Arr?

Science fiction author David Gerrold asked an interesting question on Facebook.

“Is it stealing if I download my own book from The Pirate Bay?”

I had to think about that one. And the best answer I can come up with is “It depends.”

Consider:

Let’s assume Mr. Gerrold owns the copyright on the book in question. Because he’s been around long enough not to have signed a contract that transfers the copyright to the publisher.

So, at first blush, it would seem as though he ought to be able to give himself permission to download a copy.

But, while he owns the copyright on the novel, he doesn’t own the book. His contract with the publisher (presumably) licenses them to produce and distribute a book. That is, either a bundle of pieces of paper with ink on them or a similar bundle of electrons in which the ink or the electrons reproduce the novel.

By that logic, the publisher owns the book, and Mr. Gerrold cannot simply download it.

But wait!

If this book is part of Mr. Gerrold’s extensive backlist, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s been offered for free to encourage the purchase of his other books. This is especially likely if it’s the first book of a series.

If it’s currently free, is it still theft to get it for free from an unauthorized distributor? What if it’s not free now, but it was when someone uploaded it to The Pirate Bay?

While you’re pondering those points, consider the question of royalties. Mr. Gerrold’s contract entitles him to a certain amount of money every time the publisher sells a book. However, (a) many contracts specify the royalty for ebooks as a percentage of the publisher’s net receipt on the sale–but if it’s being sold for nothing, that percentage is going to be zero. And (b) most contracts specify that no royalty will be paid on promotional copies.

On the whole, it seemed to me that the answer to the original question would be yes. But then one final point occurred to me:

Mr. Gerrold’s contract almost certainly entitles him to a certain number of free copies of his book*. These are typically the ones that wind up on the author’s shelves and in the hands of people who helped the author in some way. (For example, if Dad and I thanked you in the Acknowledgements in TRTT, that signed copy you should have received by now is one of our author copies.)

* In case you were wondering, authors also usually have the option of purchasing more copies from the publisher at a significant discount off the cover price. Such sales do not pay royalties, which makes for an interesting question. Given the online booksellers’ deep discounting habits, when you subtract the royalty from the actual price of a copy purchased through Amazon, it may actually be cheaper for the author to get his books that way than to use his discount with the publisher!

It’s usual for the author to take physical copies–nobody’s come up with a really good way to sign an ebook yet–but as far as I can tell, there’s no reason why one or more of them couldn’t be electronic.

So, if Mr. Gerrold hasn’t yet collected his author’s copies, it should be perfectly legitimate for him to download a copy from The Pirate Bay–as long as he remembers to tell the publisher to send him one less physical copy.

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