What if piracy does sell more content?

Edward Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives has a summary of events at Brazil’s second digital book conference. There is some interesting stuff there, including the contention of SocialBook founder Bob Stein that Brazil has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of far-too-conservative American publishers who “blew it” when it came to meeting the e-book challenge.

But something I find more interesting in this case is Nawotka’s “discussion seed” post, that brings up a point raised at the conference that wasn’t even reflected in the main article.

One panelist noted that piracy proves, at the very least, that there is demand in the marketplace for a book and that publishers can capitalize on the attention. Others balked at the suggestion.

And so the question was posed: is it better to sell 100 books with none pirated, or sell 1,000 books with 9,000 pirated?

It isn’t generally stated so boldly, but this is a dichotomy that seems to be at the heart of media creators’ anger over piracy. People get upset at the thought of someone reading, listening to, or viewing their works without paying for it—but at the same time, a good deal of evidence suggests that piracy actually helps to promote those works so they sell more.

Douglas C Merrill, formerly an executive at Google and record label EMI, gave a keynote recently pointing out that when he profiled Limewire users during his time at EMI, he found they were also iTunes’s biggest spenders. And one source within a German survey company claims that a study on movie pirates found a similar trend—so much so that the study was “locked away ‘in the poison cupboard’” for fear of discomfiting the movie industry. (Another recent study suggests that piracy increases the overall quality of the works being pirated, as well, though that’s not quite the same thing.) And of course a number of voices from the publishing industry, most notably Tim O’Reilly, have said piracy could be helpful as well.

This is not necessarily universally true, of course, and undoubtedly people can bring up a number of counter-examples where piracy harms someone’s market instead of helping it. But the point is, whenever piracy is brought up, a lot of people react as if it weren’t true at all, and any case of someone getting their content for free is not only taking the bread out of their mouths but an affront to their moral dignity. But what if piracy actually is helping them sell more books?

It’s sort of a glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty kind of thing. In the 100 vs. 1,000 + 9,000 example above, some people would be inclined to say, “Hey, great, I sold 1,000 copies instead of 100!” But others would only be able to see the 9,000 they weren’t paid for.

I’m not going to go so far as to say illicit sharers and downloaders are right to do what they’re doing, but what if they’re also buying more legitimate works because of it? Perhaps content creators should consider whether they can bear the insult to their dignity of someone reading their work “for free” if it actually does end up helping them sell more.

3 Comments on What if piracy does sell more content?

  1. The biggest problem with most of “big media’s” arguments against Piracy is that they assume “every pirated copy is a lost sale” which simply is not the case. MOST piracy is not something the person pirating said item would ever have actually purchased in the first place. This may be price or lack of interest or a combination, the point is, an exec sees ‘1000 sold with 9000 pirated” as 9000 lost sales, they don’t see it as “we sold 900 more than we would have without the piracy promotion”

  2. meredithgreene // July 28, 2011 at 1:06 am //

    I had similar findings with one of my articles last year for the San Francisco Book Review: http://sacramentobookreview.com/viewpoints-weekly-columns/20511/ Some indie writers found that their audience increased because of book pirates. Some thought book pirates were the bane of modern literature. Some wondered if we should be looking at it from the standpoint of zero and up, verses looking from the point of lost potentials sales downward.

  3. There are various studies in what’s now called ‘behavioural economics’ which show that people are much more concerned over losing something that they already have than with missing out on the chance to get something new. The emotional power of “It’s mine!” doesn’t stop with five-year-olds.

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