Anonymity and Piracy

Fabio Trifoni - Where the Hell is Jack Sparrow?

Fabio Trifoni, "Where the Hell is Jack Sparrow?" available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license at

There’s a great little piece over at The Chronicle of Higher Education about the piracy of academic books. The author walks us through his discovery that his scholarly book was illegally online for free, his alerting the publisher, his surprise that the publisher didn’t care too much, its suggestion that it might actually help sales, his decision to ask them to take the book down, and his subsequent uncertainty about if he made the right choice. In the pseudonymous author Clement Vincent’s words,

Even though I can claim victory in my first salvo with e-pirates, I now wonder whether engagement was a mistake. I recently checked the open seas of the Internet by typing the title of my book into browser with the words “free download,” only to discover hundreds of sites purporting to offer my book at no charge. I picked one of them randomly, and a just few clicks later, an electronic copy of my book appeared on my computer screen.

It was too easy. In my conflict with e-pirates, I’ve decided to withdraw from battle, at least for a while.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Cory Doctorow has claimed for years that he’s made huge amounts of money by licensing his novels with Creative Commons licenses that allow people to freely distribute them online. I’m also reminded of Richard Murphy’s narrative from a 1990 issue of College English about his efforts to get a student to confess to plagiarism, which she did, only to find out that she had in fact written the essay. And what’s that essay (from The New Yorker?) about a poet or novelist or someone who goes on an intense, crush-the-enemy campaign against someone who kept stealing his stuff?

So stories like Vincent’s aren’t necessarily unique, though they’re always welcome. But I was left with a lingering question after finishing the piece: why the anonymity? Why is Vincent so careful to not name himself, his university, his book, or his publisher–in other words, to make himself un-Google-able?

Maybe the answer is obvious: because he doesn’t want us to find his book online for free and pirate it. (Yahrr.) After all, it’s apparently still out there on other sites, even though he got it taken down from one.

But wait, I thought his narrative landed on the (albeit uneasy) decision to let his work float freely online in hopes that it will bring more readers and even more buyers. That feels like the aim of the article–to gently say to those who tightly hold onto their copyrights with iron fists, “Hey, have you considered that maybe loosening up would be better for you?”

Consider the power of an article like this in the Chronicle that wasn’t anonymous, that effectively invited the thousands of academics across the country, at their own risk, to Google this guy’s book and skim it on their own. Wouldn’t that almost certainly lead to more citations of his work, which would almost certainly lead to more people buying the book than currently do? Or am I assuming too much?


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One response to “Anonymity and Piracy

  1. This reminds me of one of our professors who told me that he didn’t allow his dissertation to be open access because “then anyone could see it.” (Like people are standing in line to read his dissertation). The context of this statement was him asking for our library to provide access to dissertations. My thought (though not my statement to him) is that its people like him who make it prohibitively expensive for small libraries like ours to provide the access they would like; at the same time, proquest is wining and dining its customers here at ALA with some of its excess profit.

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