The Bone Season author Samantha Shannon has expressed her frustration with the attitude of those who pirate her work, with some fans openly committing piracy and saying authors "should be grateful [they] even have readers".
Writer Maggie Stiefvater has also raised the issue, while John Green's brother, Hank Green, ran a poll on Twitter last week that saw 26% of almost 36,000 respondents admit to pirating books.
The Society of Authors has called any apparent "normalisation" of piracy "worrying" and is calling for greater efforts and government commitment to educating society about copyright.
Shannon kicked off discussion about the "grey area" around the acceptability of piracy of creative content on Twitter, complaining that authors are "often not allowed to be upset by theft of their work" due to insinuations it means they lack compassion for people who can't afford or can't access books.
Calling this out, Shannon said it was "exhausting", and sought to clarify it is not a case of "trying to shame, exclude or deny" anyone when raising this issue, but it was about talking to: "the people who think all authors are so rich that their voyage on the pirate ship couldn't possibly have any impact on our careers", "the people who don't realise that pirating a book is very different from using a library, and perhaps don't understand why that is" and "the people who believe that all art should be free – failing to see, no doubt, that this would make creation the realm of the privileged".
"The people who pirate for ‘convenience’, crow about it, and expect some sort of congratulations card from the author. We're talking to THOSE PEOPLE. We're trying to inform THOSE PEOPLE of the impact of their choices and help them find legal alternatives," she continued.
"So when you ask us to have more compassion or imply that we hate the poor, it's not helpful. You're distracting from the actual issue. ..You're implying that we're tyrants for trying to protect our careers and the value of our craft. So instead of telling an author they should stop being so mean when they tweet about this, maybe talk to your friend who pirates instead. That friend who shells out for coffee and booze but doesn't think books are worth the money. Have conversations about this. Help us out."
Shannon told The Bookseller her comments were "generally talking about people who could afford to buy books, who can access libraries, but choose, for whatever reason, to pirate books instead" and were partly a response to tweets from Virginia-based author Maggie Stiefvater a few days prior.
After highlighting a tweet from a fan apologising they had read only pirated versions of her book, Stiefvater told it to fans straight: "I've said it before, I'll say it again. I have more vocal fans for the Raven Cycle than anything else I've written. It doesn't matter. On paper, the Shiver trilogy is far and away more successful, because those folks buy the books. My publisher only sees what is on paper. So if you want box sets, extras, fancy editions, spin off series, tours: your love isn't enough. You have to actually buy the book. Yes, books are spendy. BORROW IT FROM A LIBRARY. Libraries buy more copies if they're in demand. Ta-da! Paper trail, happy publishers."
She went on to say the argument stood firm regardless of her own finances. "Guys, this entire thread is a separate issue from whether or not I am able to pay my rent/ buy a Ferrari with my career. It's merely this: no matter your reasoning for piracy, publishers don't print box sets or extras without the numbers on paper. Not about me," she said.
A study from the Intellectual Property Office published in March showed 17% of e-books consumed online are done so illegally, equating to around 4 million e-books. Meanwhile, last year, a European Commission study found writers in Europe only earn £12,500 a year on average while ALCS's research estimated author earnings at £11,000 in 2013.
Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, welcomed Shannon and Stievfvater raising their voices. "We have a robust legal framework governing intellectual property in the UK, so it is worrying to see any normalisation in the attitude that it is fine to enjoy creative works for free simply because we can," said Solomon. "It is great to see authors like Samantha Shannon and Maggie Stievfvater speaking out – particularly in Maggie’s case demonstrating the direct impact of the availability of pirated copies on immediate sales and long-term livelihood."
Solomon has called for a greater commitment from government, and the creative industries at large, to help tackle the problem through education.
The government in 2015 backed a multi-million pound education and TV advertising campaign, "Get it Right from a Genuine Site", which was supported the Booksellers Association (BA) running into 2016. But, while SoA's chief executive deemed its message "excellent", she said it deserved to have a wider reach with education around piracy needing to start in schools.
"The Publishers Association does a great job in issuing takedown notices through its copyright infringement portal, but too many people assume that they can use anything they find on the internet for free and without restraint. We need to see greater efforts and Government commitment to educating society about copyright. Knowledge of intellectual ownership, its value and how to exploit and protect it is vital for everyone. We believe the Government and creative industries together could do more to raise awareness of it and the damage that piracy does to real individuals."
"Initiatives like “Get it Right from a genuine site” (www.getitrightfromagenuinesite.org) are excellent at raising awareness of the value of creative work from the creator’s perspective, their current campaign inviting creators to explain how long it took to create their work. It’s a message that deserves to have a wider reach.
"The National Curriculum should, at all Key Stages, in both the English and citizenship modules, instil in pupils an understanding of the artistic and commercial value of intellectual property rights. School pupils need to be educated on the dangers of piracy in an era when copying is so easy. This is essential and the lack of copyright education seems at odds with the stated ambition of the Government that an effective intellectual property regime ‘requires education’."
Philip Pullman, president of the Society of Authors, has previously commented on the issue it is “outrageous that anyone can steal an artist’s work and get away with it". "It is theft, as surely as reaching into someone’s pocket and taking their wallet is theft,” he said. "Writers and musicians work in poverty and obscurity for years in order to bring their work to a pitch of skill and imaginative depth that gives delight to their audiences, and as soon as they achieve that, the possibility of making a living from it is taken away from them. There are some who are lucky enough to do well despite the theft and the piracy that goes on all around them; there are many more who are not. The principle is simple, and unaltered by technology, science, or magic: if we want to enjoy the work that someone does, we should pay for it.”