Much energy is being put into combatting piracy. Anecdotally we hear of publishers visiting China, say, seeing their books only in pirated editions. We have all received books back from customers with complaints about the manufacturing quality only to discover that the obviously lousy quality results not from anything we or our suppliers did, but from the fact that the customer has (unwittingly perhaps) bought a pirated edition. Especially vigilant in this matter are textbook publishers: we all know the controversies surrounding the pricing of textbooks. Printing your own can seem like a really cool solution to some!  Advice on combatting piracy comes in this link from GalleyCat. Gigaom reports that 68% of film downloads in Europe are piratical. Digitalization has made piracy even easier, and more and more effort is going into combatting it. Torrent Freak reports here on UK policing of pirate downloads and requests to extend the service.

On the other hand Neil Gaiman reports in this video on the counter-intuitive finding that piracy promotes sales:

However I think that Neil Gaiman is confusing two issues here: piracy and offering books free. Piracy is theft, and even if it does have the unexpected result in some cases of increasing sales elsewhere, we find it hard to react to it with equanimity. We are hardwired to think it’s just wrong. Casting bread upon the waters in order to entice the fish to bite is a conscious decision, a gamble we decide to take on our own. In theory at least we can remain in control of the number of free books we offer. With piracy you have no idea how big a hole has been dug.

Thomas Baekdal takes the line that piracy is tending to devalue digital goods. His piece is discussed in this post on TeleRead. Baekdal makes the claim that the traditional publishers are “keeping us in the past” — no doubt meaning to imply that publishers are resisting digital and trying to force the public to buy print. Obviously this is nonsense: as long as your customers want print over digital by two to one (or at all), you’d be nuts not to supply print, even if your margins are less on the printed book. The first comment on Baekdal’s piece, appears to be arguing that as the cost of duplication is zero, zero’s not an unreasonable price to pay. But as we all in publishing keep battering on — the cost of creating the content is not zero, and the creator deserves remuneration. “The linking of piracy to theft” the commenter claims “is a conspiracy by Big Content to shackle the consumer to overpaying for ideas and expressions that for the vast majority of human history were considered to be the property of all.” Whoever Big Content is is not who’s being primarily injured here — the author is the loser. Big Content is I suppose the author’s agent/publisher in this fight.

We live in the world we live in, and even if there’s some universe in which we could argue that “ideas want to be free” (in the sense the commenter means) it’s not this one. I suppose that “for the vast majority of human history” it was possible to argue that “ideas were the property of all” in that sense. But that was a world in which literacy hadn’t been invented, and in which the concept of the presentation of ideas in some formal mode hadn’t any way to be developed. Nobody thought to collect royalties on the “idea” of a handaxe or a Levalois point. What the commenter overlooks in his evangelical enthusiasm is the fact that it’s not the ideas that are protected by copyright, it’s the form of expression conveying these ideas. “Ideas” are of course absolutely free — you can’t stop me thinking about the expansion of the universe — but if I write about it using Michio Kaku’s words, I am probably infringing copyright, and if I make money by doing so, I’m probably damaging Professor Kaku. An idea can be patented, though in order to achieve that you have to write it down (in a copyrightable form). Now we might all agree that it would be a great idea to sit down and debate whether the form of expression of ideas should or should not be protected in some way or other, or whether writers should just write for the fame and glory of it all, but I expect we’d be better employed doing something else.

This Café Press story from Plagiarism Today is relevant to the discussion — an artist’s “property” can’t just be offered for sale by a third party without reference to the artist (or remuneration). This LA Times editorial says Congress is discussing the problem of piracy, though we are apparently not about to see any reform of copyright.