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.

Author: hughstephensblog

I am a former Canadian foreign service officer and a retired executive with Time Warner. In both capacities I worked for many years in Asia. I have been writing this copyright blog since 2016, and recently published a book "In Defence of Copyright" to raise awareness of the importance of good copyright protection in Canada and globally. It is written from and for the layman's perspective (not a legal text or scholarly work), illustrated with some of the unusual copyright stories drawn from the blog. Available on Amazon and local book stores.

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