Why E-Book Piracy is the Next Big Front

In June 1999, the music industry changed forever. The first version of Napster launched and became an Internet sensation seemingly overnight. Users began swapping songs online, many they owned legally elsewhere, others simply downloading new music for free. Many of those using Napster were college students where broadband connections were common at the time, and a large percentage of them never went back to buying music after they started downloading.

Knockoff Report - NapsterThough the music industry won its court battle with the first Napster, resulting in its eventual closure and then rebirth as a paid service, the larger war against file sharing loomed. Less centralized services such as Bittorrent and other file sharing networks began to quickly fill the void Napster left. As technology improved and broadband became more widely available, larger file sizes could be downloaded and, though the movie industry didn’t have their “Napster moment”, in a 2006 study the MPAA said that http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002426602, a number that has only grown since. Though the numbers themselves are shaky, it is clear that piracy is a growing problem for the film sector, especially as the DVD market “craters”.

However, as the music and movie industries have been thrown into chaos, the book industry has remained largely untouched. Though downloading books has always been trivial, something Project Gutenberg shows with public domain books, but that the market for E-books has been small. Without dedicated and popular E-book readers, there simply wasn’t much of an audience.

That, however, is changing and very rapidly. In just 28 days, Apple’s new iPad has sold 1,000,000 units, Amazon’s Kindle, largely seen as the iPad’s biggest competitor on the E-book front, sold some 3.3 million units in 2009 and has many more users on mobile phones where a Kindle app can be installed.

In short, E-book readers are going mainstream, if they aren’t there already, and Dan Brown’s latest book, “The Lost Symbol”, may be a sign of what’s to come. In addition to selling more digital copies than physical ones on Amazon, it was also downloaded illegally some 100,000 times from Bittorrent within 24 hours of launch.

E-book piracy is already entering the mainstream and it steps into an already tumultuous digital piracy environment, one that is going to require experts familiar with the shifting landscape to help protect it.

The Changing Face of Piracy

The movie and record studios have launched a well-publicized legal campaign against file sharers and file sharing companies. In addition to the lawsuit against Napster, they also launched campaigns against Grokster, a case that went to the Supreme Court, and successful charges against four of the administrators of The Pirate Bay, though that site remains active and its members free pending appeals.

Major copyright holders have also campaigned and received tough new laws, such as HADOPI in France, that may disconnect alleged file sharers.

These pushes have raised awareness of piracy issues but have done little to stem the flow of piracy. However, they have had had an impact on the way people pirate content. As early as 2007, piracy watchers had noted a shift away from bittorrent and other file sharing networks and to digital lockers and one-click hosting sites such as Rapidshare, Megaupload and others like them.

Part of the reason is convenience, these sites are faster and easier to download from than any file sharing network. Some of it is safety in that these sites are not monitored as aggressively by copyright holders, but much of it is legal. These sites, protected by safe harbor provisions, will remove works when notified of infringement and don’t face the legal issues Napster and Grokster faced, though Rapidshare is being sued in Germany and did suffer at least one setback.

The tactics that brought the record and movie industry limited successes previously will become less and less effective. In short, piracy in 2012 will look very different from piracy in 2000 and it is the latter world that the book industry will find itself in.

The Calm Before the Storm

The American Associate of Publishers, AAP, reports that book sales in the month of February, the latest month available, grew by 12.2% to $486.3 million. This represents a 4.8% increase for the year so far. While those numbers are promising, they also reflect a rebounding economy and a growth.

Hidden in that statistic though is the explosive growth of E-books. Though far behind in terms of raw sales, $28.9 million in February, that represents a 339.3% jump for the month reflecting a jump of 292.3% for the year.

It is clear that consumers, especially heavy book consumers, are shifting some or all of their purchases to a digital format, the publishing industry has a bumpy ride ahead of it.

After all, the record industry had its best year ever in 1999, right as Napster was taking off. Since then, it has pretty much been all downhill.

Manning the Battle Stations

When it comes to piracy, the book industry has a few advantages over the music and movie industries. The biggest is the difficulty in creating pirated copies.

Without the aid of the original files, producing a digital copy of a physical book is a tedious process. So tedious that Google, for their book search project, had to develop a new scanner just to make the process time-productive.

This hasn’t stopped all pirates. One person photographed every page of the last Harry Potter book and uploaded that to The Pirate Bay.

The other hurdle is the lack of an easy way to read downloaded books. Physical books are portable and easy to read, books on computers are much bulkier, even on small laptops, and harder on the eyes.

However, the new E-book readers are poised to change all of that. Not only does it make carrying E-books around easier, but it provides access to the raw files. Though downloaded E-books are DMR protected, no such system is perfect and, with proper motivation, any will be defeated.

This is why the time to prepare for piracy is now, before the problem is more serious. Specifically the publishing industry will need to focus on three different areas.

  1. Prevention: Though DRM is imperfect, building platforms that discourage piracy, both through technolgoical barriers, pricing and convenience will greatly mitigate the problem.
  2. Detection: Locating infringing works while avoiding false positives, including both fair uses of content and unrelated works.
  3. Enforcement: This will require a robust knowledge of the legal climate in many countries and an ability to act quickly. Rapid response, especially in the earlier days of the piracy fight, will help shape better habits that will last.

In short, the next 2-3 years will be crucial for the book industry and how it responds may well determine if the industry is thriving at the end of the next decade or, like its counterparts in movies and music, picking up the pieces and trying to build another business model.

Bottom Line

The book industry has a tremendous challenge ahead of it and, though it is better poised to meet it than the music or movie industries when their moments came, it is still likely heading into a very difficult period.

However, with the right people supporting it and the right tools working for it, the book industry can move past this challenge and thrive for decades to come.

If it can learn the lessons of those who came before it and take a forward-looking approach, to see what’s next, it can emerge from the transition period in much better shape than the other content industries, making it an example for others to follow.

Jonathan Bailey is a copyright and plagiarism consultant and the CEO of CopyByte, a consulting firm specializing in copyright on the web. You can also find him at his blog Plagiarism Today, a site dedicated to helping content creators protect their work, and stomping around the New Orleans area looking for geocaches.

One response

  1. There’s no share buttons?

    Great article Jonathan, and you’re correct, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and breaks the security and wrecks havoc.

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