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  • Karen Frost

We Have a Piracy Problem

In the last few weeks, one of the Ylva authors, Jae, posted about finding her latest book plagiarized on a fanfiction website. Short story shorter, someone had taken Jae's book almost completely verbatim and just switched out the names of the characters to fit it into a fandom. There's a lot to say about this topic, including a fun conversation about the legal gray area that is fanfiction, but I want to focus here on Jae's final update. This is because it gets to the seedy underbelly of piracy in the sapphic world.

Jae found that two of her books had been pirated and included in a bundle of 450 LGBTQ romances sold for $10 on a big platform. More broadly, she identified 118 sapphic books that had been plagiarized and posted online without the authors’ permission. What's almost most disappointing about this piracy trend is how some consumers view and defend it. Jae found a comment posted to Facebook in which a user responded to another author's comment about plagiarism by saying that free (read: pirated) books boost sales by raising a book's profile and so authors should be grateful when their books are shared for free. Oof.

Here's Jae's response, which I've shortened down just a little (go read her post for the full version!): "These people post the stories they steal under their own names, either pretending to have written the stories or at least not revealing the name of the real author. Few of the people reading these stories will ever go to the trouble of finding the real author. I am one of the authors whose books were plagiarized this way. One of the books has more than 70,000+ people on the platform read it. I can tell you from experience it did not boost sales... .plagiarism is NOT a good marketing tool. Only people who want to make themselves feel better about posting or consuming stolen books keep repeating that argument."

70,000 people. That's a solidly quantified number. Let's say that particular book sells as an e-book for $10, and her royalty rate is 25%--so she would make $2.50 for each book sale. If each of those 70,000 people had purchased a copy, she would have made $175,000. But the book was online for free. So none bought it. Per the famous quote, "Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?"

Jae added on her blog: "If someone breaks into a bakery and steals all their lovingly created cakes, pies, and pastries, no one would dare tell them: But hey, it’s great marketing! I’m sure the thieves will be back to buy more treats!" Same idea, different metaphor.

To Jae's perfect answer, I want to add my own commentary, which is this: the argument that pirated content somehow leads to better sales is patently bullshit, and shame on anyone who thinks they can absolve their complicity in this theft by repeating the argument. This is true of ANY format in which intellectual property is presented, whether it's books, art, or TV/film/web series. My evidence for this comes not from the literary world, because my books have so few readers that no one seems to have bothered to pirate them, but from the film world. I know there are many, many social media groups and shared Google drives that contain pirated movies. These links and files are passed between users like keys to a house. "Pssst, want to see X movie? I have a link."

For example, after "Bottoms" was released, it wasn't days later that I saw a link being openly passed on Twitter for a pirated version with Portuguese subtitles. Now, I understand that not all movies are distributed worldwide, and sometimes the only way to see a movie IS through a pirated version, or the only way to watch with the correct subtitles is a pirated version. I genuinely understand these challenges and support finding ways to overcome them by working with the copyright holders. BUT what is the consequence of piracy? Thousands of people watch content without paying for it. Thousands and tens of thousands of dollars that could have gone to the cast and crew that made the content now vanishes. Piracy is not without victims, and there are clear victims here: the people who put their hearts, souls, and time into making this content. The script writer, the director, the actresses, the gaffer...all these people are affected.

The truth is, the people who are willing to consume pirated content will not contribute monetarily to that content even when given the chance. Endstop. If "Bottoms" becomes available in Brazil, 99% of the people who watched the pirated version won't go out and buy a legitimate copy. It goes without saying that this is a problem.

One of the worst things about piracy is that it happens even with free content. For example, I've noticed several personal YouTube channels offering pirated versions of the "GAP" web series. The series is free on @IdolFactory's YouTube channel. Idol Factory appears to have multiple revenue streams, including pre-sales and concerts, but likely its primary income source is ad revenue from YouTube. This means that if users watch on someone else's pirate channel, Idol Factory doesn't get the ad revenue from the views. The pirates are literally stealing money from Idol Factory. That's not supporting the creators. That's not supporting the cast and crew. That's theft, plain and simple.

I post a lot on Twitter about this piracy problem. Sometimes it feels like all I post about anymore. But it's important to me because piracy is extremely self-sabotaging. The lesbian community constantly clamors for more content. We want more books, more TV, more movies featuring sapphic protagonists. But when we then steal that content, we undercut the market. We take away the potential for revenue. If a lesbian movie is pirated the day after release and as a result it makes $10,000 in revenue when it could have made $100,000, then what do we think will happen? No more lesbian movies. If our movies (or books or whatever) don't make money, then they won't get made. It's a very simple issue of economics. We shouldn't let the recent spate of Kristen Stewart movies fool us--Hollywood still doesn't want to fund our movies. Take it from someone who's heard it from the people who are writing and pitching those movies.

I know, posts like this don't stop piracy. But I do hope that readers who see this will help report piracy when they see it. If you understand why it's so bad, perhaps you'll be more willing to fight it in the future. All we can do is try to help protect the people making the content we want.

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