In celebration of Talk Like a Pirate Day, let's talk about pirates.

Consider this scene:

Customer walks into a store, picks up a pack of cigarettes and walks out without paying. Do you consider that theft? Anybody with common sense would say yes. That customer would be charged with petty theft or shoplifting for that act. Now, consider another scene. Reader opens a torrent downloader, downloads a book (or many) and reads them without shelling a dime. Is there a difference between the two? Yes. The difference is that by downloading a pirated copy of a book, that reader believes he won’t get caught and therefore is not afraid of the consequences of his actions. There is no difference in the specifics of the crime committed. Theft goes by many names, but the meaning is the same: when someone takes something of value from another without permission. In this case, the copyright holder is that another, and the book is the item taken without permission.

Yesterday, I came across a wave of posts on Facebook about several organized groups dedicated to sharing ebooks (read organized piracy).

There seems to be a generalized misunderstanding about what is legally shareable and not among those group members. Being the positive person I am, always looking to give the benefit of the doubt, I prefer to believe they do not understand the difference rather than believe they are comfortable with blatantly stealing from authors they love. I decided clarification was dearly needed so we can lay this misunderstanding to rest. Let's begin with definitions.

Here's the definition of Public Domain license:

"Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. Examples include the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, most of the early silent films, the formulae of Newtonian physics, and powered flight. The term is not normally applied to situations where the creator of a work retains residual rights, in which case use of the work is referred to as "under license" or "with permission"."

That definition applies mostly to old classics of literature like Shakespeare’s works. Any book under public domain is shareable. You can save, share, email a friend, you name it. Readers can find those titles for free anywhere on the web.

Here's the definition of Creative Commons license:

"A Creative Commons (CC) license is one of several public copyright licenses that enable the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. A CC license is used when an author wants to give people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that they have created. CC provides an author flexibility (for example, they might choose to allow only non-commercial uses of their own work) and protects the people who use or redistribute an author's work from concerns of copyright infringement as long as they abide by the conditions that are specified in the license by which the author distributes the work."

The low down on Creative Commons license is:

ANY work is copyrighted from creation, but the works' author (be it art, literature, software, etc.) can give others the right to use and share the work. A Creative Commons license is GRANTED by the author. If the author has not granted the CC attribution to the work, it retains the standard Copyright license, under which sharing of the content is not allowed.

Now we get to the Copyrighted material, particularly books created and published after January 1, 1978. Although the law has many dispositions for works published before January 1, 1978 making it quite hard to grasp what attribution applies to each title, the disposition for works created after that date is VERY clear.

"The law automatically protects a work that is created and fixed in a tangible medium of expression on or after January 1, 1978, from the moment of its creation and gives it a term lasting for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years. For a “joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,” the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter (unless the author’s identity is later revealed in Copyright Office records, in which case the term becomes the author’s life plus 70 years)."

Let’s add in Amazon's Kindle Store Terms of Use:

1. Kindle Content

Use of Kindle Content. Upon your download of Kindle Content and payment of any applicable fees (including applicable taxes), the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Kindle Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Supported Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. The Content Provider may include additional terms for use within its Kindle Content. Those terms will also apply, but this Agreement will govern in the event of a conflict. Some Kindle Content, such as Periodicals, may not be available to you through Reading Applications.

Limitations. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove or modify any proprietary notices or labels on the Kindle Content. In addition, you may not bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features that protect the Kindle Content.

In short, ANY written work is copyrighted from the moment of creation. You can't get any clearer than that. eBooks have DRM (Digital Rights Management) not only to stop readers from transferring the content to another device, but also to stop readers, who did not purchase the title and therefore have no consumption rights, from reading the book. Independent of whether a file is DRM protected or not, each ebook sold through ANY retailer is a copyrighted piece of work and at the time of purchase, the download agreement with any of those retailers specifies it's for a single user's consumption. When you buy an ebook, you buy the LICENSE TO READ that book in the format you purchased. It doesn't mean you have purchased rights to distribute. The rights to distribute belong to the (be it traditional or independent) publisher of said book while the copyright and intellectual property rights remain the author's.

Any reader sharing files they purchased from retailers are pirates, plain and simple. The sole exception in regard to sharing purchased content is the lending program by Amazon that allows readers to lend a purchased title to another reader for 15 days. During that time, the book is removed from the original owner's library because, as I mentioned above, ebooks are for single user consumption only. After the 15 days, the book is removed from the friend's library and returns to its owner exactly like a print book you'd lend a friend and expect to have back for your own enjoyment.

In 1996, the United States implemented two new treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Those treaties are known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It criminalizes the act of circumventing DRM with the purpose of distribution of copyrighted works. Each of those people going to the extreme of collecting hundreds of thousands books with the sole purpose of breaking DRM and/or distributing the books via Peer-to-Peer sites, cloud storage or any other method that allows more than the original owner's access to that file is, as per the DMCA, a criminal.

I have to say that what puzzles me the most about the eBook sharing trend is the extent people will go to justify their actions even when they know they are doing something wrong. The internet created a whole subset of morals and ethics. The favorite justification is "Books are expensive. I have no money for books, but I need to read so I take it." Replace Books with any other product and you’ll see that argument burst into flames. Nobody should expect professional work for free. You wouldn’t expect your dentist to fix your teeth for free. You wouldn’t expect a baker to give you free bread. You shouldn’t expect authors to give you their creative work (one that you seem to enjoy) for free, nor take it illegally because you can’t buy it.

Now, I’m not saying people should stop reading if they can’t afford to buy a book. In this day and age, there are many more ways one can read without having to resort to downloading illegal content. Libraries have always been a fantastic resource for readers and writers alike. If you don’t find a title you want to read in your local library, you can always request the title to be purchased for the enjoyment of all. Librarians are usually happy to accept requests and add great titles to their collections, and writers get the opportunity to have their work read by more readers who might stumble upon the book by chance on library shelves. For those who have made the transition to digital content, many libraries now offer digital content through OverDrive. You might still have to wait for a popular title to become available—the same way you’d have done in the past when waiting for a print book—but in this case authors receive royalties for their work as all titles available through OverDrive are legally purchased. Another legal way to access digital books is to borrow digital content from a friend via the lending program on Amazon. Last but not least, if you are good with words and at expressing your take on a book in a clear and concise way, you may want to give reviewing books professionally a try. You’ll find that authors are more than happy to send you ARCs (Advance Reading/Reviewer Copy) of their books for your honest opinion. It’s a win-win. You get to read great and unpublished titles for free and authors receive honest opinions/reviews on their books that can help spread the word about their work and gain a larger readership. If you do decide to take that route, just remember that the rules of Copyright apply to ARCs as well, and that, if you distribute ARCs, you will not only be guilty of Copyright infringement, but also break the trust of the author from whom you accepted the ARC. Doing that is a sure way to cross your own name from other authors’ list.

Writing requires not just creative drive but craft. Craft evolves, is perfected and improved upon with each book, and requires time and dedication to flourish. Time and dedication many put into the process while working full-time jobs in hopes that one day they’ll be able to focus all of their time into doing what they love most. Writing is not an easy way to make a living particularly when so many seek to steal the fruits of your hard work, but writing is what we strive to do against all odds. The best way to reward authors for all the work put into their writing is to have their work read by many others. You can ensure your favorite author will continue to write stories you love by spreading the word about that book you couldn’t put down, by being enthusiastic and telling friends about it, and by sharing them with others…in any of many legal ways.