Survey Says!

A few weeks back, Myke Cole linked to a Reddit article that disclosed the results of a survey taken regarding piracy of authors’ works. Probably because I am an author, and probably because I geek out on behavioral science kinds of things, I thought the results were interesting as all get-out. Since I figure my Typosphere readership doesn’t overlap massively with the Reddit fantasy corp, yet, I thought I would talk about it a little here.

I should start by saying that my position on piracy is that you shouldn’t do it. However, I am just the tinsiest bit of a hypocrite, because I, too, as a kid, made tapes and such things so I could listen to music in my car (for example). In my mind there is piracy, and there is piracy. I did not, for example, sell my tapes. That seems like a pretty thick line to cross.

I should also say that when I personally release my work, I do not opt into DRM or other protective methods. Primarily I do this because I’m just fine with people who copy stuff for their personal use (moving things across platforms, for example), and I figure people who want to take nefarious actions will find a way anyway. This means dropping a big DRM bomb on a file only serves to tick off the folks I care about with zero impact on those I don’t.

That said…the survey asked four questions

1. What percentage of books that you read have you pirated?
2. What percentage of books that you read have you legitimately bought?
3. Why do you engage in book piracy?
4. Do you believe that piracy is fair to the authors?

First, let’s be clear that the response pool of this survey is taken from Reddit readers, and will have a slant toward that culture’s view (of course). It will not represent the whole of the world. Second, I should note that I always assume some quantity of responders to a survey are giving fake answers. I make this assumption because I am among the pool of people who will do that on occasion, depending on how I feel about the survey itself. I focus on that here because I make the assumption that this is a trait that is probably fairly prevalent among Reddit readers—and that means the survey results have some reasonable probability of not being valid at all.

All that said, the results as presented are fascinating.

Learning #1

Only about 30% of responders actually purchase every book they read. This number is reflected in the answers to both question #1 and question #2, so it’s consistent. So, roughly 70% of people “cheat” at least a little. This result is not really that surprising given other research into human behaviors around stealing and cheating—which basically says that almost everyone cheats a little in areas they feel it’s okay to do so.

Learning #2
About 1 in 5 (20%) of the responders “steal” (do not buy) the vast majority of the books they read. I use this number because 22% said they pirated 60% of the time or more, and 15% said they had purchased less than 35% of the books they read. So 20% is a fair mushing of thos numbers.

Assuming the answers are in the “correct” ballpark, putting these two questions together gives one a view that the world out there is split into three segments: 30% who pay for everything, 50% who pay for a lot, but not everything, and 20% who basically avoid paying for much at all.

Okay. That defines the “is” state.

So, let’s turn to what I think are the really interesting pieces of this conversation. The reasons people give for doing what they do. The justifications. The “why” state.

The gang that says they don’t pay for books give five primary reasons. I think two of them are understandable (though they still shouldn’t do it), one is a bit flakey, but I’m still kinda cool with, and two others just make me shake my head. I’ll go through them in that order.

Two Pretty Good Reasons (*) to Pirate

30% of people say they “steal” a book because they don’t want to buy the same product twice. 16% say they “steal” a book because it’s not available in their country. Both of these cases carry the idea that the person actually wants to pay for what they consume. In the first case, they’ve already paid for it (presumably) and just want it in a different format. In the second, they would be willing to pay, but they literally cannot do so.

(*) Sure, I wish people would pay for my work. But I call these “pretty good” reasons to steal because I really can’t blame a person for finding a way to read something they want to read but literally cannot obtain in “legitimate” channels, and, quite honestly, if you’ve already paid me something for my work, I’m not going to be among the people who punch you in the ribs for finding a way to put it on your kindle rather than have to carry it around in a brief case.

I mean, if you’ve already paid for my work someplace and liked it well enough to want it always at your fingertips, I’ll just say “thanks, and please do tell someone else!”

The Flakey reason

37% of people said they “steal” because they cannot afford to buy all the books they read.

I’m quite torn on this reason. On the one hand, I’m quite interested in helping people read more work, and I don’t like true financial constraints holding people back. I also am not one to shove a sharp stick in the eye of folks by telling them that they must “go to the library.” This is a different world. Time is money. Going to the library takes time that some of these folks just legitimately don’t have.

I get it. And on the whole, I don’t condemn the idea. In fact, if after “stealing” something you really liked, you then go on and provide advertising for it via true word of mouth, there’s every likelihood you’re doing the writer a service in the end.

On the other hand, there are a crap-ton of free books and $.99 books out there, and a lot of them are really good work—and pretty much everyone in the world can afford free. The skeptic in me also wonders how many of those folks who can’t afford books, also find their way into a movie theater every week at $20 a pop or more (depending on snacks and all that).

Anyway. This category is tough.

And Then There’s the WTF Group

21% of folks responded that they “steal” books because they wanted to try something before they buy it. Excuse me?

I get the idea. I do. And I agree with it. When I go into a book store, I often (always?) read the first part of a book before I buy it. So I agree with the foundation of this reason. However, I don’t think there’s a legitimate bookseller anywhere online wherein you cannot read the first 15-30% of a book before making a purchasing decision.

So, to this 21% of the population I would say “nice try, but man is that ever some weak sauce you’re serving up there.”

And then there’s the 14% who say they “steal” to avoid DRM hassles. Sigh.

Bottom Line on Reasons for Piracy

Given that the “reasons” section was designed to allow people to select all that applied, I’m actually happy that at best no more than 35%, and almost certainly less, of the population that self-reports pirating books is doing so for what I consider to be poor reasons.

I’m also happy that about 50% are doing it for reasons I find benign at worst.

Still, it’s a lot of folks out there “stealing.”

Which leads to the last question, that being …

Is piracy “fair” to authors?

Realize that the word “fair” is mercurial. What I mean by “fair” is different from what you mean by it. “Fair” is a tempting word to use in lots of situations, but is always problematic.

That said, I think it’s an interesting fact to say that 16% of people surveyed said that piracy is actually fair to writers. If you read the comments, you’ll find many justifications for this logic, most of which shake out into one of two camps—the “it doesn’t cost the author anything because they weren’t going to buy it anyway” camp, and the “it helps the author because word of mouth will increase sales” camp. Both of those are valid statements, though I don’t know that either address the term “fair.”

When I assess the response differently, though, I get an answer that at least makes sense. By that, I mean if I change the question from “is piracy fair to the author?” to “is piracy good for the author?” then the responses make a bit more sense. 83% would say piracy hurts an author, and 16% say piracy is good for the author due to increased readership and hence increased word of mouth.

Me personally? How do I feel about the idea of piracy being fair or good, unfair or bad? Well … really, I have no idea. There’s clearly piracy and there’s clearly piracy.

Anyone who steals work, and sells it to make a profit is pretty clearly scum, and deserves to suffer whatever pains can be brought to bear on them.

But as I said above, I don’t DRM anything I do. I also give away work for free at times. I expect I’ll do it more often as time goes on. There’s also the fact that I’m a pretty small fry. Piracy of Ron Collins could well work out positively for me regardless of whether it’s fair or not. But let’s face it, Stephen King doesn’t need much more word of mouth.

Anyway…those are my thoughts on what I thought was a particularly interesting survey. You can now return to your same Bat Channel and same Bat Station.

Have a great day, eh?

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