buy a book to read just part of it or even to find I do not like it at all I will take the free download

Mina V. Esguerra said...

Hi, Charles. Enjoyed reading this. At the time that the Google Books debates started I had just finished my final paper for grad school, and was on the side of scanning books and making them available to all (or me!). I couldn't imagine how any library here could keep up (print-wise) with the best universities elsewhere, and hitting a pay wall for every interesting and recent resource I could find was annoying. If I were more passionate about that paper I probably would have resorted to seeking out pirated versions. Instead I settled for not-as-good, but free, references.

And another story: I've been published locally via Summit Books, and every now and then I get visits to my blog via people searching for a "free ebook" of my titles and variations on the wording. I have mixed feelings about that. ("At least there's a demand" is one, and "I hope they don't find one and just buy or borrow" is another.) I'm not sure how many of those people will buy the ebook if it was made available at a cheaper price though, so who knows if that'll solve anything.

Viktor said...

thanks for the description of reality in which it lives most of the readers in developing countries (and I include myself in).

Sebastian said...

Well, your post can be copied nearly verbatim, replacing "Serbia" for "Philippines". I'm guessing the situation is pretty similar all over the world, outside the walled garden of US-UK.

silviamg said...

Oh, piracy. In Mexico it's common to see pirated paperbacks or hardcopies. They photocopy the thing, then print it and sell a cheaper version than what you'd find at the bookstore.

But it's true that the biggest threat to a writer is obscurity. Boy, do I know that.

Kris said...

Great insight, I didn't realize how costly books could be in other countries (the prices you listed are nuts!) and how hard they are to get.

As for counting the number of illegal copies as a measure of success - maybe it's not a bad idea of obscure/unpublished authors to seed their work as a promotional tool...

At the end you stated that piracy is a matter of convenience. The music industry has already learned this the hard way, and now we can find almost any music we want for a decent price and drm free. Also, I am on the side that says if you purchase the hard copy of the book, you should be able to download the book to read digitally for free - there is no reason anyone should have to pay for the same thing twice!

JoSelle said...

This is a great post, Charles. Seriously the best thing I've yet seen on the topic in this discussion. :) I'm pretty embarrassed for not thinking about how difficult it can be to get books in countries outside North America and (ostensibly) Western Europe, and I'm glad I'm starting to learn!

Nate said...

Great post. I have been thinking many of the same things, although from a (lower socio/economic) Australian point of view.

On the point of formatting, i subscribe to asimov's magazine at a few bucks an issue, then have to spend hours reformatting it before it is readable. Ive heard that the high cost of ebooks is because of the labour involved in creating them, but if that is the case, publishers need to shop around, cause I would do it at home better, for less money...

Thanks for your writeup, you've said what I wanted to say, only much better!

Tina said...

Like what everyone said, great post. I've been struggling to form an opinion about the entire ebook piracy issue as I've been doing my best to always get legit copies of the books I read. It's hard to discourage someone else to do that here, especially because of the points you mentioned above. It doesn't justify piracy, but it addresses the points that I am not sure I would be eloquent enough to write about.

Personally, I think if you have the access and the means to get the book legally whether in print or electronic, do it. The good thing about having reader friends is you can borrow from them. It's not as easy as having a library to borrow books from, but more often than not, you'd have friends who read the same genre as you do and they'd be willing to lend you books you want to read.

Miss F said...

Very enlightening post!

brewbenz said...

Great summary of the book piracy issue. I think that you also present a clear way forward. Make ebooks available and at reasonable prices and many of those who would pay for a book in a world without piracy will pay for it.

Anonymous said...

You paint a very dark future for digital books/ebooks, so do you think ebooks will (ever) take off here in the Philippines?

4ev3r.m0r3 said...

I love this article it's well written and very detailed. I know what it's like not to be able to buy a book I want to read even if it's available in the bookstores in the big cities here in the Philippines. The prices are way over my head and I need to save up for months before I can afford to buy the books and by then the books may be out of stock already. With regards to ebooks I get them from friends around the web who actually buy the ebooks and post them in torrents and forums for free. These ebooks are bought and edited from the original format and condition they were sold as. If I liked what I read I'd make an effort to save up and buy the actual book. If I could buy an ebook from Amazon at a reasonable price I'd be buying instead of scouring the net for free ebooks.So far I have encountered people who sell ebooks in and facebook for a price that Filipino buyers can afford. The sellers are not actually charging for the actual ebooks but for their effort in finding the ebooks in the net (since they don't ask for exorbitant prices for the book. I've seen some ebooks sold for only 1 Philippine Peso). A lot of people patronize this for 3 reasons - first, they don't know where to look; second, they don't have the time to shop at legit stores that sell ebooks like Amazon; and third, they can't afford to buy even a $4 dollar ebook on a meager salary. I'm not pro-piracy either but that's just how avid readers from the Philippines get to read what they want. It's pretty much a gray area - It's illegal to sell ebooks if you don't have international copyright to it but it seems to be ok to sell ebooks if someone else actually bought it just like a real book when someone sells it after they read them.

Anonymous said...

I'm a university student in the Philippines. Reading is my passion. I can sometimes afford prints. But other times, local bookstores don't sell the books I would like to have. I don't have a credit card so I can't buy either prints or ebooks from international onlite bookshops. So, I resort to downloading torrents.