Why everyone is stealing your stuff

Interview with a pirate

On the 9th June 2014, the following exchange was posted by a well-known ELT author in the ELT Writers Connected Facebook group. I’ve reproduced it here with his full permission, although he has asked to remain anonymous. It is a conversation with the manager of a blog that had been making copies of the author’s book available for illegal download.

Author: Am I right in thinking that you manage this site? If so please remove the illegal version of my book [REDACTED] from it.

Pirate: lol

Author: That’s your reaction?

Pirate: Are you high or something like it ?

Author: So are you saying this site is nothing to do with you?

Pirate: Please stop sending illegal book links to our message box.

Author: I’m trying to find the person who manages this site to get my book removed from it. If it’s nothing to do with you then my sincere apologies. Are you saying it is nothing to do with you?

Pirate: Actually it is my blog. I’m just messing with you. Send me all books you want me to remove.

Author: [REDACTED LINK TO BOOK] This is my book. I’d like it removed immediately.

Pirate: Sure

Author: It’s not just me you’re ‘messing with’ ! It’s the authors of all the illegal books on your blog. That book took me three years to write – time which could have been spent earning other money had I not given up time to do it. It sells pretty well but last year I earnt only around £100 in royalties for it. How much money do you make a year out of ‘free’ books?

Pirate: ok. This is really very little money for you book. Would you like to work with me ? I can pay that amount of money monthly even weekly.

Everything you need to know about the piracy of ELT materials is right here in this one exchange.

Image by Flickr user Chris Campbell. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Image by Flickr user Chris Campbell. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Confessions of a newbie teacher

Since the day the first photocopier was delivered to a private language school, ELT materials have been widely and very openly pirated. Fresh off my CELTA course, I worked in a PLS in Barcelona where the photocopier was in the teachers’ library. The school owners may have intended us to only use it for the materials that you’re actually allowed to copy – teachers’ book photocopiables, for example – but nowhere was that ever stated. And many teachers – myself included – saw it as carte blanche to copy anything we wanted.

I had a fairly consistent MO: I’d copy a few pages of a coursebook unit – Inside Out Advanced was a favourite (sorry, Ceri and Tania!) – and pair it with a bit of Murphy (sorry, Ray!) or one of the Vocabulary in Use tiles (sorry, CUP!) to create a nice little package of lesson content and homework. No one ever challenged me – not the school owners, not my fellow teachers, not my students. In fact, I don’t once remember a student ever asking why we were using photocopies.

At the risk of being threatened with prosecution after the fact, I’m going to argue that I’m just outside the statute of limitations for prosecution and that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only teacher doing this. That’s no excuse, of course, but it’s telling that as a 23-year-old, newly qualified teacher, it didn’t even occur to me that what I was doing was problematic.

It’s now almost 13 years later, and what’s changed? The photocopying is still there, of course, happening in the shadows where no copyright owners have to see it – easy to classify as unavoidable, collateral damage on book sales or to simply ignore. But we’re now dealing with something altogether more sinister-seeming and brazen: the plethora of sites that upload and make available copyright-protected ELT materials for free download. I’m not going to do these sites any favours by listing them here. Actually, I probably could, and it wouldn’t make much difference. They’re getting plenty of traffic, I’m sure, and a few inbound links from ELTjam.com isn’t going to cause much of a ripple; I doubt they’d be clamouring to advertise with us.

These sites are actually nothing really new, of course. When I last worked in-house at a major ELT publisher – back in 2009 – one of my authors would email me regularly with links to copies of his books on Scribd. I’d forward his email to the Legal Services department, and they’d contact Scribd demanding them to remove the material. Scribd often obliged almost instantly. A while later, the material would appear again. Repeat ad nauseam.

For authors who find their work available to download for free (and, for the record, I’m one of them – I can download a free copy of Cambridge English for Marketing almost as fast as I can buy a legal one on Amazon) the usual course of action is to let their publisher know (often leading to a formal take-down notice) or to contact the site owner directly themselves, as in the exchange at the start of this post. In both cases, the effect is usually the same: the file will be taken down. It’s a moral victory, at least. But a hollow one. It makes us feel like we’re doing something. It rights the wrong. But it does nothing long-term to stem the flow of illegal downloads. It’s like winning a bout of hand-to-hand combat during a thermonuclear war.

Free or fair?

Pirate: lol

Author: That’s your reaction?

Pirate: Are you high or something like it?

Image by Flickr user Andrew Becraft. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Image by Flickr user Andrew Becraft. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I actually LOLLED myself when I first read that. Something about the blog owner’s attitude amused me a little. There’s something so brazen about it as to seem absurd, like he’s some kind of larger-than-life pirate caricature. And there is, in fact, something absurd here: the pirate finds it absolutely absurd that someone might contact them directly to have their work taken down. Why is that? Has the concept of copyright become so worthless that it’s literally a laughing matter? Is the only possible explanation for someone caring enough about their work to assume that they’re on drugs?

Some people, mostly those that hold it, still take copyright very seriously. One strong, positive reaction against the tidal-wave of illegal download sites that have recently appeared is the creation of a new Facebook page called Free and Fair ELT. In their own words, the page aims to provide free and LEGAL language learning resources from around the net – shared by resource creators themselves. They have a bold mission statement that explains why they came into being and what they want their users to do (their emphasis):

We are writers, publishers and teachers. Just like you, we got into education because we want to help. So please ‘Like’ this page and enjoy the best free language teaching materials we collect here. In return, be fair: please pay when you can. Respect our copyright. It’s how we make a living.

Since its inception on 4th June, the group has gained 1,873 likes. That’s a phenomenal achievement, and the people behind the group – several of whom I consider friends – should be proud.

But it’s worth unpicking why a group like that has got so popular so quickly. The answer may be in the mission statement, which is a great piece of marketing copy – the bold text having been very carefully chosen to trigger certain responses in the reader. The owners of the group want to be primarily identified as teachers, not writers or publishers; that’s surely a way to better connect with the target audience of the group, most of whom are likely to be teachers themselves. There’s an attempt to connect with what we hope is a trait common to all educators: the desire to help and to do something good with our lives and careers. There’s a clear call to action – please ‘Like’ this page – and there’s a direct appeal to the target audience’s sense of morality: In return, be fair: please pay when you can. Respect our copyright. It’s how we make a living. There’s also one other word in bold: free.

If any of you have been following the changes going on in ELT publishing this last year – and the attempts by some publishers to implement elements of Agile Product Development into the publishing process – you may be aware of the concept of A/B testing. It’s a technique used to test two different variables – for example, two distinct marketing messages for a product – to see which resonates most with the audience and produces the most desirable results. I’d kill to find out how the number of likes that Free and Fair ELT have gained in the last few weeks might have been affected if all mention of fairness, of respect, and of copyright had been expunged, to be replaced by one clear message: this is where you can get free ELT resources.

I’d like to hope that what people are reacting to with Free and Fair ELT is the fair part. But the cynic in me thinks it’s the free part. The cynic in me thinks that no one cares about your copyright. That no one cares how long it took you to write your book. That no one cares how much money you’re losing. That’s what the 23-year-old me would have thought. The 23-year-old me wanted free stuff, as quickly and easily as possible. And I wonder whether the same is still true for most people, no matter how much we wished it wasn’t.

Steal my stuff please!

Author: I’m trying to find the person who manages this site to get my book removed from it. If it’s nothing to do with you then my sincere apologies. Are you saying it is nothing to do with you?

Pirate: Actually it is my blog. I’m just messing with you. Send me all books you want me to remove.

Author: [REDACTED LINK TO BOOK] This is my book. I’d like it removed immediately.

Pirate: Sure

It’s interesting to see how quickly the pirate agrees to take the author’s book down. But consider, too, how easy it was for him to to put it up in the first place. One of the biggest challenges that the copyright owners of print books are facing right now is that their product has a killer, irrevocable flaw: it’s entirely too easy to steal it.

My book Cambridge English for Marketing has never been made available in PDF or ebook format; it exists only as a print version. Yet PDFs of it are easy to download. It’s like Ford manufacturing a car that has no windows, no locks and a key that you can’t take out of the ignition: it would be stolen in seconds, not only because of the thief’s moral decrepitude – although let’s not discount that factor – but because it’s as if someone designed it be stolen. It’s simply too easy.

Image by Flickr user Paul Gallo. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Image by Flickr user Paul Gallo. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The phrase copyright protected returns 2,900,000 search results on Google, yet it’s almost entirely meaningless. At best, it’s a misnomer; at worse, it’s tricked millions of skilled, creative professionals into thinking that something is actually stopping people from stealing their work. Copyright in itself – the concept and the lacklustre legal framework behind it – does almost nothing to protect your work. It’s like a suit of armour made of silk. If you’re a copyright holder, the quicker you accept that fact, the quicker you can start really doing something about it.

The real problem

Author: It’s not just me you’re ‘messing with’ ! It’s the authors of all the illegal books on your blog. That book took me three years to write – time which could have been spent earning other money had I not given up time to do it. It sells pretty well but last year I earnt only around £100 in royalties for it. How much money do you make a year out of ‘free’ books?

Pirate: ok. This is really very little money for you book. Would you like to work with me ? I can pay that amount of money monthly even weekly.

This is my favourite part of the whole exchange. How have we got to the point where a pirate feels sorry enough for an author that he offers him paid work to compensate for the lacklustre royalties he earns on legal sales of his book? It’s easy to dismiss this offer – and I’m sure the author in question did – but there’s a serious point here. Many authors aren’t earning enough from their work, especially given the amount of time, blood, sweat and tears that went into producing it. As an industry, publishers can’t seriously expect to survive long-term on authors performing labours of love. It’s not right and it’s not fair. What we need to find is new ways for authors to be truly, fairly compensated for the work they produce. We need to start working in formats that can’t be copied and stolen in seconds. We need to find new business models. We need to find ways to work outside of the current ecosystem. The furore around the illegal downloading of ELT materials risks obscuring a scarier, more serious reality: that the days of making anything close to a decent living as an ELT materials writer may be coming to an end. And that’s nothing to do with illegal downloading.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at some of the different ways ELT authors might be able to monetise their work in the future. Stay tuned.

118 thoughts on “Why everyone is stealing your stuff”

  1. The early EFL teacher experiences at the photocopier with minutes before a lesson and a -we need to get something together quick- takes me back 20 years in my own ELT career when copyright was low priority. Times change.

    The answer is ebooks or e-product, surely? Protected distribution via devices that offer encryption on products. And anyway … the royalty model is dying [can you hear that last painful cry?] so the onus is on the content producer [ok publisher] to protect it. They are the ones who will fully lose out.

    • Thanks for the comment, John. Glad to have brought about some nostalgia 🙂

      I wonder if you can put ebooks and other e-product into the same category. To the best of my knowledge, .mobi and .epub files are widely available on torrent sites. I know that it can be a problem for app developers, too. I recently had a conversation with a very prolific developer of mobile apps for ELT who said that he found pirated versions of his Android apps in the Google Play store. Google took them down right away, but still.

      What I’ve not yet seen pirated in the traditional sense are web apps like Buusu or Newsmart.

      • “What I’ve not yet seen pirated in the traditional sense are web apps like Buusu or Newsmart.”

        No, I think people will only pirate the creative stuff. Mechanical exercises with discrete items? You can find them anywhere…

  2. Saying it like it should be said! Publisher actions against pirates have been completely ineffectual to date – it’s time to invest resources to effectively enforce and police copyright. Teams of lawyers in every major country market paid a percentage to close down and sue pirates. This is what the major corporations do. The vast majority of merchandised toys and comics/albums found in bookshops and newsagents are officially licenced from Disney, Marvel etc. Ditto luxury clothes and accessories brands. They have paid lawyers on the books to ensure that is the case. They’re eager to prosecute as they’re paid for every successful prosecution. It’s interesting then that when publishers negotiate with writers they play hardball yet when it comes to dealing with pirates they’re playing cricket. (Re alternative business models, yes …. but how many people have found self-publishing viable? And as for an ELT version of Spotify, that has hardly been a money-spinner for bands.)

  3. Brilliant article, Nick. It’s pretty shocking, but you’re right … we need to find solutions, not (just) try and stop illegal downloads. Looking forward to seeing your solutions. BTW, what was the name of your book again?

  4. I hate to say it but seriously, the author, should consider the pirate’s offer. If the ‘pirate’ is getting that much traffic from ESL learners/teachers and is making a real offer, not messing around with him, then it is in the best interest of the author to take him up on it.

    Who knows, with enough good material on the website from the author (and his friends when/if he does make £100 a week or more) then they both win – things may even wind up balancing out because if that happened, then the pirate won’t need the agro of violating copyright, he can simply become a publisher and publish materials for the author(s).

    I suppose I’ll raked over the coals for this statement but personally, given my very brief dealing with one publisher in the past, where I was left feeling completely conned (especially with regard to the contract and other issues) after working my a*#$ off, I don’t really see that particular house as anything other than a bunch of pirates themselves.

    Why not work for the one who will pay?

    • Lovely. The world as seen from the window of the materials writer: a world of sharks, pirates and freeloaders. Then once or twice a month someone offers to buy you a beer and they think they are helping you make ends meet.

    • I said exactly the same thing when I saw that pirate post – I would make more money from the pirates than any publication I have out on royalties. They clearly know how to get people to their sites and so running a legit site that looks like a pirate site would be making money from ways other than directly for the content itself. The difficulty is that authors have signed away their copyright – that might change in the future. You probably will be raked over the coals for saying this…an unwelcome truth always gets received badly.

      • Poorly thought out ideas often get received badly, too. You might well make more money robbing banks than from textbook royalties, but most people think it’s not the right thing to do. ‘The pirates clearly know how to get people to their sites’ – yes, by offering pirated materials for free. Seriously, is that a sound business model? ‘Running a legit site … the content itself.’ I’m still trying to untangle the logic of that sentence. Finally, ‘authors have signed away their copyright’; it’s not always that simple – even though the copyright may be assigned to the publisher, you may find ‘The moral rights of the author are asserted’ in the small print at the back of some textbooks. Anyway, as a Wikipedia page says, ‘If an author wants to sell a work, it’s often easiest to give the copyright to a publisher. The publisher will do all the selling, and in return for that service, will keep part of the money.’ Simple really, and if you’re dealing with a reputable publisher, you’ll usually be treated fairly. You’re right about one thing, though, things might change in the future, and it seems that some ELT publishers are trying to phase out royalties in favor of fees.

        • Thanks for the comment, Roger. I’m sure Nicola and Karenne will want to respond directly, but I’ll add a few thoughts of my own too.

          There’s one thing I’d disagree with in what you wrote: “Simple really, and if you’re dealing with a reputable publisher, you’ll usually be treated fairly.”

          I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as that any more. I know that Karenne had a bad experience, but I don’t consider any major ELT publisher as disreputable. I do, however, feel that many do their royalty-earning authors a disservice by not adequately promoting their books. And that situation is getting worse. Publishers certainly do the ‘selling’, but in many cases it’s actually more just the distribution. Selling to me implies both sales *and* marketing, and there are certainly lists in every major publishers’ catalogues that are incredibly under-marketed. For me, that’s a publisher not living up to their side of the bargain.

          • Nick – Yes, maybe you’re right. Certainly these days publishers are keen to shift new ‘product’ every year, which means that apart from blockbusters, existing titles may get sidelined. I’ve heard a similar complaint (actually, rant) from a UK fiction author.

        • My “poorly thought out idea” is a site that looks like a pirate torrent site in that it simply offers free materials and appears at the top of any search engine results if someone is looking for “free english grammar book”. The difference being that the authors have their material on there willingly and are sharing in any revenue made by advertising. Presumably that same search normally leads to a pirate site.
          I agree with Nick that often selling just equals distribution and marketing means putting it in the catalogue. That isn’t enough to sell books. Self publishing means someone has to be looking to buy your book and searching for it with that purpose. There are greater numbers of people searching for free books than looking to buy your specific book, that is the traffic you want to monetise.

          • A site that presents free materials legally with the authors’ consent and makes money from advertising is a great idea if it works. I think i was confused by your suggestion that the site should look like a pirate site. Surely it’s possible to lure visitors by emphasizing ‘free’ but also mentioning ‘legal’? One example is ‘Free and Fair ELT’, which has just been launched on Facebook and already has almost 2,000 likes.

    • ‘Why not work for the one who will pay?’ One reason would be that he’s probably a crook. And being a crook, he’ll probably screw you, along with everyone else. I don’t know who your ‘piratical’ publisher was, but one bad experience is not a sound basis for your amazingly naive vision of a loving relationship between the author and the reformed pirate.

      • You’re right – maybe it doesn’t need to look illegal although I think it would appeal to people who just like torrent sites and believe it is a strike for freedom etc (of which many do given the comments on news articles on the topic). But as long as it said free all over the place and could advertise anything that paid the most (which might not necessarily be “ethical” I am sure you know which kind of ads I mean 🙂 ) then it could look legit. My thinking is it would be best to blend in with the competition for a while.

        • I have been told I’m not only an old git, but a thick old git. Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble working out your argument. (This is all in a spirit of friendly banter, by the way.) So you’re saying that it would be possible to fund a download website through advertising revenue, regardless of the product or service being advertised, e.g. Viagra or porn sites, as long as they paid the most. This would help the site to ‘blend in with the competition’ and fool punters into thinking it was just another sleazy, rip-off site. The punters would be happy because they making a strike for freedom. And I suppose this website would pass on its profits to the contributors in a fair way depending on the number of downloads? Is this what you are proposing?

          • Yes! But it would be worth testing out whether the sleazy looking site drew more traffic/ more downloads or a site that looked more salubrious.

            Also it is possible that pirate sites actually make their money in some other much more dubious way eg parcelling up viruses among files and then hacking people’s email and bank accounts etc. If their model for making money isn’t actually advertising, then my proposed site would not be viable in the way I imagine. You do, after all, need a LOT of traffic to make the advertising model work.

    • Thanks for the comment, Karenne. As you’ll have seen from Nicola’s response below, you’re not the only one who thought something like this.

      I wonder if an interesting parallel here is what Napster did to the music industry. It wasn’t that artists ended up financially benefiting from the illegal activities of one site; rather, that the existence of such a site lead to a new paradigm: streaming music (Spotify, etc.).

      This is a quote from the Salon article I mentioned in my response to Martin above:

      “For some industry veterans, streaming is the long-awaited solution to the woes of an industry that Napster and the Internet broke. For one thing, it’s so consumer friendly that music piracy has become a non-issue. “

      It’ll be interesting to see whether we could get to the same place in our industry through different approaches: a place where piracy is a non-issue.

  5. You hit the nail squarely on the head when you point out that materials writers, who were finding it hard enough to make a living when publishing was entirely offline, find it even harder to make a living when more and more material is “shared” online.

    And this, for us, is one more reason for not joining in the hype about the so-called digital revolution. The joy expressed about the quantum leap in access ignores the damage being done to the very thing that people wanted access to. And the supposedly horizontal technology is doing nothing (so far) to cultivate a new ethic and a new sense of community that might lead to the establishment of a new way of supporting materials writers. As you also nicely point out, rather than cultivating a new ethic, the internet seems to be accentuating a pre-existing disregard for ethics. Photocopying took time and it took place usually in a public area where some might have felt a slight pang of conscience about what they were doing. Clicking a download link in the privacy of your home is less likely to involve even a ping of conscience.

    According to the hype, all solutions are technological, but here we have a good example where there can be no technological solution. Something has to happen offline, involving people coming together to find a new way of organising education and publishing so that the best possible materials get published and those involved in their creation are able to pay the bills.

    It would be nice if we could come up with a new idea of the intellectual commons, but that has to go hand in hand with a new system of providing economic support to people contributing to that commons.

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful comment.

      I’m going to think about what you’ve said in some depth ahead of the follow-up post I’m planning to write about this. I very much like the idea that the solutions we need to find might be community driven rather than straight-up technology driven. Very interesting indeed.

  6. There is no doubt that the changes that are going on in publishing houses are a result of publishers losing heaps of money to pirates on the one hand and inexpensive and free creative commons books on the other.

    When you print a book today it is like handing free ammunition to pirates which they can then use to fire down onto your own ships (they have the high ground). The solution with many books is to stop handing out free ammunition. The solution includes bundling services with products (data mining, etc.), reducing prices through streamlined production and distribution (99 cent and less songs), and producing products for secure devices (ipads, e-books). The answer isn’t printing more books or hiring lawyers.

    The solution is also to make friends with free.

    • “The solution is also to make friends with free.”

      Wonderful! I love that. And I totally agree. I hope to explore that idea in a little more depth in the follow-up post.

      Thanks, as ever, for taking the time to comment, Mike.

  7. Great article – am I right in thinking there’s something missing just after the mention of agile product development? It should be ‘the publishing industry’ and then a bit more before the A/B bit surely? I suspect the html got a bit messed up. Am I right? Do I win a prize?

  8. Mike, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Traditional publishers are inefficient, and the business model is broken.

    I recently heard to Jonathan Worth [photographer] talk about a similar experience::

    “I was a successful editorial photographer, but like many I had a failing business model,”

    “I’d had to rethink what my product was as a photographer – I’d grown up thinking it was my images, but digital cameras meant everyone was a potential image maker. So I had to think why it was that I’d been successful in the past and I found a number of strands which proved very fruitful.”

    He ended up running #Phonar: a successful, open, online photography course (35,000 students!). Not a solution for everyone, but it inspires us (or maybe just me) to really consider where the value lies in what we do, and what ‘the product’ really is.


    • ‘Traditional publishers are inefficient and the business model is broken.’ A somewhat sweeping statement, based on what? You can be sure that ELT publishers are acutely aware of how fast the world is changing and are desperately trying to figure out how best to incorporate digital technology into their business model. Some will succeed, and some won’t.

      • I think you’re absolutely right, Roger. It’s not that publishers don’t know how quickly the world is changing; it’s that some haven’t quite figured out what to do about it yet. And some may already have left it too late.

        • But, Nick, who has figured it out in educational publishing? Certainly not the majority of start ups, who are living off VC funding and haven’t shown any evidence yet that they will be able to pay for themselves over the long term.

          Until a proven and successful model is deployed, what we are seeing is experimentation and speculation.

    • Great comment, Lee, and a vary apt comparison, I think.

      The commoditisation of content that we’re seeing in many industries, not just publishing, means that those who are are going to survive — and even thrive — are going to find new ways of leveraging their talent. #Phonar seems like a great example of that.

  9. Thanks for the post Nick, you’ve highlighted a serious problem and the Facebook group that you mentioned is definitely worth following. Just want to respond to something you said at the end:

    “Many authors aren’t earning enough from their work, especially given the amount of time, blood, sweat and tears that went into producing it. As an industry, publishers can’t seriously expect to survive long-term on authors performing labours of love. It’s not right and it’s not fair. What we need to find is new ways for authors to be truly, fairly compensated for the work they produce. We need to start working in formats that can’t be copied and stolen in seconds. We need to find new business models. We need to find ways to work outside of the current ecosystem.”

    I think it’s worth noting that many people are thriving through selling digital products. I know examples from the ELT industry and many examples of people doing this successful in other industries too.

    And even though what they produce can be found easily online for free, they still make a very good living from those who are buying their products. In fact, many are aware of this but don’t really care because they don’t see it really affecting their bottom line. The general opinion is that those who illegally download products aren’t really potential buyers anyway (HBO have the same mentality with Game of Thrones and actually boast about how many illegal downloads they get).

    In terms of finding a way to ensure that we get fairly compensated, I don’t think it’s a matter of creating products that can’t be easily stolen. And the amount of work that goes into creating the product is irrelevant if you don’t get the marketing and promotion side right. We need to make sure that we are creating things that people are willing to pay for, that we have a great product, and that we know how to promote it so that people actually buy it. This is what those who thrive selling digital products do well.

    Just to note, there are some ways that we can limit piracy. For example, if you are selling digital books, you can use payment gateways that digitally stamp each PDF download with the email of the buyer (Gumroad and Selz both do this).

    • Such a good comment, Jack. And you’ve totally nailed one important aspect that I didn’t address in my post: can an illegal download really be counted as a lost sale if the downloader was never going to pay for it in the first place? And, as you correctly point out, people *will* pay to get something that they truly value. This probably isn’t the place to get into this, as it’s a much bigger topic, but we need to think about how much value students especially really perceive in the content that we provide for them. If you’re learning English because you have to — because it’s a requirement not a real choice — how much real value do you assign to the material that you’re — again — required to buy? A coursebook isn’t a novel or a film or a piece of music, after all; it’s seen differently to that, I think.

      • I love this naive argument, it’s the ever-so-modern pirate version of the tree falling in the wood and nobody being around to hear it: I wasn’t going to buy it, so you haven’t lost a customer, and that’s why I nicked it. Yes, I may come round and nick your car later. I’m never going to buy it, after all…

        • I think it’s equally naive to think the most compelling argument is the moral one. If you have no way to win that person over and turn them into a customer they are of no use to you as a seller, whether they download from a pirate site or continue to just not buy your product. If anyone has a way of marketing at those people and converting them then that’s a solution. Otherwise it’s just irrelevant what is “right” or “wrong”.

          • I think you may be mixing ELT authors up with pop stars and novelists and the like. The chances of an ELT author making a living from ‘touring’ are fairly remote….

        • @Gavin, I’m not sure about your analogy. My car is my physical property, not my intellectual property. To shift the analogy a bit, snatching someone’s designer handbag off her shoulder is not the same crime as selling knockoff versions of that handbag. Both are crimes; both are wrong. But it is totally reasonable, and hardly naive, to wonder whether the sale of a cheap knockoff Gucci bag actually takes away revenue from Gucci in a direct, zero-sum way. Those bags cost thousands of dollars. The knockoffs hurt Gucci indirectly because the prestige value of the brand is diminished when “poor” people are seen wearing the brand. But in the case of ELT materials, I don’t see any loss in prestige for a publisher or author because a student in Iran or China is using a downloaded PDF. In many places (Iran and China being just two examples), a lot of ELT books are simply not available, either because publishers haven’t moved into the market or because governments have prevented them from doing so. Those people actually, literally were not going to buy the book.

          I’m not defending or excusing piracy by saying this. But it’s just a fact that when you evaluate how piracy affects an author’s or publisher’s revenue, it is not a simple matter and it is not a zero-sum game.

          • Of course the analogy is dodgy – it’s supposed to highlight the absurdity of people saying that those who use pirate sites are not really an issue because they wouldn’t buy stuff anyway.

            The same people then go on to ‘suggest’ a correlation between piracy and increased sales, as if those whose copyright materials should be grateful for the marketing done by thieves. So it’s all alright – I don’t lose customers, and they’re marketing my book to, err… a bunch of thieving gits. Yes, I certainly feel honoured.

            Maybe it works for Lady Gaga (lots of people at her gigs), but I doubt it would work for me (I didn’t notice thousands of screaming fans at IATEFL this year…)

        • Exactly! Punish ’em with the lawyers and the law courts and prison too! Not the poor sods consuming the illicit substances … rehab for them. No, it’s the pushers, the suppliers that need a hammering.

  10. I liked the post and I think the conclusion is correct: the traditional publishing model is broken. There is however something I can’t agree on: “We need to start working in formats that can’t be copied and stolen in seconds.” This will be wasted effort, and will detract focus from the change in business model you need to do.

    Text in the digital era is just a stream of bytes that can be duplicated perfectly at zero cost. It can not be transmitted or displayed in a device without offering a thousand opportunities of intercepting the stream and copying it. Even after the fact, and provided the work involved is cheaper than the reward, no one can stop a human from manually and painstakingly OCRing the whole thing. If you publish something, it will be copied. That is a fact, hard to accept as it might be.

    All DRM strategies have failed. Technology investments that took both time and money were broken within days or even hours. Even if you try to create device level security, people will simply avoid buying them. Why buy a crippled device that won’t play what you want? There will be permanent incentives for someone to offer devices without those restrictions or to find ways to break the restrictions in the secure devices. So far, no protection scheme has worked.

    Lobbying for sterner copyright laws won’t work, either. They are unenforceable in a transnational world, and they create too much work on overburdened justice systems.

    Shifting to a new business model is the only chance. Music had to do (Spotify made me pay for music again), video games had to do it (Steam and indie game bundles made me not to copy games any more), movies had to do it (I would pay for a Netflix version if I could have it in my country). Printed materials must do it too, not only ELT.

    Rather than creating products that people can’t copy, work must be done in products that people don’t want to bother copying. Replace learning books with a more complete, inmersive teaching experience. Integrate multimedia capabilities that can’t be copied as simply. Include tailored services.

    Do you know what books I still buy in physical format? Photography and comic books, those can not be copied so easily. The visual elements are as important as the text in them, and the displays around with their varying sizes, formats, qualities and calibrations can not deal with them so well.

    Other books I buy? Very specialized print runs financed through kickstarter that won’t get published any other way.

    And lastly, books where I have developed a personal bond with the material and the author. I pay when I feel I owe them something. This weekend at a micropublishing fair I paid 5€ for a hand printed and signed small run of two short stories by two authors I know, even when I can read the tales on Internet. The whole 50 issues print run sold out in a couple hours.

    I know this is not something you can apply to every project and author, but it should give you ideas, as the previous commenter pointed out.

    • Brilliant comment, Cesar. And I totally agree.

      I had a similar experience with music and films — subscribing to Spotify and Netflix respectively. And I even started buying vinyl again a few years to satisfy a craving for beautifully produced, physical product.

      The DRM thing is interesting, too. I’m firmly in the anti-DRM camp and am constantly surprised by how many people support it. It doesn’t work, and it simply serves to restrict the number of people who are able to access your work, even those who would happily pay for it. It was a smarter person than me who wrote that the one thing worse for authors than piracy is obscurity. And with the increase in self-publishing that we’re likely to see in ELT in the near future, there’s a real risk that authors will fail because they’re too scared to make their content truly available. Sure, more people may steal it; but I guarantee that more people will buy it too.

  11. If you seriously consider teachers “…a world of sharks, pirates and freeloaders. …” then I am very glad that you feel that you are losing.

    Are you attributing Joseph Beuys every time you use that avatar?
    Do you credit Theodor Adorno every time your handle appears?

    You are building things on top of public, shared culture, and you largely do so without attribution or credit. This isn’t a bad thing. Shared, public culture enriches us all. It doesn’t do a good job of enriching certain individuals monetarily, but I am a teacher, so making little in money and appreciation for a lot of hard work is my existence. I have no expectation to receive any reward that is not of my own creation. And if your work does not reward you, do not turn your rage outward and expect the outside world to care.

    Did you invent the language you use to write?
    Did you invent the technology you use to create?
    Did you create the ideas you are writing about?
    Did you truly innovate an entirely new scheme for explaining the idea you are writing about?

    Lumping a straight-out pirate with a teacher copying materials for a class is very problematic. The other way to call it is that it’s a blatant fallacy used to bolster an anti-teacher message whose root is a profit motive.

    Either way, one is clearly in violation of copyright law and the other is pretty easily defended with a simple call to Fair Use, whose primary doctrine is to consider whether or not the use is non-commercial/educational. (http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html)

    Not only was the heart of your 23-year-old self in the right place, his rights were probably in the right place. The key word is, of course, “probably”. As you rightly mention, the concept of copyright is fuzzy and it is not a hard-and-fast set of clear ideas that we can judge confidently.

    I think the key problem you’re running into here is conflating moralism with legalism. You feel a moral right to be paid for your work. This is a strong argument, but given the simple reality that even “original” educational works are largely derivative, it’s not an iron-clad moral case. The legal side, though, is almost entirely undeveloped in your argument. We run into a major problem when we look to law as a means of enforcing moral code or, even more problematic, to enforce our own personal view of what is “fair”.

    Asking a teacher to prioritize a single author’s sense of fairness over the perceived needs of her students is a losing argument, as you know. Teachers are copying work to bring to their kids. They always have and they always will. And this is a good thing. In the battle between teachers and copyright (if such a battle exist), I want teachers to win. And you should, too.

    • Many thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Adam. I’m assuming that the first part of what you’ve written is directed at the previous commenter Torn Halves, so I’ll pick up from slightly further along.

      “Lumping a straight-out pirate with a teacher copying materials for a class is very problematic. The other way to call it is that it’s a blatant fallacy used to bolster an anti-teacher message whose root is a profit motive.”

      I certainly accept that the comparison is potentially problematic, but I’d disagree that it’s a blatant fallacy, and I’d certainly take issue with the accusation that I’m putting forward an anti-teacher stance here or that I’m writing with any kind of profit motive. If I’ve misunderstood what you’ve written there, please accept my apologies.

      “Either way, one is clearly in violation of copyright law and the other is pretty easily defended with a simple call to Fair Use, whose primary doctrine is to consider whether or not the use is non-commercial/educational. (http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html)”

      I’m no expert in copyright law by any means, but I do wonder whether the amount that I personally used to photocopy for my students could ever be truly seen as fair use. I certainly don’t think I was as prolific as some, but at the same I wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable defending myself by saying that what I was doing was for ‘non-profit educational purposes’. I was being paid, and my school was charging students to be there. There was profit of some kind going on all over the place.

      “I think the key problem you’re running into here is conflating moralism with legalism. You feel a moral right to be paid for your work. This is a strong argument, but given the simple reality that even “original” educational works are largely derivative, it’s not an iron-clad moral case. The legal side, though, is almost entirely undeveloped in your argument. We run into a major problem when we look to law as a means of enforcing moral code or, even more problematic, to enforce our own personal view of what is “fair”.”

      A very fair point, well argued. We could get into a whole other conversation about the derivative nature of some ELT content, but that’s the topic of another blog post … 🙂

      “Asking a teacher to prioritize a single author’s sense of fairness over the perceived needs of her students is a losing argument, as you know. Teachers are copying work to bring to their kids. They always have and they always will. And this is a good thing. In the battle between teachers and copyright (if such a battle exist), I want teachers to win. And you should, too.”

      Do the two things have to be at odds with each other? What I’d hope is that we can find a way to ensure that learners get what they need but that writers are rewarded well enough for providing it.

  12. Adam,

    I think you are spot on about this example of fair use and about how much of what we do is built on the shoulders of others. I think this second is an argument for reduced lengths of time for copyright protection. But you need to remember that the original reason for copyright protection was NOT so much to protect the individual but to spur the creation of new things so that society could benefit from the creative work of individuals.

    I live in a country (China) where so much is copied and I see everyday the result of this copying mentality. Few people believe it is practical to produce new things. Which is why China is gradually learning to respect copyright. They realize that encouraging creation via copyrights benefits society as a whole. The key is to balance the needs of creators to protect creations with the rights of users to use creations.

    • Great thoughts, Mike, and well-stated.

      The growing conversation around copyright in teaching circles is necessary, but in my anecdotal experience, a lot of what you’re saying is ignored. We are primarily obsessed with the monetary side of copyright concerns, and the larger social concerns get lost in the shuffle as teachers gather ’round and play Amateur Copyright/Intellectual Property Lawyer instead of playing Critical Social Thinker.

      My hope would be that teachers encourage kids to push the envelope of their rights outward, not encourage them to voluntarily give up their rights to participate in public culture non-commercially.

      Really interesting insight into the Chinese angle, too, I really appreciate it.

  13. Great post, Nick! I really enjoyed reading it as well as all of the great comments.

    I’ve been on the inside of two major publishers and also have written a couple of books which, judging from a Google search I did just now, are on some pirate sites.

    I know that my publishers are already doing a lot to combat piracy with takedown notices and perhaps other forms of legal action, but I sometimes wonder if they could be doing more. E.g.:

    1. SEO: Google searches for “[Textbook title] free download” should return the publisher’s own site much higher. If not #1 then at least on the first page of results.

    2. Click to buy: Let’s say you do make it to the publisher’s site. A lot of these publisher sites do not have a click to buy option — one actually just gives you their snail mail address. And searching for a book by title on some of these publisher sites does not return the proper results. I’m not a developer, but I imagine these barriers to making the sale could somehow be overcome. Without improvements, it’s simply much easier to download the pirated PDF. (That doesn’t make it right, of course.)

    3. Entering markets where the book isn’t available: It’s hard to limit piracy in countries where there is no legal way to buy the book at a reasonable price. In some cases (e.g., Iran) nothing can be done because the law prevents publishers from doing business there. But in China, where there is tons of illegal downloading, the books are often not available at a reasonable price in the stores because publishers don’t want to invest the time and effort to partner with a local publisher (as the law requires). Similarly there are Middle Eastern countries where the book is not available because some content is not acceptable to the censors. The publishers could either do more to make sure the content is appropriate for all markets (if only the writers would let them!), or else make the investment in a bowdlerized version for sale in that region.

    4. Bundling print product with online access codes: This isn’t perfect, I’m sure, but if you have truly valuable course content online and the only way to get it is to buy a book with a unique user access code on the back cover, that would help. Many books done by major publishers have these now, but not all.

    I’m really not trying to criticize the publishers, who have been good to me and are trying their best to get a million things done on shrinking schedules, budgets and staff head counts. But I do think that all of the things above could be done more consistently and effectively by some companies. And also, I do realize that these measures won’t end piracy but I think they could at least limit it for the time being.

  14. Nick, I apologize for conflating your posts with Torn Halves’s. I followed the link off of his Twitter (I do very much enjoy his work) and assumed, falsely and foolishly, that the linked article was his. My mistake and I hope no ill will was perceived.

    Copyright and teaching are actually very rarely at odds, as far as I can tell. I know of no circumstances in which a successful copyright suit was brought against a classroom teacher, though I’m sure they exist somewhere and would really like to see the details of the case(s).

    Generally how it works is that a publisher protests through a lawyer and individual teachers or schools obey the lawyer’s demand. Legal threats are terrifying, even if they are groundless. We fear the court system, because it seems unapproachable and expensive. Even a meritless legal threat takes time and money to fight, and a teacher or school will not want to spend (or have the ability to spend) either time or money to defend their use of something easily replaceable.

    A publisher can put “DO NOT REPRODUCE” on a page in a book, but that is neither a legal contract nor a piece of legislation. It is there to frighten teachers into buying extra copies of the same thing they already have in their hands and to build in as a future weapon in a hypothetical court battle. It works, because no one knows the law, which is largely unknowable. So publishers will usually “win” in copyright disputes, but that isn’t because they are actually right, only because they are stronger than the other party or a sufficient nuisance.

    So your 23-year-old self copies workbook pages to use for lessons. Is that copyright violation? If you’re working for a non-profit school and you are not reselling the pages, I cannot begin to imagine any court finding you liable.

    My intention is not to devalue the work of content creators, but to put it in perspective and also to put into perspective the potentially-faulty assumption that copyright is being legally violated when something is done with work that the author/publisher do not like or have prohibited in print.

    I have a really hard time believing that anything you did as a teacher was legally actionable regarding copyright. Unless you were actively selling copies you made, of course. Making class sets of something you bought once almost certainly would never be sanctioned by a court of law. I just can’t imagine a court that would bother with it.

    It would be nice to have the conversation be about how to best serve teachers and make money at the same time instead of, “How can we use legal threats to preserve a dead/dying business model?” I think you’re hip to it, Nick, but some of the commenters here need convincing.

    • Hi Adam,

      No ill will at all! 🙂

      “It would be nice to have the conversation be about how to best serve teachers and make money at the same time instead of, “How can we use legal threats to preserve a dead/dying business model?””

      Totally agree. I’m hoping we can explore this in a little more depth in the follow-up post. Which I should really start writing …

  15. I’ve only recently discovered how easy it is to get stuff taken off Scribd, but with over 600 copies of worksheets of mine on there (bizarrely almost all of things that are already available for free on the original sites and I guess for no monetary gain for the people who did so) I’m not sure I’ll be doing much with that information, despite it affecting the Google ranking of the sites I write for. Although it’s only bailing water, publishers could make a considerable effect on at least the top Google searches for their titles in this way with just a single full-time member of staff. The problem is that I think they are ambiguous about illegal copies. For example, CUP were boasting of how many illegal copies of Murphy’s there have been in its 25(?) year history during its anniversary year.

    • Cheers for the comment, Alex!

      Some really interesting stuff there. I think your point taps into what Jack wrote earlier about Game of Thrones. In some cases, the amount that something is pirated appears to be a point of pride. Actually, it probably makes sense: the number of illegal copies is, I imagine, proportional to the amount of copies sold legally. The more people are stealing, the more you’re probably selling.

      • This is a point I made elsewhere…if people are watching or reading your product in high numbers, they’re engaging with it and advertising it for you. Can’t pay for that kind of promotion…and ELT publishers certainly are not!

  16. You spend three years to write a book and then only earn 100 euros a year in royalties? Despite the fact that it’s selling pretty well?

    Sounds like your publisher is the problem more than the pirates. Have you considered self-publishing?

  17. It’s a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but how much of Free and Fair ELT gaining over 1800 likes is down to the people administrating the Page ‘inviting’ many of their Friends on Facebook to ‘like’ it?

  18. Interesting article and some very interesting attitudes coming out in the comments.

    I would like to contribute by saying that the simple caricaturing of the “pirate” as criminal, devoid of morality and dishonourable in the extreme, is rather naive. The suggestion that a consensus exists on the morality of the free distribution of copyrighted materials in 2014 is not borne out by evidence, either statistical or anecdotal.

    Some people adamantly defend the right to distribute all intellectual material as one of the great democratising consequences of the internet and are actively campaigning for even more openness and a relaxaion of copyright laws.

    Others view the increasing difficulty of receiving remuneration for intellectual effort as the death knell of creativity.

    On a more industry-specific level, there are those that believe it is high time that the all-powerful cartel of examination boards, accrediting bodies and coursebook publishers were dismantled, in order to establish a more progressive and dynamic atmosphere.

    Others would have it that the relative high-price of English text books perpetuates the social elitism of academy learning and that equalising forces need to be applied wherever possible.

    Whilst you may not agree with any of them, these are all valid moral positions, and since one thing not even the publisher’s have a monopoly on is morality, the only sensible responses are to:

    1. Make an intellectual argument that the consequences of piracy are negative for both distributors and downloaders alike. This should not be a moral argument, as these tend to lead to further entrenchment in existing ideas, and it should certainly not seek to alienate the very people who you feel need to be convinced by simply rousing those already on your side.


    2. Find less centralised ways of working that allow you to bypass the publishers and get paid once for everything you write/produce without the expectation of royalties. If you think about it, the royalty system is really just a way for the publishers to avoid paying you the projected worth of your work and asking you to assume a rather larger element of the risk than they are willing to.

    I am glad that Nick has just started this debate but let’s use our energy positively in the search for intelligent solutions to a very modern dilemma, rather than use this forum as an opportunity for a self-righteous rant.

    • Steven said,

      “If you think about it, the royalty system is really just a way for the publishers to avoid paying you the projected worth of your work and asking you to assume a rather larger element of the risk than they are willing to.”

      Actually, it is just a system built around a contract. They have the power so they dictate the terms. It is that simple. It is the nature of how most humans in a position of power act.

    • Brilliantly articulated response, Stephen; thanks for taking the time.

      Can you picture at this stage what that intellectual argument would look like?

      And I’d echo your call for a search for intelligent solutions. On the whole, the debate has felt quite positive to me. It’s certainly got more heated than this in other corners of the web …

      • I don’t think I am convinced that the drawbacks of privacy outweigh the benefits. I’ve certainly used copyrighted materials without having paid for them in the past, and others have used my creations. I’d be very surprised if most of us weren’t technically responsible for countless copyright infringements every month to the point that it is illegal but socially acceptable. Reversing that trend may be a lost cause.

        Would you agree that what might be required is a complete re-imagining of the manner in which we profit from our intellectual effort taking into account our new-found capacity to create and disseminate?

        The royalty system seems a good place to start.

    • Stephen, if we dispense with IP, then what we are left with is the idea that the only real way of making a living is though manufacturing. There is no future in ideas, and that only physical product is a viable form of income. How impoverished the world would be.

      The most incredible period of practical and intellectual development was perhaps the 19th a Century in Britain. Interestingly, so much of the creative drive came from the clergy. These were men who had a sinecure, who were able to give their entire free time to thinking. In your implied model, the future thinkers would have to hold down day jobs permanently, because they couldn’t earn a living from their intellectual efforts.

      Simply put, if there were no margins in content development, there would be no publishers. In that vacuum, we would lose something special: an army of people dedicated to developing quality teaching and learning g materials. And, why on earth would writers and content creators make the effort over a sustained period of time?

      • Hi Brendan. Thanks for the comment.

        I can’t say that I agree with you that manufacturing would be the only source of making a living in the future, were “piracy” to be decriminalised/legalised/accepted.

        What we seem to have now is a system where creativity is divorced from practice. Why do we need an army of writers and content creators monopolising the intellectual direction of our profession. With coursebooks being increasingly viewed as “method”, teaching itself is in grave danger of losing the individually creative element that made it such a fulfilling and complete job for me.

        The idea that giving some people a greater right than others to dedicate their time to free thinking is in any way progressive or the sign of an intellectual society seems to me to be flawed. Surely encouraging everyone to be content creators, experimenters and thinkers, regardless of whether they have been ordained as such by publishers (to extend your ecclesiastical simile to metaphoric proportions)is imminently more appealing to the many. Otherwise, you are limiting the vast majority of us to the very “manufacturing” existence you hint at, repeatedly teaching from someone else’s manual whilst occupying a fixed position in an intellectual hierarchy.

        To think that content creators make our professional life more fulfilling is questionable. That they make the teaching of our subject more structured, more uniform and less of a creative burden is a much easier argument to make. If homogeny is our goal, then we are doing things right. But is it?

        If we want to move language teaching forward, we need collaborative blogs like this, which enable practitioners to come together to discuss ideas, share experiences and build on each others’ work. We don’t need student books with accompanying teacher-book “walkthroughs” stifling our own true engagement with our subject matter, and by extension, that of our learners.

        And yes, thinkers should hold down day jobs. Thinking is the product of stimulation, practice and evidence based-learning. Teaching is my day job and I am offended at the thought that in some way that should compromise, rather than enhance the clarity of my though or my creativity.

        • Stephen,

          Surely the degree to which a teacher must follow a textbook or ‘method’ depends on the school rather than the publisher. In my first teaching job in Japan in the mid 1970s, the slightest deviation from the school ‘manual’ was frowned on, and teachers (or ‘instructors’) were regularly monitored and evaluated. It was absolutely soul-destroying and I got out as soon as possible.

          Based on my experience since then though, that school was an exception. In most teaching situations, textbooks may be assigned, but the teacher is free to adapt, select, and supplement as he or she wishes. I have written materials for a number of publishers, and the aim has never been to hamper teachers’ creativity, but rather to provide a resource that can be adapted to a variety of teaching situations (both small and large classes, for example) and be used by both experienced and inexperienced teachers. Not so easy to do. And, of course, the main aim of a course should be to answer the needs of the students who will be using it. Identifying the precise needs of a particular learner or group of learners is impossible for a textbook author, and that’s where the teacher will need to adapt the textbook to a greater or lesser degree.

          In my last job at a Japanese university, I had virtually complete freedom as regards textbook selection, although I ended up writing my own materials for my art and design students. Previous to that, I worked in a non-profit language school in Tokyo, and most of our courses were assigned a course text (selected by the teachers themselves) and the teachers were encouraged to develop supplementary materials which could be used by everyone. It worked really well, and that period was probably the most rewarding period of my teaching career (I’m now retired) in terms of professional development and collaboration.

          This is getting a bit long, but just to make my main point clear, textbooks alone cannot stifle your and your students’ engagement with your subject matter unless you allow them to. In my experience, homogeneity is never the author’s goal (although examinations do sometimes play a part). A textbook is only a tool, and is only as good as the teacher who is using it. For most teachers, whether experienced or not, a good textbook can be a valuable aid. If you are not satisfied with what is not available, start writing (maybe you already are) and show the results to the publishers. If they are not interested, self-publish. Or think about offering your materials online. There’s lots more to say, but my eyes are giving out.

        • Hi Stephen,

          Firstly, apologies, I’m afraid I wrote my previous comment after a long night at a concert and the pub. I did think about asking for it to be removed the next day, but as it was only clumsily scripted (as opposed to offensive), I didn’t bother.

          I think I have to divide two separate issues – my defence of IP in a very broad sense, and my support for published materials.

          If I take the first point (IP), my concern is that the recent onslaught of technology has set a new precedent in terms of rendering old jobs obsolete without (as had previously been the case) creating new ones to replace them. Additionally, the old business models, as inefficient as they may have been, tended to involve lots of people at different stages, which meant there was a process of wealth distribution which served the general good. The current emerging model, on the other hand, seems to work towards corralling wealth into a few, super-rich (and often non-tax-paying) silos.

          In this economic scenario, we are often urged to take the initiative, to use modern tools to be more creative. And yet, if we want to monetise creativity, IP will be essential. When I defend IP, I do so not from the perspective of someone who works in publishing, but from a deeply-held conviction that for many, IP may present one of the few channels through which they can earn a reasonable income from doing something that is meaningful and which they enjoy.

          I should state here that I completely agree with you that teachers can teach and write well, and that teaching (holding down the day job) will inform their writing. I think I must have misrepresented myself there. But, I think it is essential that they can choose to calibrate the balance between teaching and writing, depending on what they want to achieve.

          Royalties are problematic – it’s not a simple discussion. For some authors (methodology books, and most supplementary materials) a flat fee may be a better deal, but for others (writers of a blockbuster course, for example), royalties will pay much, much more (often at least ten times more). At the moment, permissions and royalties are in a mess – they need to be simplified and made more transparent, whilst also becoming more flexible (which, ironically, will probably involve complexity, at least initially). Your view, though, that royalties are a strategy to underpay authors is, in my experience, very, very wide of the mark.

          Regarding coursebooks and publishers, I think Roger covered most of the bases, but I’d like to add a few points: 1) There is no cartel of international publishers – we do not break anti-trust laws or fix prices. Quite the reverse, in fact. 2) There is no ‘monopoly’. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of local publishers that operate in ELT, and in some countries international publishers are completely excluded from the state schools market. 3) We don’t set and control the content and methodology agenda to the extent that you imply – increasingly, ministries of education and large institutions state the requirements, which are then followed. Any publisher that enters a competitive market (which they all are these days) without checking the boxes will fail miserably. 4) Many teachers like and want to use coursebooks, and many do so creatively.

          • Brendan – I enjoyed your post.

            It would be nice if we could edit our posts on this site … The penultimate sentence in my last post should read: “If you are not satisfied with what is available, start writing (maybe you already are) and show the results to the publishers.”

        • @Stephen,

          I think you overstate the degree of cooperation that people would extend in an IP less world. The tale of Chinese medicine is very instructive. For hundreds of years doctors kept formulas secret and within a particular family because, in part, there was no way to protect them. Certainly an I.P. regime in China wouldn’t have changed this completely but society did suffer when the only people who could get certain medicines were the people nearby.

          Futhermore, you can not divorce I.P. protection in one realm from I.P. protection in another. Yes, perhaps the current batch of textbooks tend to stifle creativity in the short run but maybe that is what we have to accept in order to have advances in other areas.

    • Stephen – You wrote “Find less centralised ways of working that allow you to bypass the publishers and get paid once for everything you write/produce without the expectation of royalties. If you think about it, the royalty system is really just a way for the publishers to avoid paying you the projected worth of your work and asking you to assume a rather larger element of the risk than they are willing to.”

      In fact, it seems the major publishers would prefer the single fee approach instead of royalties, although they are facing opposition from most of their authors. It’s very likely that they’ve managed to work out that paying authors a single fee would be more profitable for them, certainly the case if a course is successful. The opposite of what you are saying. And in my opinion, with a royalty system, both the publisher and the author accept the risk, in a sense equally.

      One advantage of the single fee system for the author is that once a book is published, he or she doesn’t have to worry about pirating. I think you’ll find, though, that most authors prefer royalties simply because they reflect a stronger investment in the material. With a single fee, there might be more of a temptation (God forbid) just to knock something out.

  19. It’s an interesting discussion but mostly a waste of time I fear. People ‘steal’ because a. they can – and with very little risk (and I see no chance of their being a risk anytime soon), b. because they don’t necessarily see it as stealing – rather the person who uploaded the content is the ‘thief’ (see – watching pirated content on youtube), c. the ‘yeah I used to photocopy/steal stuff but now I’m a writer I think people should stop’ argument seems a touch hypocritical, d. because most language teachers are either underpaid, under-resourced and overworked or gap year students so mostly do not have the money to pay for expensive books even if they wanted to. None of which is to justify copyright theft but earnest discussions are not gonna make any difference any more than it did in the music industry or film industry.

    Perhaps making smaller elements available through a digital bazaar might help – i.e. I very often don’t want the whole book just a section here and there so why make me buy the whole thing, instead sell it chapter by chapter or section by section for a very low price (99cents etc.) for a one off or maybe 1.99 with a licence for a hundred copies – it still won’t prevent copyright theft outright but then nothing will but it might be enough to persuade a majority to pay…just a thought.

  20. Hey all,

    When Mega upload traded music on his site he was illegally raided by the Police, and what unfolded is beyond belief. He now runs a political party fighting for internet freedom in New Zealand. He is also before the law courts in the US fighting intellectual property law. One point he made was that, he didn’t share the content, his users did, and he removed it whenever someone complained. I think people buy ‘illegal’ material over the internet because they can’t afford to buy it from MacMillan, or Oxford or whoever. In Brazil, a Market Leader will set you back over 100 Reias – way too rich for most. Lastly, the copyright law is going to get worse with the new free trade agreements, such as the TPP and TAFTA which allows intellectual property rights law across nations. With strings attached. Multinationals and government colluding to harness more power and revenue. Think testing, assessment, Pearson and the money it and others ‘in the loop’ generate. So, who is culpable here? The publishers, the consumer or the internet pirate? Well, the marginalized pay for the ‘elite’ so, it would seem that the publishers are the culprits. As a reaction or protest people buy pirated materials because they are poor. I don’t think it affects book sales in the least. It’s a new market that didn’t exist before the internet. But the TPP and other partnership agreements hope to bypass local laws, monitor internet piracy, and clamp down on any ‘illegal’ activity – using surveillance. Not a rosy picture.

    My last point is this.

    Teaching and learning is going to change. No longer will it be ‘top down’ teaching, books and academia ruling the roost, for financial gain. It will be democratized. A market which is controlled by so very few, is not a market. Read this piece for some insight to ‘social change’ and the future of education – LOL, on PDF http://goo.gl/vsPzcd and this piece about the ‘teacher class’ http://goo.gl/PRxKyB

    Thank you.

    • Robert, I can’t afford a BMW, but I live with it, and I don’t t hold German car manufacturers responsible for this. What I do is really simple. I don’t drive one.

      The marginalised pay for the elite? Really? In educational publishing?

      And, really: do you think that government-led initiatives for education are all about ripping people off?

      A market led by a few??! Have you any idea how many local publishers there are out there?

      And … there’s no space or scope for financial gain in education? So there is no future for professional materials writers?

      Great. Enjoy the 17th century,

    • “As a reaction or protest people buy pirated materials because they are poor.” What percentage of ‘people’ is that? If they are really poor, then they probably download pirated materials because they don’t have the money. A ‘reaction or protest’ is irrelevant. Anyway, you can bet that many downloaders could afford the legal version, but simply prefer to get something for nothing. I know that a good number of ELT authors would support a system by which publishers allow free downloading for truly deserving users. But how to implement it?

  21. With the courses increasingly done distance/ online and the death of British Council libraries, is it even possible to do an MA or Diploma in TEFL without using illegally uploaded books nowadays? (I could never have done my Delta without the British Council Madrid library…)

  22. I know discussion of solutions is coming in future posts, but wouldn’t one obvious solution to this problem of value being destroyed by piracy be professional ELT writers somehow getting matched up with schools who are currently getting their materials written by random ADoSes (like the chains I work for).

    • @Alex, that’s a very intriguing suggestion. How would this work? Would schools subscribe to a database of materials (a la Spotify) or pay to download a la carte (more like iTunes)? Or would school chains directly hire writers to create custom materials via some sort of matchmaking service?

      • As schools seem to want “their own materials” (they often say it’s a selling point for students, for some reason), it would have to be the matchmaking version.

  23. John suggested “protected distribution via devices that offer encryption on products” – a good idea but not a global solution, certainly, given the complexity and expense of getting material onto such a device.

    That said, it’s exactly what a partner and I are trying, by licensing authentic materials (respecting journalists’ copyright!), adding supplemental materials, and putting them in an app, albeit for Apple devices only, in part because of concerns about piracy in the Android world. (I won’t mention its name here to avoid hijacking this discussion for marketing purposes.)

    This of course brings limitations: not everyone has an iPad or iPhone. And we’re just starting out, so there are issues of marketing, discoverability, and pricing. What will students or teachers be willing to pay for a given set of materials? Will someone find a way to pirate our materials? We don’t yet know – it’s still an experiment that I hope will turn out well. But I’d welcome comments on our approach.

    Thanks, Nick (and others), for this discussion.

    • Curt,

      Please feel free to ignore this question but what is your targeted market? And how do you feel about pirating on Apple? I for one think your approach has a lot of potential merit.

      • Mike,

        Our targeted market is high-intermediate to advanced learners; we may be refining that further as we see what kind of interest there is.

        I’m not sure how to interpret ‘pirating on Apple’ here. To be clear, we license the material only from journalists who agree to be included – if one doesn’t agree, we sigh about missing out on a great piece and move on; and Apple always takes their 30% from any purchase, so we’re not taking advantage of anyone. If you meant other people pirating off Apple devices: it’s possible, but I do think it’s less frequent than on Android, and an iOS app is more secure than putting audio & pdf’s on a website. In a world with xerox machines and the internet, we think it’s a good option.

  24. Interesting post Nick, though I think the debate is in danger of becoming stale, much like the coursebook/anti-coursebook bunfight. In one corner we have the publishers in the other the pirate. Both have their faults.

    What I’d like to see is a platform where teachers and materials writers can network and communicate – some kind of digital agora – where people from the ‘bottom’ (or even ‘squeezed middle’ of the industry can meet/ network and get publishing or self-publishing projects off the ground. For example, I write lesson plans but I’d really like to get in touch with an illustrator to illustrate them (anyone out there? contact me through decentralisedteachingandlearning.com).

    Big, purely commercial publishers are still raking it in but that will change if teachers, materials-writers can really decentralise the industry; or manage to make a dent in the status quo and bring in a few of the more ethical publishers (e.g smaller presses, university publishers).

    But what I do have a problem with are scams like ‘ELT Teacher 2 Writer’. It appears like some kind of attempt to bring in more people to the industry, a more social attempt at ELT publishing. But then click on ‘Modules’ and NOTHING is available! No creative commons, not even a sample page, nada. And then we see the sponsors, Pearson etc. It just invites cynicism.

    Question – are there any bloggers out there who would like to form a group to push for change in ELT?

    • Paul, on behalf of ELT Teacher 2 Writer, I’m glad you feel as strongly as we do about the issue of communication between writers, teachers and publishers. However, to set the record straight, ELT T2W is NOT a scam, nor are we sponsored by Pearson, or anyone else. Training modules are available and written by experienced professionals, including a number of regular contributors to this blog – Philip Kerr, Lindsay Clandfield, etc – who are paid a royalty on sales and have contributed their time and experience in an effort to encourage more people to write their own materials, publish them as widely or as locally as they wish, and improve their writing skills. We’re experiencing a problem with the link to samples on our website, which we are currently addressing.
      Our database of teachers who would like to be writers is accessible by all the publishers whose logos appear on our website, and who have access to the database when they wish to find new writers. We know for a fact that this is working and has helped a number of new writers become known to the publishers, and we do not charge publishers for access to the database, or for any other service we offer through our website. We also have a good deal of feedback from people who’ve read our training modules and have found them useful in their development as writers. And as we publish through Amazon and Smashwords, we are as vulnerable to attacks by pirates as anyone else.

      • Dear Karen,

        I withdraw the comment about ‘ELT Teacher to Writer’ being a SCAM. My criticism is that it seems to exist to help coursebook writers earn some money writing basic ‘How to…’ books and publishers get writing talent coming to them without having to advertise. I appreciate that you are not sponsored by the big publishers, but can you outline your relationship with them? Was this website planned in conjunction with the publishers or were they invited after the website was completed? It’s not clear.

        If this was to help ordinary teachers then how come there’s not ONE free Module download. Not one! Do you mean that you didn’t plan this in advance – you have other pages on the site where we can download for example, experiences of how teachers started writing.

        It seems like another way to shift product. Everything is controlled in a top-down way, there’s no way I can ‘interact’, there’s no forums for example.

        The opening line says ‘Learn to write ELT materials … and get published!’. And then we find out we have to fork out for a whole series of Kindle editions. Sorry but I don’t think you’re being honest with people.

        • Roger, many thanks for your kind comments.

          Paul, our relationship with the publishers – and with the writers in the database – is simply one of offering a type of matchmaking service. The publishers want more writers – they can find them by searching the database. The writers want to make contact with the publishers – they can put themselves in the database and make themselves available for work.

          We want publishers to use our database – that’s the whole point, really. Teachers in the database want to be found by the publishers. We also offer them additional ways of collaborating with publishers, such as giving feedback on textbooks or writing readers’ reports. We were careful to make the nature of the relationship as clear as possible by stating that the publishers whose logos we display have registered to use the database. If we’d just published the logos, it would have looked more like endorsement (or that we’d just used the logos without asking!). There’s a bit more detail about our relationship with the publishers in Clause 7 of our T&C on the website ‘Invited publishers who wish to access the database agree to provide their logo for display on the site. ELT Teacher 2 Writer may state the name of the publishers who have registered to use the site. It is understood that registering to use the site does not mean that the publisher is endorsing the site and ELT Teacher 2 Writer agrees not to give the impression that any endorsement by the publisher is implied by displaying their logo.’
          The writers of our How To modules have offered their time and experience in an attempt to help new and inexperienced writers improve their skills. There are no big bucks to be made here – more of a goodwill gesture to the industry. However, you don’t have to buy them if you don’t want to. And they aren’t a condition of being in the database. But yes if you register in the database and read the modules, you will increase your chances of getting published. In summary, here’s what we do for free:
          • Allow writers to go in the database
          • Allow publishers to search it
          • Allow writers and publishers to collaborate in other ways
          • Provide advice (people often write to us asking for guidance either through our Contact Us page or via our Facebook page.)
          • Provide a writers’ toolkit on the website
          • Provide information from published writers about how they got into publishing and what kind of advice they offer to new writers

          And here’s what we charge for:
          • The training modules (£5 each)

          If you would like to see a sample of the modules you can view the free pages on Amazon or Smashwords. When we revamp our website, we will make samples available there too. I doubt we’ll be setting up a forum however – our aim is to put writers and publishers in touch with each other, and there are plenty of forums where writers can interact and exchange views.

      • I’d like to add a few comments of my own in response to Paul Walsh’s comment about ELT Teacher 2 Writer. http://www.eltteacher2writer.co.uk/welcome/

        It is quite clear on the website that the modules are downloadable ebooks and links are provided. Free samples can be downloaded through this route.

        It is also quite clearly stated that the publishers listed on the right of the page are not sponsors but publishers who have registered to use the database to find new talent. This is a free service – neither publishers nor authors pay for the service.

        It is clear in the About Us section that all three of the remarkable professionals who founded and give their free time to ELT T2W – not just commissioning, editing and publishing these great modules, but also giving webinars and going to conferences to introduce teachers to new opportunities for development – also work full-time in the ELT publishing industry. And I know, personally, how hard they work at their day-jobs!

        Paul may have stumbled on a UX issue with the website. But I still find it impossible to understand how he could come to the conclusion that ELT T2W is a ‘scam’ and that Pearson are a sponsor. Paul, please visit the site again. Then, I think it would be helpful if you could provide proper, considered feedback on your experience with it that led you to publish this slur.

        I am dismayed that eltjam allowed this comment to go unmoderated for more than 24 hours. Is this another example of this otherwise excellent and informative blog/forum putting clicks above rigor and respect for its industry peers?

        • In reply to Diane,

          “It is quite clear on the website that the modules are downloadable ebooks and links are provided. Free samples can be downloaded through this route.” Well, it’s not clear to me. Where are the free samples? Why don’t you change the headline ‘Learn to write ELT materials … and get published!’ to something more appropriate. You want people to buy the products, and join the database for the publishers. And on the way, they might learn some skills.

          I work hard too – so do many of the bloggers that I know who write lesson plans, materials and put together book proposals that are often rejected by publishers. Are we not remarkable professionals too? This is HR speak.

          UX issue – you mean user experience (I had to google that). You’re kicking my criticism into the ‘long grass’. No, it’s NOT a user experience issue. I stand by my criticism: the way the site is set up and worded I don’t think you’re being honest and fair with teachers.

          I said in my previous comment that I take back the comment about it being a SCAM, and I do take that back and apologise. But I bet that’s exactly what a lot of teachers said when they realised ‘oh, they want me to buy their Kindle books’.

          You still haven’t answered my main criticisms of your website:
          – You’re not being honest and fair with teachers.
          – You’re not providing a service for ordinary teachers.
          – This is about shifting product.

          I don’t think it’s fair to have a dig at eltjam either.

          • Our policy at ELTjam is that we don’t censor comments; however, we would encourage visitors to the site to treat each other with respect. To that end, we would like to say that we don’t agree in any way with Paul’s comment on ELT Teacher 2 Writer being a scam, but we are happy that Karen has had the opportunity to respond directly and that Paul has retracted it and apologised.

            I’d be grateful if we could now move the conversation forwards, please, onto the topic of the original post — piracy in ELT.

          • Paul, I think you have misunderstood me. I do not work for ELT Teacher 2 Writer or in HR, it isn’t my website, and I am not in a position to answer your questions.

            I know the founders through working with them in ELT publishing for many years. I wrote my comment as a very satisfied user of their services and the books they provide. I am more than happy with what I’ve learnt through ELT T2W and am happy to pay the small price of the modules – they are packed with value.

            I don’t understand your criticisms at all. My point was that ELTT2W is run voluntarily by already very busy people, in their own time, and I imagine, any income must barely cover the outlays needed, let alone offer any significant financial reward for the time devoted to it.

            I assumed that something about your experience with using the website had led you to overlook all the facts that are available on it re. the ethos and ins-and-outs of the service and how it is run. It seems I was wrong.

            As for eltjam. They have worked with ELT T2W on many things, including the excellent IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group, and know what they are about and how much they give of their time and experience to teachers who want to be writers. So, that they should allow someone to call their work a scam and make unfounded accusations without at least asking for your evidence seems irresponsible to me.

          • To politely ignore Nick’s plea to move forward for a moment, I’d like to say that apart from the sample downloads being unavailable, the ELT Teacher 2 Writer website looks excellent and must have taken a lot of work to put together. As far as I can see, it’s a) being honest and fair with teachers, b) it’s providing a service for ordinary teachers (who want to write), and c) it isn’t about shifting product.

          • Roger, you should declare your interest – you’re the author of several coursebooks yourself. “Good News, Bad News” and co-author of “Business Venture”, both published by Oxford University Press, and co-author of “Fifty Fifty”, published by Longman taken from http://www.eltnews.com/features/interviews/2003/04/interview_with_roger_barnard.html

            I’m perfectly prepared to let the issue drop, and note comments from Nick (it’s his site after all). But I stand by my criticisms of the website.

            *** POST SCRIPT BY TIM OF ELTJAM: ***
            We at ELTjam have so far been allowing all comments and responses through on this thread in the interest of fairness and impartiality. We’re now going to withhold any further comments or responses in this particular thread in order to, as Nick asked previously, encourage the conversation to go back to the key topic of the initial post. Thanks to all for their willingness to debate and discuss their opinions and concerns. We’d be happy to explain our position on this further if you’d like to email us directly at info@eltjam.com
            Kindest regards, Tim

  25. A great article on a vital and topical issue. While reading the article I realized that I agree and at the same time disagree with the author’s attitude to the piracy of ELT materials.

    Being an author and a creator of a few ELT materials, I feel sympathy for other authors. I agree that intellectual efforts must be rewarded and author’s rights must be protected. I used to become infuriated when I saw people “stealing” my ideas and making money from them. My initial reaction was to rail against the unfairness of the world I was living in. But as Nick truly says, no one cares how long it took you to write your book, an article or a set of online exercises, etc. So I have learnt to turn my negative feelings into positive ones and to have a healthy disregard for the numerous downloads and people’s stealing my stuff. Instead of taking offence at everyone, I started thinking of ways to monetize my creativity.

    From a teacher’s and English learner’s perspective, I enjoy the opportunities of downloading textbooks and other ELT and EFL materials for free to make my English classes more informative, creative and lively. I usually download books that I either cannot find in bookshops or I have never held in my hands and that I am not sure I’ll like. Also I tend to download books that I will use only once such as examination papers. So I “steal” stuff to save my time and money. I am content with this fact.

    I agree with Nick when he says “the commoditization of content that we’re seeing in many industries … means that those who are going to survive – and even thrive – are going to find new ways of leveraging their talent.” To my mind, one of the possible solutions could be using advantages of the Internet such as promoting tailored online courses, webinars and services by the authors of famous textbooks and/or other ELT materials. This would allow the authors to get money back from those who download their materials for free. I fully agree with Cesar Viteri’s suggestion of replacing learning books with a more complete, immersive teaching experience. It’s better to see a teacher presenting their material once than hear about their work a hundred times.

    • God help us if even ELT authors are illegally downloading colleagues’ books. You say “I am happy with this”, but none of the authors you are stealing from, will be!

    • Anna, can you share your ways ‘to monetize your creativity’?

      “So I “steal” stuff to save my time and money. I am content with this fact.” That is truly amazing, and a sure way to earn the respect of your students.

      As for replacing ‘learning books’ (I suppose this means a printed book without any other components?) with ‘a more complete, immersive teaching experience’ (I think that should be ‘learning’, not ‘teaching’, by the way), most publishers are trying to do that already, by offering course-specific websites with among other things, downloadable listening materials, video clips, worksheets, customizable tests, etc. I am sure they are working on ways to further utilize the potential of the Internet (and no, I don’t work for a publisher).

    • Wow, great article, but as someone who works with authors and content creators on a semi-regular basis, I have to disagree with this comment. I have no problem supplementing lessons with freely available resources like videos, but when it comes to full books, I find it hypocritical for an ‘author’ to condone and participate in pirating.

      My .02.

  26. If the author of the original “Why everyone is stealing your stuff” post would like to contact EL Gazette, and can demonstrate that they are its author (eg through their knowledge of the subject), we’re offering to PAY THEM MONEY to write a feature on this for us.

  27. Hi, I just Googled and found this interesting post and discussion (only a year late!).

    Anyway, I’d like to invite anyone interested in this discussion to join the first ever Group MOOC based at McGill University in Canada to collaborate and build upon the ethos of sharing ELT resources and raising awareness around copyright. Publishing in general is changing dramatically and this is creating quite a sea change in education for social initiatives such as we’ve seen with Free and Fair ELT (https://www.facebook.com/free.elt / https://twitter.com/FreeFairELT).

    I’m one of the volunteer facilitators on the MOOC and because I have a background in ELT resources development and open education (with the open-source FLAX language corpus project flax.nzdl.org), I’d like to encourage you to share your experiences in ELT publishing and how this is impacting ELT materials development, and the way resources are being used and misused through copyright infringement. The open education movement wants to protect teachers’ copyright and it also wants to leverage teaching materials that can be shared by well-funded institutions and publishers, namely those that can afford to do so. This seems to be out of balance though when you consider the ELT materials writers who are often caught in the middle and may be asked by publishers to give away their copyright and even their work without pay as publishers experiment with new business models, including the freemium model. I see these as only some of the issues concerning ELT materials writing and publishing and would be interested to gather a group of people into the MOOC to work through these issues and more.

    A little more about the Group-based MOOC – Social Learning for Social Impact with edX – you can link to it and sign-up here:


    The bullet points below are the stages of planning for social impact that we would be working through on the course. For example, the Free and Fair ELT initiative is currently growing social impact through social media and is successfully managing to scale this level of outreach. It would be great to discuss ways forward for taking this and similar initiatives in ELT resources outreach further with resourcing i.e. getting funder backing, and assessing the impact of these initiatives. This MOOC is being offered through McGill’s School of Management and Henry Mintzberg, who is the main person behind this initiative, is well known for getting initiatives like Doctors Without Borders etc. off the ground with the following approach, which forms the structure of the MOOC:
    • Working as a high-functioning team (Co-Creating)
    • Learning your way to a prototype (Designing)
    • Growing your social impact (Scaling)
    • Finding resources to help sustain your efforts (Resourcing)
    • Discerning when and how to measure your impact (Assessing)

    The MOOC starts Sept 16th to Dec 10th to form group-based discussions on a fortnightly basis. The expectation is that groups will connect via different types of social media platforms e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, LinkedIn etc. but to bring the knowledge back to the MOOC platform to work through the stages of the course and share the different social initiatives across the different groups concerned with different social justice issues. You can read more about Henry Mintzberg’s Rebalancing Society vision through this free pamphlet eBook: http://www.mintzberg.org/sites/default/files/rebalancing_society_pamphlet.pdf

    Needless to say, it would be great if any of you here would join us for the MOOC to discuss and hopefully build on much-needed initiatives in ELT where access to teaching and learning resources are concerned.

    Thanks for reading this message and looking forward to hearing from you, and any questions you may have,



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