Piracy in Perspective

By Rebekah Hunt

Digital piracy is the topic du jour for almost every media outlet. Want to stop people from changing the channel when your news broadcast comes on? Promo a story about digital piracy. Want to beef up hits to your news/gossip/blog site? Toss up an infographic with some digital piracy stats. Digital piracy is the MSG/asbestos/radon gas of the 2000’s. And sure, it’s an important issue, but not for the reasons you might think. Of course, piracy is a manifold problem with many ins and outs that I won’t have space to discuss in one blog post, so I’ll focus on one facet at a time.
The two lists below represent the most pirated ebooks of all time (according to Galleycat) and the most pirated films of all time (according to TorrentFreak).
Most Pirated Ebooks
1. “1000 Photoshop Tips and Tricks” [no ranking found]
2. “Advanced Sex: Explicit Positions for Explosive Lovemaking” [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,354,367 in Books]
3. “What Did We Use Before Toilet Paper?: 200 Curious Questions” [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #424,881 in Books]
4. “Photoshop CS5 All-in-One for Dummies” [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #67,454 in Books]
5. “What Rich People Know & Desperately Want to Keep a Secret”[Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,033,662 in Books]
6. “101 Short Cuts in Maths Any One Can Do” [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #12,426,545 in Books]
7. “Touch Me There!: A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots” [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,550,645 in Books]
8. “How to Blow Her Mind in Bed”
 [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,182,856 in Books]
9. “1001 Math Problems”
 [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #181,136 in Books]
10. “How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less” [Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,858 in Books]
Most Pirated Films
1. Avatar: 21 million [$2,782,275,172]
2. The Dark Knight: 19 million [$1,001,921,825]
3. Transformers: 19 million [$709,709,780]
4. Inception: 18 million [$825,408,570]
5. The Hangover: 17 million [$467,483,912]
6. Star Trek: 16 million [$385,680,446]
7. Kick-Ass: 15 million [$96,188,903]
8. The Departed: 14 million [289,847,354]
9. The Incredible Hulk: 14 million [$263,427,551]
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: 14 million [$963,420,425]
The very first thing that jumps out at you is the gigantic disparity between the commercial success of the films and books in question. The most pirated films are among the top grossing, while the most pirated books had such negligible impact on the market that I couldn’t even find sales data, and had to go by their Amazon best seller ranking. And those rankings aren’t good. The best selling one is number 11,858 on Amazon’s sellers list, and the worst off is number 12,426,545. The lowest-grossing film on the most pirated list, however, made $96,188,903 (Kick-Ass) and the most pirated film was also the highest grossing film of all time, at $2,782,275,172 (Avatar, second highest when adjusted for inflation).
So what exactly does this say about ebook piracy versus piracy of other media? The most pirated books are a slush-pile of word waste, riddled with self-help sex books and Photoshop how-to’s, while the most pirated films are among the top grossing. A variety of possible causes have been discussed, including DRM on authorized ebooks discouraging piracy, but none of them seem quite satisfactory by way of explaining this odd phenomenon, particularly in the case of the Harry Potter series, since the ebook version is not protected by DRM.
The most likely case is covered in Chris Anderson’s excellent book “Free,” which discusses the evolving economy of giving things away for free and how businesses are making money doing it. The section on piracy essentially says that most of the people who are going to pirate a piece of media are those who were never going to pay for it anyway, regardless of the price, and the others do it because they don’t feel the product is worth what it is sold for. Since this is such a complex issue, I will have to break it down as a series of blogs. Next time, I’ll start with the top reasons for piracy and dig into the impact it has on book publishers versus the impact on other media outlets (film studios, record companies, etc.) and what this means for the publishing industry. For now, I hope this got you thinking.