Claim: Piracy is just like a library

Response: We all have positive feelings towards libraries and think of them as a social good. However, I see several problems with this comparison.

First, libraries pay for the books they loan.

“[Libraries] account for about 10 percent of publisher sales and 40 percent of children’s [books]. Public libraries account for about $1.8 billion of sales a year.” (Source)

One difference between libraries and piracy is that, in order to have a particular book available for people all over the US, the library needs to buy thousands or tens of thousands of copies of a book. Otherwise, the book won’t be in the local area and available when a library-patron wants to borrow it. To put it another way: if a million people want to borrow the book from the library, then the library is going to have to buy at least a few tens of thousands of copies. With piracy, only one copy needs to make it out on the internet for a million people to use it. Thus, the number of purchased copies is entirely disconnected from the number of people who can get a copy via piracy.

This is also why libraries have limited “copies” of ebooks. Since ebooks are digital, they could allow an infinite number of library-patrons to borrow it at the same time. The problem for publishers is that, if they allowed that, then one library could buy one copy of an ebook (instead of tens of thousands) and loan it to a million people at the same time. This situation would suddenly have the libraries paying almost no money to publishers.

Libraries may also increase sales because people buy books that they first borrow from the library:

“Our data show that over 50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library,” Miller noted. “This debunks the myth that when a library buys a book the publisher loses future sales. Instead, it confirms that the public library does not only incubate and support literacy, as is well understood in our culture, but it is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market.” (Source)

Because the library only allows library-users a limited time to borrow the work, it creates an incentive to buy the book if you want to have a personal copy. With piracy, there is never a need to buy a copy of the work because you’ve already got a permanent copy.

This is why book publishers allow e-books at libraries, but they always have DRM on the books so that they expire after a few weeks. They aren’t willing to give library-users permanent copies of digital books, because they believe it will undermine book sales. (Why would anyone buy an ebook if they can always download a free, permanent copy from the internet?)

The major issue here is that publishers need to maintain a system where there are incentives for the public to buy a book instead of allowing libraries to have all of the features of a purchased book minus all that “paying” stuff.

Libraries Piracy
* Need to purchase books in proportion to the number of people wanting to borrow them. * One uploaded copy of a book is sufficient for everyone in the world to have a copy.
* Library patron gets a limited-time copy. If he wants a permanent copy, he has to buy a copy. * Pirate has a permanent copy. No need to buy.

While people might think that a “limited time copy” is just a result of the physicality of a book, it’s actually part of the incentive to get people to purchase their own copy of the book if they want it enough to get a permanent copy.

I know there are a number of people who would be outraged by the idea that digital books have these artificial (time limited) restrictions placed on them, when they could be infinitely shared and everyone could have a permanent copy. I agree with publishers maintaining these restrictions because the alternative is worse: if you remove all the artificial restrictions then you cause the industry to nosedive, and then you end up worse-off in the long-run. I’m also open to the possibility of alternative funding models or licensing models that would allow for infinite copies (say, if a publisher allows for unrestricted copies of the book for a large price). The problem is that I don’t think these models work (at least not very well). I’m also open to the possibility of shorter copyright (and all books past their copyright are freely available without restriction). The restricted-copy system has a certain element of fairness to it, in that, the entire US library system pays money for books in proportion to how often they’re getting loaned — just as book-publishers earn more money from books in proportion to the amount that they’re bought.

From this standpoint, libraries are a social good because they allow the public free access to lots of books, and they support the production of new works by paying money to the publishers (money that comes from our tax dollars, by the way). Piracy fails on the second issue – supporting the creation of new works by paying the creators.

Related Anti-Piracy Articles:

John Green’s tumblr: “Why Libraries Are Different From Piracy”

Return to “The Case Against Piracy

One thought on “Claim: Piracy is just like a library

  1. Hey Brit,
    I cant imagine having to compare digital piracy of eBooks with the library on the other hand.
    The two are definitely not the same. A library will actually buy the book and if more people request it, it will buy more copies. Also the library will after some time due to damage and ware buy again the book. Something that digital piracy of eBooks doesnt provide, instead everyone downloads illegally a copy without having to pay a cent or even care about the damage they do to the authors.

    Whats even worst is that in many cases the piracy websites are higher in the rankings on Google search than the actual authors websites or Amazon store. This makes it even easier for people to get a hold of the illegal content!

    In my opinion, piracy is stealing! Getting a book from the library is not, its just a low cost way for someone who cant afford a book to get it.


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