Monday, July 30, 2012

The Costliest Price for Ebooks is Free

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

My debut novel, ASHFALL, has become popular enough that it's being widely pirated. Oh. Joy.

For the last week or so, I've been having a remarkably civil conversation via email with the owner of one of the pirating sites. It's not so much that I think I'll change his mind--I'm pretty sure that the next time someone changes their mind due to the internet will be the first--I just want to understand what motivates him to take the considerable personal risk of owning a pirate site.

It turns out that he feels justified in what he does because he believes he is helping authors--he's tasked me with reading extensive selections from Cory Doctorow's writings about the benefits he gets from making his ebooks available for free. Now Doctorow is both smarter and a more accomplished author than I, and I have no doubt that making his ebooks free benefits him. But here's what he gets wrong about the ebook market: an environment in which the value of a book descends to zero hurts both authors and readers. In the long run, the costliest price for ebooks is free.

There's no doubt that copyright laws are in serious need of overhaul. As currently written, they excessively protect corporate interests at the expense of individual consumers and content creators. But the important part of copyright law--of any law, actually--isn't what's written down in the law books--it's the social norms and  habits that follow from the law.

I learned this viscerally during the year I was a foreign exchange student in Brazil. On my way out of the airport in Cuiaba, we slowed nearly to a stop at every green light. I tried to ask why, but my broken mix of Portuguese and Spanish wasn't up to the task. I had my answer soon enough though, as I saw cars ahead of us blowing through the reds at cross streets, full speed. Does Brazil have traffic laws? Yes, but the norm is that traffic lights are suggestions, not mandatory, so every intersection becomes a high-speed game of chicken. And to insure a car in Rio costs about a third of its purchase price every year. A similar phenomena applies to speed limits in the United States. The limit in Indiana, where I live, is 70 mph, but the norm is that people drive 75-80, and most of us tend to get annoyed at those going much slower or faster.

When laws work, they become a benchmark that sets a social norm and creates the habits that govern our day-to-day life. Right now, the social norm is that people who create and publish books deserve to get paid for their labor. Most people make sure the authors they enjoy do get paid, either by checking their books out from a library (which paid for the books) or by buying them.

Could I make more money giving ASHFALL away for free, like Cory Doctorow? Maybe, at least in the short-term. He's right when he says the biggest challenge facing new authors isn't piracy, it's obscurity. But my personal test for whether my behavior is moral or not is this question: If everyone behaved this way, what would the world be like? And if we all pirate books--or even give them away for free--the social norm becomes that books are free. And in a world where authors don't get paid for their work, I (and thousands of other authors) can't continue to write. Such a world would be considerably poorer for readers and writers alike. Which is why the costliest ebooks are free.

By the way, at least one of the sites pirating ASHFALL is charging for it. If you pay anything less than Amazon's price for ASHFALL, currently $8.98, I don't get even a penny.