Digital piracy hits the e-book industry – CNN.com

January 5, 2010 | General, Rants and Raves | By: Mark VandeWettering

Phillip Torrone pointed out a dreadful article on CNN.com today:

Digital piracy hits the e-book industry – CNN.com

A few things that I’d like to directly comment on:

“With the open-source culture on the Internet, the idea of ownership — of artistic ownership — goes away,” Alexie added. “It terrifies me.”

This is dreadfully annoying, because “open-source culture” has nothing whatsoever to do with piracy. Open-source culture is actually based upon the idea that artists should be allowed to choose (for themselves! gasp!) the conditions under which their works are used and shared. Nothing in the open source world does anything to deprive anyone of anything they own: indeed, to be enforceable, it absolutely relies on copyright law. But even more annoying is that someone can be quoted in a CNN story basically equating open source culture with piracy.

“Textbooks are frequently pirated, but so are many other categories,” said Ed McCoyd, director of digital policy at AAP. “We see piracy of professional content, such as medical books and technical guides; we see a lot of general fiction and non-fiction. So it really runs the gamut.”

Textbooks are an interesting case: they are frequently pirated for a couple of reasons. First, they are enormously expensive. Ridiculously expensive. 25 years ago when I was in college, they were expensive, but now, they are ridiculously so. What’s more is that publishers have worked hard to destroy any potential resale value for books on the used market. They do this by deliberately obsoleting books by creating only short runs of a version of a textbook, immediately replacing it with a “new version”. In order to keep all students using the same version of the text (for uniformity), professors are then required to ask that all students use the most recent and available version of the text. This drives down resale prices for the old versions, and creates a single supplier situation for the publisher. Combine this with attempts to “license” medical and legal textbooks to students, and it’s no wonder that students seek a way to reduce the $500-$1000 or more that they’ll spend on books in a semester.

Some publishers may try to minimize theft by delaying releases of e-books for several weeks after physical copies go on sale. Simon & Schuster recently did just that with Stephen King’s novel, “Under the Dome,” although the publisher says the decision was made to prevent cheaper e-versions from cannibalizing hardcover sales.

Guess what? That’s not going to work. Here’s why. Projects like DIYBookScanner already exist, and can be replicated for a few hundred bucks. Using a book scanner, any hardcover book can be converted into digital form in a matter of hours. And as (I think) Mike Godwin said, digital piracy isn’t like trying to keep cows in a corral. All it takes is one smart cow to break the copy protection or scan a book, and then thousands of other cows can follow suit. And quite frankly, there is no possible way to stop it.

Some authors have even gone as far as to shrug off e-book technology altogether. J.K Rowling has thus far refused to make any of her Harry Potter books available digitally because of piracy fears and a desire to see readers experience her books in print.

And yet, as any one with a minute to spend on bittorrent might be able to tell you, it’s not hard to find scans of any Harry Potter book. And yet, Rowling has sold gazillions of dead tree books.

Ultimately, the headline of this article is totally misleading. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over piracy, those who buy e-books buy more real books. Those who download music buy more music. For every negative consequence of new technology, there is a positive opportunity. Some people will realize this and benefit from this new technology, creating new markets and products. Others will try to cling to business practices which they are comfortable with, and will fight a losing battle against the new technology by annoying their customers with new annoyances to “protect” their works.

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Comments

Comment from Daniel Reetz
Time 1/6/2010 at 9:48 am

I really wish they’d spend some energy making textbooks more compelling. I, for one, don’t want to lug hundreds of pages of heavy, glossy, clay-covered paper around with me. But I would LOVE a digital neuroscience textbook with hyperlinks to original publications in the references. I would pay a reasonable amount of money for such a thing. Consider that paperback textbooks are distributed outside the US at very reduced rates — proving that the support medium is a major contributor to the overall cost of a book. Digital distribution could drop this cost to near-zero, allowing me to pay purely for the editing and the author’s effort.

This is such a small hurdle for publishers to jump, but it’s going to take the kind of sea-change that’s happening right now. The people at DIYBookScanner.org are _not_ pirates, but as you indirectly point out, one of the reasons we exist is to exert pressure on publishers to improve their product and treat consumers well.

The other thing that’s so blatantly obvious is that these are publishers talking. It’s startling to me that authors aren’t the ones benefiting from Google’s recent scanning or nascent eBook technology. In fact, the people receiving the most financial benefit are still publishers. It’s my hope that print-on-demand and digital distribution coupled with peer review can produce a new system where authors who desire recompense get it reasonably and equitably through publisher-free payment systems.

It strikes me that conflating Open Source with Piracy is just another means of preserving the status quo, and probably, in the short term, an effective one, in part because people are so unfamiliar with code and things that are inherently easily copyable. I have had much difficulty explaining (to people in RL) why the software and plans for the DIY Book Scanner project are all Free.

Comment from Brad
Time 1/7/2010 at 8:18 am

One of my favorite authors is Cory Doctorow. As you may know, he is a best selling SF author, yet he makes free digital copies of all his books available online. http://www.craphound.com

He preaches that an author’s biggest problem is not piracy, it’s obscurity. If people can read what you’re doing, then they’ll like what you’re doing and then they’re more likely to buy the dead-tree version of your books, or at least buy them to give them to friends.

Comment from Ben, N1WBV
Time 1/8/2010 at 10:36 am

Completely agree with Brad. When my book was published, I did Google vanity searches and some of the first links were to torrent sites distributing the eBook PDF. I sort of shrugged it off, but then I met a few people online who read the eBook and then bought the dead tree format because they liked it.

Equating “open source” to “piracy” is silly though. If anything, they should be equating it to the logical extension of the “you need this! buy it!” culture they constantly preach.

Comment from Marco
Time 1/16/2010 at 9:10 am

I read books (such as novels, history) to get away from electronic devices so I like the old fashioned printed book. If I don’t want to pay for a particular printed book, I may wait and borrow it from the library.

Text books are another topic. Most are so expensive versus their content value that they almost deserved to be ripped off.

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