Online Book Piracy: “An Offence Against Moral Justice”


These were the words used by Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors in Britain, in support of a letter to UK Business Secretary Greg Clark, co-signed by over thirty other prominent British authors. The letter pointed out that one in six e-books read online in the UK, about four million books, was pirated annually, with the author receiving no remuneration for his or her efforts. The letter goes on to say that the growth of online book piracy will potentially damage the overall market for books in the UK and make it even more difficult for authors, who on average earn only around 10,500 Pounds (USD $13,700) annually, to make a living and will be a disincentive to the creation of new content. The Society of Authors letter stops short of calling for specific remedies but calls on the British government to “take action against the blight of online book piracy”.

Precisely what action governments (or authors) can take to fight this problem in an open question. Last year I posted a blog about e-book piracy in which I discussed the problem facing e-book authors. At the end of the day, it is the authors (many of them part-time independent writers) who have the greatest stake in this struggle, and they need to be pro-active to block user access to pirated copies of their works. There are various tools available to enable authors to identify when and where their works are being pirated, and to submit blocking requests to the major search engines. Unfortunately this becomes part of the ongoing “whack-a-mole” problem, but at least it is a pro-active step that authors can take.

(As an aside, I wonder how many readers have actually played the original “whack-a-mole? I can remember doing it about 30 years ago but my guess is that no one under 30 has ever seen an original whack-a-mole machine. I remember the satisfaction of bashing those grinning moles on the head to make them go away, followed by the frustration of them randomly popping up again. It was with a gratuitous burst of violence that I swung at another grinning head. I often wondered why the animal rights people didn’t take action against the game as a form of inciting hatred against moles and marmots. To my surprise I see that Fisher-Price markets a whack-a-mole game to kids but I note with relief that each mole comes equipped with a politically correct hardhat).

But back to e-book piracy. Michael Kozlowsky, editor-in-chief of Good e-Reader, reported on Philip Pullman’s comments and then followed with a more in-depth look at the online book piracy problem. Kozlowsky pointed to studies that show the majority of e-book pirates are in the 30 to 44 year old age category and that the average household shown to be pirating books online has an annual income of between $60,000 and $99,000. Clearly it is not just hard-up teenagers who are uninformed as to the social and economic consequences of their actions who are doing most of the pirating. It is done by people who can afford to pay for what they consume, and who should know better. So why do they persist in ripping off the system?

This comes back to Philip Pullman’s comment about ethics and moral justice. Actually Sir Philip’s fuller version stated;

“Online piracy of books, music, and other expressions of the human spirit needs to be properly understood: it’s an offense against moral justice.

“It’s the very opposite of freedom of speech, because it acts to prevent those who create beauty, knowledge, consolation or delight from earning even a modest living from their efforts.

“The law of copyright is one of the bastions of civilized living, but the acid rain of online piracy is slowly dissolving something we thought was set in stone. Surely it should be a fundamental duty of any decent government to defend the rights of those who help to create what civilization is.”

Kozlowksi ends his article with the following;

“I believe that ebook piracy is morally reprehensible. You would not walk into a bookstore or secondhand bookstore and steal a book, because you do not want to pay for it or cannot afford to buy it. The same goes with digital, stealing is stealing. You are fundamentally an amoral person if you engage in theft.”

This is a reasonable statement to make, yet if you read the comments on his article, you will see outrage and every form of justification for piracy known to mankind, ranging from “copying is not stealing” to “e-books cost too much”, with everything in between. The issue of “right and wrong” does not seem to pervade this discussion.

This is an ongoing problem with the piracy debate. People who don’t like paying for what they consume, or who seem to think they are winning some sort of game if they can pirate content, try to justify this behaviour because it occurs online. I don’t know who they are but Good e-Reader recently took a poll of 1800 of its readers and almost 21% reported that they read only pirated content! Are these the sort of people who would openly break the law in some other area? Almost assuredly not, yet these same people can self-justify the taking without payment of someone else’s work because it is online, and because they can.

There are many debates about the use of copyrighted materials, who should be paying to use them, and how much should be paid. This is one of the big issues currently being looked at during the review of copyright legislation in Canada. The review, in part, will determine whether the 2012 fair dealing provision that added “education” to allowed exceptions should be modified given that it has led to widespread unpaid copying of books and articles by educational institutions, using the education exception as justification. I have reported on this debate elsewhere. It remains to be seen what the final decision will be, but what is important about this debate is that no-one is advocating for piracy. The university sector disputes whether it should be paying for copying of certain materials under the fair dealing guidelines it has proclaimed, but on no account does it advocate the pirating of copyrighted materials. However, such moral and legal restraints do not seem to have any impact on online users of pirated material, such as those who appropriate e-books without payment.

A plea for ethics and respect for the property of others, such as the one issued by Philip Pullman, may fall on deaf ears insofar as dedicated consumers of pirated content is concerned, but it needs to be said anyway and it needs to be given prominence. There is benefit in reminding people what is right and what is wrong, even if at times they don’t listen. At one time, people thought nothing of littering. It was someone else’s problem. Happily, the tide is turning, or has turned, on this issue. Blowing second hand smoke into someone else’s face in a confined space (office, restaurant, airplanes) was a normal occurrence not so long ago. It is happily now a thing of the past. So too, perhaps continued education, moral suasion, and reminders of what is right and wrong, (along with other measures such as better laws and enforcement, as happened with littering and smoking) will begin eventually to turn the tide.

Speak out, Sir Philip, and others, and continue speaking out. In the meantime, governments have a role to play in creating the healthy ecosystem to allow creators to continue to create and earn a respectable living in the copyright industries, whether it is in the area of e-books, streaming music, AV content or any of the other areas of endeavour in which creators (authors) produce works to enrich our civilisation. These works can be enjoyed by all, without pirating the content, through access to reasonable subscription services, libraries and online and offline purchases. There is no moral justification for consuming pirated content, no matter how many contortions the users of such content go through to try to justify their activities. As Philip Pullman says, content piracy is “an offence against moral justice”.

© Hugh Stephens, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Pirate Streaming Boxes: An Abuse of Legitimate Technology…in Canada and Elsewhere


The issue of pirate set-top boxes, AKA “Kodi Add-ons” or more accurately, “Illicit Streaming Devices” (ISDs) is back in the news. It is not a new issue (I wrote about it almost three years ago, here). In April of this year, Torrent Freak reported that a Canadian company, Infinity TV, charged with selling TV boxes “fully loaded” with add-ons that provide consumers with access to a wide range of pirated content, has agreed to pay several Canadian media companies, including Bell, Rogers and Videotron (all major telcos with content distribution platforms) $5 million in damages to settle the case. In 2016, the plaintiffs had secured an injunction from the Federal Court prohibiting several vendors from selling the pre-loaded boxes. The court allowed the plaintiffs to add more vendors to the lawsuit, which they did, , expanding the list to more than 125 according to Torrent Freak. Canada is not the only jurisdiction where sellers of legitimate boxes bundle (pre-load) them with unauthorized add-ons to give consumers direct access to pirated content, and then advertise the end product as “free TV” devices. Continue reading “Pirate Streaming Boxes: An Abuse of Legitimate Technology…in Canada and Elsewhere”

Sports and Copyright—Why Sports Fans are Cheating Themselves When They Stream Pirated Content


Almost everyone in today’s society takes some interest in sports, whether as a fan or as a participant. It’s virtually inevitable—and unavoidable. It may be a sport that we played in our youth, and now follow, or a sport that we still play. It could be a team sport or a primarily individual one, like golf or tennis. If it’s a team sport, and you are Canadian you are expected to follow hockey. By this I mean ice hockey, not the equally rough version played on grass or turf. If you are an American, baseball is probably the sport of choice, although these days that is being challenged by basketball or American football. And of course football (which we call soccer in North America) is the team sport that dominates most of the rest of the world, with the exception of a few places like New Zealand, where you cannot not talk about rugby–or Bhutan, where archery takes pride of place! Sport has enriched our language and provided us with colourful metaphors, everything from “striking out”, to “stepping up to the plate”, to “slam-dunk”, “sticky wicket” and “scoring an own goal”. What would the English language do without sports? Continue reading “Sports and Copyright—Why Sports Fans are Cheating Themselves When They Stream Pirated Content”

Infringing Website Lists: Another Valuable Tool in the Anti-Piracy Toolbox


In March the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), “an advertising industry initiative to fight criminal activity in the digital advertising supply chain”, released an update in its campaign against ad-supported pirate websites, called Winning the Fight Against Ad-Supported Piracy. This updates an earlier study about which I wrote last year in a blog on “Tightening up Online Advertising will starve Pirate Websites of their Means of Support”. TAG has continued its work to make reputable companies aware of the brand risk from advertising on websites that promote pirated content. Fifty-eight brands and ad agencies have signed the TAG anti-piracy pledge to take steps to reduce ad supported piracy, including by working with companies that have received TAG’s “Certified Against Piracy” seal. The program was originally designed for anti-piracy vendors but has since been expanded to include paths to certification for ad agencies, advertisers and publishers. This “follow the money” approach aims to starve pirate websites of one of their main sources of funding, namely legitimate advertising inadvertently placed on their sites as a result of insufficient care taken by ad agencies and company marketing departments. Continue reading “Infringing Website Lists: Another Valuable Tool in the Anti-Piracy Toolbox”

Google vs. Equustek: Unfortunate Precedent or Positive Development?


I have written about the case of Google Inc vs Equustek Solutions several times over the past couple of years (for example, here, here, and here). This series of blog posts tracked the evolution of the case that resulted in a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to uphold an earlier ruling by the BC Supreme Court requiring Google to de-index from global search results listings for a Canadian company, Datalink, that had been found by the courts to be infringing online the intellectual property rights of another Canadian company, Equustek. Continue reading “Google vs. Equustek: Unfortunate Precedent or Positive Development?”

Copyright and Your Carbon Footprint



Although I am posting this on April 1, it is not an April Fools’ joke. Copyright has a carbon footprint, just like practically everything else. And, like everything else, you can do something about it. Continue reading “Copyright and Your Carbon Footprint”

The Deadliest Aspects of Copyright


According to Ben Franklin, the only certainties in this world are “death and taxes”. Since a discussion of taxes is far too complicated, that leaves me with no alternative but to turn to that other certainty in life, and examine how it relates to copyright. Continue reading “The Deadliest Aspects of Copyright”