By Justin Sanders
Another World IP Day – the annual celebration of intellectual property in all its forms – has come and gone. It offers an excellent reminder that intellectual property theft comes in many forms and that we shouldn’t forget about the lesser-known variations of piracy that fly under the radar.
The digital theft of movies, television shows, music, and sports is what tends to make headlines, but no form of creative expression is safe from being stolen. Below we discuss seven forms of piracy that you may not have thought about before, but that can be just as devastating to both creatives and consumers as any illegally uploaded film, episode, or recording.
Writing a good-quality book is one of the most difficult and time-consuming projects an individual can undertake – and then the chance of getting it published commercially is far from likely. Those who defy the odds, and actually get a publisher to buy a book they spent years writing and refining, are paid less than $10,000 on average for a first-time book deal advance, not including taxes and agent fees. The takeaway? Making a living as an author is incredibly difficult, and that’s before we factor in the $315 million that the publishing industry loses to piracy every year.
From novels to college textbooks, no e-book is safe from theft in the digital age, gutting earnings that are rarely substantial to begin with. Books, more than any other medium, are vessels of expansive thought and discourse. Whether one is writing a romance novel, a tome about financial literacy, or a history of an ancient civilization, books give the space to roam, to expand, and to support their ideas with the kind of substance not possible in other forms of creative expression. Now, more than ever, we need as many diverse and compelling writers to find success as possible, but their livelihoods are under attack.
Just over a year ago, CreativeFuture stumbled across the comics line art duo of Ted Brandt and Ro Stein, who had a shocking statistic to share about piracy. After being directed to a known comic books piracy site, Brandt had discovered that the duo’s hit indie title, Crowded, had been stolen more than 95,000 times. “What the everloving f**k,” he tweeted. “We’ve already had to shorten the book due to a lack of money.” The ensuing firestorm from the tweet found its way to the blog Geeks WorldWide, which calculated that Crowded’s creative team – which also includes the book’s writer, colorist, and letterer – had lost an “estimated $379,000 in sales over the life of the series” to piracy.
“Piracy is a problem for every publisher and creator out there. From Marvel to the smallest of Indy creators the entire comic book industry is losing money,” GWW continued. “Creators are being cut loose from books, companies are forced to reboot and relaunch in an effort to stimulate what at first glance is a weak market. But delving into the torrent and piracy numbers reveal that comics are not dwindling in popularity, but instead being overrun by an audience that is too cheap, too lazy, and too entitled to pay for the books they ‘love.’”
Not our words – that’s how a superfan website summed things up.
In 2013, Plagiarism Today posited that when it comes to fighting piracy in the digital age, photographers “may have the biggest challenge of all.” Eight years later, this statement feels truer than ever. Social media, Google Images, and other unregulated tools of instantaneous discovery and sharing have helped turn photography into arguably the easiest kind of creative asset to pirate. “It is absolutely impossible to keep tabs on where all my work is,” photographer Mark Leibowitz told CreativeFuture. “My work is stolen at such a high rate that there is no possible way I can come close… It’s become a huge problem for us because we would have to spend all of our time tracking down our work. And when we do track it down, a lot of people refuse to pay for it, and it doesn’t make sense to go to small claims court.”
The good news is, with the passage of the CASE Act, it will start making at least a little more sense for smaller-scale photographers to file infringement claims – through the law’s authorized Copyright Claims Board. Until the CCB is operational, however, photographers have little recourse for fighting the crippling piracy of their works other than cumbersome, and largely ineffectual, takedown notices.
Video games, an industry worth about $160 billion, are often underestimated as a massive economic driver with an outsized cultural impact – which means that video game piracy is underestimated, too. Perhaps that’s why it is difficult to find any recent data calculating the actual cost of stolen video games to creatives and the economy at large (unlike, say, the theft of movies and television, which objectively costs the U.S. economy at least $29.2 billion per year and 230,000 jobs).
We do know that, as of 2014, total revenue lost due to pirated games was an estimated $74 billion, and that there is little reason to think, with faster internet speeds and more gamers than ever, that this jaw-dropping number has come down since then. And we know that, as of 2019, a single popular Nintendo title on a single popular game piracy site had been downloaded more than 750,000 times. And, in January, Nintendo secured a pair of piracy site-blocking injunctions in Barcelona on behalf of “the more than 2,000 video game developers who depend on legitimate Nintendo Switch video game sales for their livelihood.”
All of which is to say that, given that Nintendo represents just a fraction of the vast video game ecosystem in terms of revenue and employment, maybe it’s time we stop underestimating video game piracy.
Did you get the memo that podcasts are big business now? As of February 2021, there were 1,750,000 podcasts with over 43 million episodes available. Media companies are spending vast sums to expand their podcast libraries and annual revenues are expected to surpass $1 billion in 2021. Podcasts constitute an industry in their own right, offering jobs and livelihoods to thousands – which of course means podcasts are now being pirated in droves. The industry is still too nascent to have any hard data, but anecdotal evidence of the crime is pervasive and scary.
For instance, the massively popular New York Times-owned podcast company Serial Productions has no sanctioned YouTube presence to speak of, yet here is one seemingly unauthorized podcast-centric YouTube account (among many) where a single episode of one Serial podcast has been listened to more than 500,000 times. From advertising to subscriptions, podcast revenue models vary wildly, and, at this point, it is difficult to gauge the harm of lost listeners to illegitimate streams and downloads. But one thing is for sure – losing hundreds of thousands of listeners to an account that has uploaded your works without permission cannot be good for business.
A fervid interest in art-collecting as a financial investment has whipped up the buying and selling of fine art into a $60 billion-per-year global industry, and some sources estimate that as much as half of that total is spent on forgeries. Yes, we live in a boom time for nefarious art world operators – and developments in technology are only giving these bad actors more sophisticated ways of pursuing their nefarious ends. Online auctions, peer-to-peer digital sales platforms, and other unregulated sales arenas provide an endless maze of hidden corners and secret backchannels where thieves can hawk their wares to whoever is careless enough to bid.
Many acts of forgery involve deceased artists, but forgery also victimizes contemporary artists such as the graffiti wunderkind Banksy and famed British painter Damien Hirst. The illicit wares themselves, whether they are duplicates of existing works or new and “original” fakeries created from scratch, are of increasingly high quality thanks to astonishing innovations in digital compositing and 3D printing. The good news is, as methods of forgery have evolved in modern times, so have some fascinating ways that visual artists can go about protecting the authenticity of their masterpieces, and, in so doing, help foster integrity and trust – up and down the art world supply chain.
This is one of those problems that is so oceanic, it requires not just its own blog post but probably an entire book. The best we can do is offer a small sampling of the staggering heft of counterfeit goods sold illegally online:
–Apple stores (yes, the entire stores)
We know the buyer is supposed to beware and everything, but this just doesn’t seem fair. Then again, whoever said piracy is fair? Only people with no idea (a) how much time, money, and effort goes into every film, music recording, podcast, video game, book, or yes, wedding dress that gets copied and distributed without permission – and (b) just how much harm pirated goods do to not only the people who make them but to the people who consume them.
No Free Lunches
There is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no such thing as a free pirated good. A pirated movie can expose your computer to malware, credit card theft, and identity fraud. A pirated livestream can threaten somebody’s business. A pirated carton of milk can threaten our health.
When we make bad choices – including what and how we consume things – they have consequences. Sometimes those consequences affect us directly. Sometimes we never see who they affect. But always, somewhere along the line, someone is being harmed. And that goes for piracy, as well.
That is why it is important to remember that piracy does not just affect the creative industries you read about in the news or see on television. As evidenced above, pretty much no industry is immune from piracy’s deleterious effects.
When we learn about and think about other, lesser-known forms of piracy, we remember that piracy affects all of us.