Whilst the threat of piracy has never gone away, some notable cases have hit the headlines in recent weeks. Caroline Sanderson investigates, and finds out what other writers can do to stave off the pirates.

“I’m sorry Maggie I never bought ur books I read them online pirated”. So read a tweet received from a fan by bestselling YA fantasy writer Maggie Stiefvater at the end of last month. As Alison Flood of The Guardian subsequently reported, Stiefvater drew a direct link between such pirating and a sharp decline in sales of the e-book edition of the third book in her Raven Cycle – Blue Lily, Lily Blue. Think such a bestselling author can afford to lose a few readers to piracy? Think again. As a consequence of this decline, her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half that of the previous books. “A pirated copy isn’t ‘good advertising’ or ‘great word of mouth’ or ‘not really a lost sale’”, Stiefvater later stated on her website.

Then fellow fantasy writer Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season eloquently kicked off a discussion about the “grey area” which lurks around the acceptability of piracy. Authors she said, are “often not allowed to be upset by theft of their work in case they be charged with a lack of compassion for people who can’t afford or can’t access books”. But she said, it was vital to talk to “the people who think all authors are so rich that their voyage on the pirate ship couldn’t possibly have any impact on our careers”, and “the people who believe that all art should be free – failing to see, no doubt, that this would make creation the realm of the privileged”. Instead of telling an author they should stop being so mean, Sweeney suggesting talking to “your friend who pirates instead. That friend who shells out for coffee and booze but doesn’t think books are worth the money. Have conversations about this. Help us out.”

…her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half that of the previous books.

After reading all this, I did a search for one of my own books online. It took me just 3 minutes to find a free download of Someone Like Adele, and like Maggie Stiefvater, I find this neither good advertising, nor great word of mouth, nor “not really a lost sale”. Whilst the latest survey by the Intellectual Property Office (March 2017) into online copyright infringement found that there had been a significant increase in the proportion who paid for 100% of the e-book content they had consumed online in the past three months (from 40% in 2016 to 46% in 2017), the survey still puts the percentage of e-books read illegally as 17% of the total consumed, i.e. around 4 million books.

In the light of Stiefvater and Shannon’s comments, the Society of Authors issued the following statement:

We have a robust legal framework governing intellectual property in the UK, so it is worrying to see any normalisation in the attitude that it is fine to enjoy creative works for free simply because we can. It is great to see authors like Samantha Shannon and Maggie Stiefvater speaking out – particularly in Maggie’s case demonstrating the direct impact of the availability of pirated copies on immediate sales and long-term livelihood.

The Publishers Association does a great job in issuing takedown notices through its copyright infringement portal, but too many people assume that they can use anything they find on the internet for free and without restraint. We need to see greater efforts and Government commitment to educating society about copyright. Knowledge of intellectual ownership, its value and how to exploit and protect it is vital for everyone. We believe the Government and creative industries together could do more to raise awareness of it and the damage that piracy does to real individuals.

The Society of Authors also highlight the importance of initiatives like Get it Right from a Genuine Site, a project also sponsored by ALCS, which raises awareness of the value of creative work from the creator’s perspective. Its current campaign for example, invites creators to explain how long it took to create their work.

…the survey still puts the percentage of e-books read illegally as 17% of the total consumed, i.e. around 4 million books.

Measures to combat piracy are ongoing and various. The fact that an increasing number of people are paying for the e-books they read is good news, of course, but with piracy now both staggeringly common, and easy to achieve, you can argue that only a widespread change of mindset among consumers will truly make a difference, and help secure the livelihoods of creators. The Society of Authors maintain that the National Curriculum should, at all Key Stages, in both the English and citizenship modules, “instil in pupils an understanding of the artistic and commercial value of intellectual property rights. School pupils need to be educated on the dangers of piracy in an era when copying is so easy. This is essential and the lack of copyright education seems at odds with the stated ambition of the Government that an effective intellectual property regime ‘requires education’”.

ALCS has of course long been committed to copyright education and has devised a number of programmes over the past decade aimed at educating young people about the importance of paying for content, and giving credit where credit is due. As Philip Pullman says, “The principle is simple, and unaltered by technology, science, or magic. If we want to enjoy the work that someone does, we should pay for it”.

The current guidance from the Society of Authors on what to do in such instances appears below.

Has your work been pirated?

If your work has been pirated online, report the matter to your publisher. If the relevant rights are controlled by you (because your publishing contract has terminated, or you are self-publishing), you can yourself send a ‘notice and takedown’ to the offending site. Your email should be headed ‘takedown request’ and needs to include your name and contact details, the URL of the offending material, full details of that material, and an explanation as to why you believe it to be an infringement of your rights.

Remember that not all seemingly pirate sites are actually selling copies of your work, even if that’s what they say – they may be phishing sites. Never attempt to buy or download from pirate sites, and do not respond to suggestions that, in return for payment from you, your book will be delisted.