Piracy – A Two Edged Sword?
Go the F**k to Sleep, Adam Mansbach’s parody of an early childhood bedtime book, was number one on Amazon.com’s bestseller list one month before its expected release. A movie deal has already been completed. According to many, the book’s success was driven by an unlikely form of advertising – online piracy. The author’s recognition that piracy was helping sales supported the argument that pirated copies of copyrighted materials need not be viewed as a threat by publishers, but can actually help sales. However, Go the F**k to Sleep is a unique case and publishers are unlikely to let up in their fight against piracy.
The concept behind Go the F**k to Sleep came to Mr. Mansbach one night after having spent the two previous hours putting his daughter to sleep. Exhausted and frustrated, the Berkeley-based author posted a message about his frustrations on Facebook. The positive feedback he received gave him the idea of writing an adult book in the form of a children’s bedtime story.
Word of mouth quickly spread about the book, and soon PDF versions began to circulate online. Legitimate versions of the book were months away from becoming available online or in stores, but copies were already widely distributed by e-mail. The book quickly began to garner an extraordinary amount of publicity, stemming as much from its viral PDF as its novelty, with publications such as the New York Times and The New Yorker writing articles about the illegal sharing of the book amongst friends.
Initially Mr. Mansbach attempted to stop the piracy. But, he quickly came to the conclusion that there was little that could be done. Furthermore, the author realized that the illegal copies were creating great word-of-mouth publicity about his book and, ironically, were boosting its sales. Mr. Mansbach is certainly not alone in his stance on piracy. Some authors have gone so far as to make their books available for free online. For example, science fiction writer Neil Gaiman took this approach and found that sales of his book had increased by 300% in one month.
Encouraged by the experiences of authors such as Mr. Mansbach and Mr. Gaiman, some blogs have begun to chastise the music and publishing industries for the war on piracy, arguing the industries have failed to appreciate the free advertising their books or music receive from illegal copies. Furthermore, some industry experts, such as Google economist Hal Varian, contend that while some may feel that digital content will dilute the value of their intellectual property, history seems to disprove such notions. Books have survived the age of public libraries, and people continue to buy movies despite the fact they can rent them for free in the library or for a few dollars at a video rental outlet.
Piracy can certainly be a double-edged sword, sometimes causing losses in sales, and other times boosting sales. However, the latter scenario is far less likely. One detail often overlooked in the Go the F**k to Sleep story is that it is intended as a gift book. No one I know would show up to a baby-shower with a gift-wrapped PDF copy of the book. On the other hand, if the book were intended for personal use, I would imagine far more potential consumers would find a PDF copy perfectly adequate. Also, while critics may point to the continued consumption of books and movies despite the existence of libraries and movie rental stores, they fail to appreciate that these outlets do not enable users to gain access to the copyrighted materials before they are legitimately made available to the public. They only allow for temporary possession of the materials, and are not as easily accessible as digital content that has been e-mailed by an acquaintance or downloaded from a website. Therefore, until the recording and publishing industries are able to determine exactly how and what types of books or music are likely to benefit from piracy, we are unlikely to witness any change in the industries’ stance on distribution and usage of illegal copies of copyrighted works.