Interview with a pirate

On the 9th June 2014, the following exchange was posted by a well-known ELT author in the ELT Writers Connected Facebook group. I’ve reproduced it here with his full permission, although he has asked to remain anonymous. It is a conversation with the manager of a blog that had been making copies of the author’s book available for illegal download.

Author: Am I right in thinking that you manage this site? If so please remove the illegal version of my book [REDACTED] from it.

Pirate: lol

Author: That’s your reaction?

Pirate: Are you high or something like it ?

Author: So are you saying this site is nothing to do with you?

Pirate: Please stop sending illegal book links to our message box.

Author: I’m trying to find the person who manages this site to get my book removed from it. If it’s nothing to do with you then my sincere apologies. Are you saying it is nothing to do with you?

Pirate: Actually it is my blog. I’m just messing with you. Send me all books you want me to remove.

Author: [REDACTED LINK TO BOOK] This is my book. I’d like it removed immediately.

Pirate: Sure

Author: It’s not just me you’re ‘messing with’ ! It’s the authors of all the illegal books on your blog. That book took me three years to write – time which could have been spent earning other money had I not given up time to do it. It sells pretty well but last year I earnt only around £100 in royalties for it. How much money do you make a year out of ‘free’ books?

Pirate: ok. This is really very little money for you book. Would you like to work with me ? I can pay that amount of money monthly even weekly.

Everything you need to know about the piracy of ELT materials is right here in this one exchange.

Image by Flickr user Chris Campbell. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image by Flickr user Chris Campbell. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Confessions of a newbie teacher

Since the day the first photocopier was delivered to a private language school, ELT materials have been widely and very openly pirated. Fresh off my CELTA course, I worked in a PLS in Barcelona where the photocopier was in the teachers’ library. The school owners may have intended us to only use it for the materials that you’re actually allowed to copy – teachers’ book photocopiables, for example – but nowhere was that ever stated. And many teachers – myself included – saw it as carte blanche to copy anything we wanted.

I had a fairly consistent MO: I’d copy a few pages of a coursebook unit – Inside Out Advanced was a favourite (sorry, Ceri and Tania!) – and pair it with a bit of Murphy (sorry, Ray!) or one of the Vocabulary in Use tiles (sorry, CUP!) to create a nice little package of lesson content and homework. No one ever challenged me – not the school owners, not my fellow teachers, not my students. In fact, I don’t once remember a student ever asking why we were using photocopies.

At the risk of being threatened with prosecution after the fact, I’m going to argue that I’m just outside the statute of limitations for prosecution and that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only teacher doing this. That’s no excuse, of course, but it’s telling that as a 23-year-old, newly qualified teacher, it didn’t even occur to me that what I was doing was problematic.

It’s now almost 13 years later, and what’s changed? The photocopying is still there, of course, happening in the shadows where no copyright owners have to see it – easy to classify as unavoidable, collateral damage on book sales or to simply ignore. But we’re now dealing with something altogether more sinister-seeming and brazen: the plethora of sites that upload and make available copyright-protected ELT materials for free download. I’m not going to do these sites any favours by listing them here. Actually, I probably could, and it wouldn’t make much difference. They’re getting plenty of traffic, I’m sure, and a few inbound links from ELTjam.com isn’t going to cause much of a ripple; I doubt they’d be clamouring to advertise with us.

These sites are actually nothing really new, of course. When I last worked in-house at a major ELT publisher – back in 2009 – one of my authors would email me regularly with links to copies of his books on Scribd. I’d forward his email to the Legal Services department, and they’d contact Scribd demanding them to remove the material. Scribd often obliged almost instantly. A while later, the material would appear again. Repeat ad nauseam.

For authors who find their work available to download for free (and, for the record, I’m one of them – I can download a free copy of Cambridge English for Marketing almost as fast as I can buy a legal one on Amazon) the usual course of action is to let their publisher know (often leading to a formal take-down notice) or to contact the site owner directly themselves, as in the exchange at the start of this post. In both cases, the effect is usually the same: the file will be taken down. It’s a moral victory, at least. But a hollow one. It makes us feel like we’re doing something. It rights the wrong. But it does nothing long-term to stem the flow of illegal downloads. It’s like winning a bout of hand-to-hand combat during a thermonuclear war.

Free or fair?

Pirate: lol

Author: That’s your reaction?

Pirate: Are you high or something like it?

Image by Flickr user Andrew Becraft. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Image by Flickr user Andrew Becraft. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I actually LOLLED myself when I first read that. Something about the blog owner’s attitude amused me a little. There’s something so brazen about it as to seem absurd, like he’s some kind of larger-than-life pirate caricature. And there is, in fact, something absurd here: the pirate finds it absolutely absurd that someone might contact them directly to have their work taken down. Why is that? Has the concept of copyright become so worthless that it’s literally a laughing matter? Is the only possible explanation for someone caring enough about their work to assume that they’re on drugs?

Some people, mostly those that hold it, still take copyright very seriously. One strong, positive reaction against the tidal-wave of illegal download sites that have recently appeared is the creation of a new Facebook page called Free and Fair ELT. In their own words, the page aims to provide free and LEGAL language learning resources from around the net – shared by resource creators themselves. They have a bold mission statement that explains why they came into being and what they want their users to do (their emphasis):

We are writers, publishers and teachers. Just like you, we got into education because we want to help. So please ‘Like’ this page and enjoy the best free language teaching materials we collect here. In return, be fair: please pay when you can. Respect our copyright. It’s how we make a living.

Since its inception on 4th June, the group has gained 1,873 likes. That’s a phenomenal achievement, and the people behind the group – several of whom I consider friends – should be proud.

But it’s worth unpicking why a group like that has got so popular so quickly. The answer may be in the mission statement, which is a great piece of marketing copy – the bold text having been very carefully chosen to trigger certain responses in the reader. The owners of the group want to be primarily identified as teachers, not writers or publishers; that’s surely a way to better connect with the target audience of the group, most of whom are likely to be teachers themselves. There’s an attempt to connect with what we hope is a trait common to all educators: the desire to help and to do something good with our lives and careers. There’s a clear call to action – please ‘Like’ this page – and there’s a direct appeal to the target audience’s sense of morality: In return, be fair: please pay when you can. Respect our copyright. It’s how we make a living. There’s also one other word in bold: free.

If any of you have been following the changes going on in ELT publishing this last year – and the attempts by some publishers to implement elements of Agile Product Development into the publishing process – you may be aware of the concept of A/B testing. It’s a technique used to test two different variables – for example, two distinct marketing messages for a product – to see which resonates most with the audience and produces the most desirable results. I’d kill to find out how the number of likes that Free and Fair ELT have gained in the last few weeks might have been affected if all mention of fairness, of respect, and of copyright had been expunged, to be replaced by one clear message: this is where you can get free ELT resources.

I’d like to hope that what people are reacting to with Free and Fair ELT is the fair part. But the cynic in me thinks it’s the free part. The cynic in me thinks that no one cares about your copyright. That no one cares how long it took you to write your book. That no one cares how much money you’re losing. That’s what the 23-year-old me would have thought. The 23-year-old me wanted free stuff, as quickly and easily as possible. And I wonder whether the same is still true for most people, no matter how much we wished it wasn’t.

Steal my stuff please!

Author: I’m trying to find the person who manages this site to get my book removed from it. If it’s nothing to do with you then my sincere apologies. Are you saying it is nothing to do with you?

Pirate: Actually it is my blog. I’m just messing with you. Send me all books you want me to remove.

Author: [REDACTED LINK TO BOOK] This is my book. I’d like it removed immediately.

Pirate: Sure

It’s interesting to see how quickly the pirate agrees to take the author’s book down. But consider, too, how easy it was for him to to put it up in the first place. One of the biggest challenges that the copyright owners of print books are facing right now is that their product has a killer, irrevocable flaw: it’s entirely too easy to steal it.

My book Cambridge English for Marketing has never been made available in PDF or ebook format; it exists only as a print version. Yet PDFs of it are easy to download. It’s like Ford manufacturing a car that has no windows, no locks and a key that you can’t take out of the ignition: it would be stolen in seconds, not only because of the thief’s moral decrepitude – although let’s not discount that factor – but because it’s as if someone designed it be stolen. It’s simply too easy.

Image by Flickr user Paul Gallo. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Image by Flickr user Paul Gallo. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The phrase copyright protected returns 2,900,000 search results on Google, yet it’s almost entirely meaningless. At best, it’s a misnomer; at worse, it’s tricked millions of skilled, creative professionals into thinking that something is actually stopping people from stealing their work. Copyright in itself – the concept and the lacklustre legal framework behind it – does almost nothing to protect your work. It’s like a suit of armour made of silk. If you’re a copyright holder, the quicker you accept that fact, the quicker you can start really doing something about it.

The real problem

Author: It’s not just me you’re ‘messing with’ ! It’s the authors of all the illegal books on your blog. That book took me three years to write – time which could have been spent earning other money had I not given up time to do it. It sells pretty well but last year I earnt only around £100 in royalties for it. How much money do you make a year out of ‘free’ books?

Pirate: ok. This is really very little money for you book. Would you like to work with me ? I can pay that amount of money monthly even weekly.

This is my favourite part of the whole exchange. How have we got to the point where a pirate feels sorry enough for an author that he offers him paid work to compensate for the lacklustre royalties he earns on legal sales of his book? It’s easy to dismiss this offer – and I’m sure the author in question did – but there’s a serious point here. Many authors aren’t earning enough from their work, especially given the amount of time, blood, sweat and tears that went into producing it. As an industry, publishers can’t seriously expect to survive long-term on authors performing labours of love. It’s not right and it’s not fair. What we need to find is new ways for authors to be truly, fairly compensated for the work they produce. We need to start working in formats that can’t be copied and stolen in seconds. We need to find new business models. We need to find ways to work outside of the current ecosystem. The furore around the illegal downloading of ELT materials risks obscuring a scarier, more serious reality: that the days of making anything close to a decent living as an ELT materials writer may be coming to an end. And that’s nothing to do with illegal downloading.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at some of the different ways ELT authors might be able to monetise their work in the future. Stay tuned.

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