How publishers encourage piracy

I'm a book pirate!

I'm a book pirate! (Photo: Stuck in Customs)

When a recalcitrant publisher and an impatient consumer square off online, it’s almost always the consumer–at least the tech-savvy one–who wins. Here are four ways in which publishers are encouraging piracy.

1. By not releasing official digital copies of works online.

Consider the work of Karen Blixen, the author of “Out of Africa”. Under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, she published the short story collection “Seven Gothic Tales” in the 1930s, and the collection “Anecdotes of Destiny” in the 1950s. She’s a little obscure, but not forgotten; her short story “Babette’s Feast” and her novel “Out of Africa” were both adapted into Oscar-winning films in the 1980s, and she’s a widely acknowledged and praised artist.

Her work, however, isn’t available in ebook format on the Amazon Kindle store, the Sony ebook store, or fictionwise. If I want to read her work on a digital device–and I do–my only recourse is to scan a printed copy, convert it to a digital copy, and create my own digital version.

This digital version will exist entirely outside of the official publishing world; whoever holds Blixen’s copyrights will never see revenue off of it. By contrast, if either collection was available on any of the three ebook stores I mentioned above, I would have already bought it.

It’s not just a problem for dead authors, of course. In May the New York Times pointed out that a digital copy of J. K. Rowling’s “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” appeared on the website Scribd earlier this year. What’s more telling is that a reader wrote, “thx for posting it up ur like the robinhood of ebooks,” on the Sribd page. That’s not the cackling of a pirate, but the enthusiasm of a fan.

Rowling is famous for refusing to release her books digitally, and yet I can locate and download all seven Harry Potter books, plus the Beedle the Bard collection, in less than an hour. There are readers clamoring for her books in digital format, and they’d be more than eager to pay for the privilege; instead, she’s allowed piracy to dominate her online sales.

I would argue that every time a stubborn author or publisher refuses to release a popular book digitally, she contributes to the wider problem of piracy by helping normalize both the procedures by which one pirates a book and the behavior of reading unauthorized copies. That’s right, all you midlist authors afraid of your income drying up; you can thank Rowling for helping the ecosystem of pirated books grow larger by the year.

2. By crippling content so that it only works on one device, or only works if the reader is given permission by a retailer or publisher to open the file.

When I first bought an Amazon Kindle, one of the first frustrations I experienced was that my ebooks were tied to the Kindle device for no good reason. (Well, for no good consumer reason.) I had other devices that would display ebooks just as well, including a Nokia smartphone and an Asus netbook, and depending on the day I might have any combination of the three devices with me. What I discovered was that in order to read the ebook when I wanted to using whatever I had nearby, I would have to crack the encryption that locked the ebook to the Amazon Kindle.

But note that by doing that, I would be creating a new, unlocked version of the work that existed outside of the publishing industry. What’s worse, it would be in a standardized format (like ePub or PDF) that would be more popular and more robust than the locked Amazon format–which means it would be more attractive to other consumers should I ever put that new file online.

3. By creating substandard digital editions.

There are two problems here. The first is when publishers release digital copies that are missing the small-but-important touches like cover art, or that contain typos and formatting errors. The second is when ebook resellers release low-quality software that interferes with the overall enjoyment of an ebook edition.

Jane at Dear Author has a great post about why it sucks when publishers treat ebook purchasers like second class citizens:

The important thing for pubs to remember is digital consumers are not undiscerning. We just prefer a different format. Being on the internet doesn’t change our affinity for visual stimulation. If anything, we’ve become more accustomed to interesting graphics and interactive multi media now that we use the internet as our primary source of information.

As far as the second problem, consider Kathy Griffin’s recent autobiography “Official Book Club Selection”. I recently bought the encrypted ePub version of this book from ShortCovers to read on my iPhone. It turns out that every chapter has photos, which I only knew about because as I read it on my iPhone, I kept coming across captions for missing images. Later I opened the file on my PC using the Adobe Digital Editions reader and discovered that the photos were indeed in the file, but hadn’t made the transition over to the iPhone version.

This is really ShortCovers’ fault for creating a bad iPhone app that can’t handle the full breadth of an ePub file’s content capabilities. But on a deeper level, it’s the publisher’s problem. Imagine if a supermarket stocked Coca-Cola but poured it out of the original 2-liter bottles into homemade plastic bottles. Coca-Cola would rightly insist that the supermarket sell the product as intended or stop selling it immediately.

The solution? To crack the DRM on the ShortCovers file and then read it on my iPhone using a higher-quality app like Stanza. Unfortunately, this once again creates a new, unlocked digital version that exists completely outside the publisher/author revenue stream.

4. By thinking piracy is a solvable problem instead of a manageable one.

A New York Times article today notes,

“We are seeing lots of online piracy activities across all kinds of books — pretty much every category is turning up,” said Ed McCoyd, an executive director at [The Association of American Publishers]. “What happens when 20 to 30 percent of book readers use digital as the primary mode of reading books? Piracy’s a big concern.”

This is comically wasteful worrying; we will never get rid of digital piracy. Worrying about it is like worrying about death, or whether you’re starting to show your age. Yes, you will die some day; yes, you’re looking older; yes, piracy will always exist online because it costs nothing to create duplicates of digital files and pass them around.

So the question becomes, can you prevent piracy? Well, if you can stop people from digitizing your content, then yes you can. But music, movies and books are amazingly easy to digitize, so unless you can un-create a work in one of those mediums, odds are one of the first big fans of your work is also going to be one of the first “pirates” to create an unauthorized digital copy of it to share with a friend. Or to format-shift it to a new playback device. Or to archive it. Or to mash it up with other beloved works.

I suggest the unthinkable: that publishers release digital editions of books before hard cover editions, but at a premium price point that is equal to the hardcover price. After all, prices are elastic, and you can always drop the ebook price to mass market or lower later. (In fact, you’d better if you don’t want consumers to feel cheated, because you can imagine what that will lead to.)

And may the gods help you if you start suing consumers for downloading pirated books. As soon as you help a consumer think of you as an unfair industry that wants to hurt fans–and seeking punitive damages has nothing to do with concepts of fairness and everything to do with deterring similar behavior–you will drive that consumer into the world of digital piracy.

I used “recalcitrant” at the start of this post for a reason. The word usually implies someone resisting authority, or being disobedient, and yet historically in publisher/consumer relationships the power dynamic has been in favor of the publisher. That, of course, is not how it works with digital content, not when today’s average PC has enough binary horsepower to rip a song, decrypt a DVD, or scan and convert a text, and then share the resulting file with the world. It only takes one semi-industrious consumer to put the file out there, and then consumers everywhere can join in.

So the balance of power has not only shifted, but flipped. Publishers who stubbornly continue to believe that they maintain control over content in the digital sphere, while forgetting that the average consumer now shares that control, are only hurting themselves.

Update: Be sure to check out this quick essay on the three classes of illegal downloaders over at teleread.

(Photo: Stuck in Customs)

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