Google & Piracy

Over at SF Novelists, author David B. Coe has been talking about the response from Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, to proposed anti-piracy laws.

“If there is a law that requires DNSs to do X and it’s passed by both houses of congress and signed by the president of the United States and we disagree with it then we would still fight it,” he added. “If it’s a request the answer is we wouldn’t do it, if it’s a discussion we wouldn’t do it.”

Agent Richard Curtis says this is game over, calling it “a staggering and possibly fatal blow” to authors and publishers.

Really? Fatal in the same way that Napster and other file-sharing sites were fatal to the music industry? (Which, as we know, completely ceased to exist on July 13, 2001.)

Coe states unequivocally that piracy hurts an author’s numbers. “Only the most naïve observer could possibly think that piracy doesn’t hurt an author’s prospects for success.”

I guess I’m naïve. Or a “piracy-denier,” to use Coe’s terms. Because I don’t know. I’ve seen data to suggest that sometimes piracy helps overall sales, and I’ve seen other numbers suggesting it hurts. Finding unbiased data is a lot harder. I’ve spoken to individuals who’ve said they pirated one book and went on to legally purchase others. I’ve also seen the “fans” posting to sites asking where they can download the latest release from their favorite author, or boasting about getting an illegal copy of a book on release date.

I’m not saying I support people sharing and downloading my work without paying for it. For the most part, piracy pisses me off.

And my general feeling toward Google is unprintable. This is the company that decided they had the rights to scan and share any out-of-print book that they liked, in blatant violation of copyright law. They’re rallying to “freedom of speech,” but I seem to recall Google merrily censoring their search results for China… “Don’t be evil” my ass.

I don’t believe piracy is hurting me much right now, but I don’t know how that might change in the future. What happens in five or ten years, when a much larger portion of my readers are reading electronically? What happens as my work becomes more popular? (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I see my German books popping up on pirate sites more frequently than my English work.)

DMCA feels like an endless, generally futile game of whack-a-mole, putting the burden on authors and publishers. Law enforcement, from what I’ve seen, rarely bothers to get involved until you’re talking about massive file-sharing operations, and even then international boundaries make it difficult to do anything about certain sites. We’ve seen from RIAA and the music industry that going after end users is a losing battle. I don’t know what the right answer is here.

I don’t like Google, but I don’t necessarily think that going after search engines instead of going after the file-sharing sites is the best way to go. Where does the responsibility lie? The site hosting the illegal files? (In that case, am I responsible if you post a plagiarized poem in the comments to this blog post?) The individual users who upload them? The search engine who links to them? The author who can’t be bothered to scour the net and send takedown notices?

I don’t have answers, but I think it’s a good conversation to have. I just wish we could have that conversation with more data and facts, and less “end of the world” hyperbole.