Friday, March 25, 2011

Aaarrrgghh ... Is Piracy Really a Problem for the Publishing Industry?

As a general matter, I like to keep my work life separate from my blog life, and I find that there is rarely any substantial overlap between the two.  That said, as I've mentioned in passing on a couple of occassions, by day I'm an intellectual property attorney dealing primarily in issues of copyright and trademark law.  Recently, our firm's publicist asked me to give an opinion on the scope of the problem of e-book piracy in the publishing industry.

My reaction to this question has always been skeptical.  I just don't see e-book piracy as a significant potential problem given the fact that people don't consume books in the same way that they consume music and film.  First, though e-book sales are increasing rapidly (as recently reported in a study by the Association of American Publishers), hardcover and paperback book sales still constitute a majority of the market.  Second, book purchases tend to be carefully considered decisions in my experience, as opposed to impulse purchases of music and movies.  Third, and perhaps most important, e-book distributors are ahead of the curve in terms of distribution (and far, far ahead of both the music and film industries when piracy first became a serious problem for them).  Simply stated, it is easier to pay $10 for an electronic copy of The Lost Symbol from the Kindle Store, the iBooks Store, the Sony eReader Store, etc., than is it so find a quality copy through Bit Torrent, download it, and upload it onto your particular device.

But not everyone agrees, as evidenced by a recent article by David Carnoy over at CNET entitled, "Kindle e-book piracy accelarates."  Evidently, there is a group of e-book enthusiasts that like to shop in bulk (as in 2500 books at a time).

So, what do you think?  Is this really as much of a problem for the publishing industry as it has been for the music and film industries?  Have you ever looked for a pirated copy of a particular book or known anyone that has?  Thanks for any (anonymous) insight that you may be able to provide.


  1. Just discovered your blog and am enjoying it immensely.

    I'm with you on this one--most people aren't going to scour Bit Torrent looking for a book to download when it's easier to just download it legally. (There's also the issue of how many times you're going to read a book vs. listen to a song, and there are already these great places called libraries that offer free single-time readings.)

    I just don't see it.

  2. @ Lindsay - Another good point. Thanks for the comment and the compliment. I think the relative silence on the topic means that no one is particularly worried about (or interested in) this issue. Welcome to TLM - I hope you like what you find!

  3. I have also just discovered your blog - through the Literary Blog Hop - and am really enjoying it. Yet, I have to admit I'm a little disturbed but mostly intrigued that a copyright lawyer doesn't find the possible precedent being set by allowing illegal book downloads to be an issue.

    While the facts of this case may be that books are not devoured to the same extent movies and music are, the principles are the same: 1. many people put a lot of time, effort, energy, and money into producing that book (change out song, movie) and deserve to get paid for it; 2. while ebooks make up a relatively small portion of sales at the moment, if you look at how the numbers have grown exponentially even in the last 6 months, and consider that the technology revolution is still in its early stages, you can see how there's room for ebook sales to take over a significant portion of the industry's profit; and lastly 3. what sort of precedent is being set here about intellectual property rights, and where do we draw the line in the future for whatever other sort of gadget/technology/information-sharing platform comes along? We are holding that distribution in check with music & movies, but if you allow the written word to not have the same protection, there could be a time in the future when that becomes a very real problem in a way not yet imagined. I'm all for INFORMATION-sharing, I'm not for willy-nilly illegal downloading.

  4. @Rebecca - Thanks for your comment and for the chance to elaborate. I certainly did not mean to imply that there is no LEGAL problem with e-book piracy. Copyright infringement is most certainly illegal and any form of it should suffer the statutory penalties if proven. My question was whether e-book piracy presents a significant ECONOMIC issue for the publishing industry at present, or if there are indications that it may become a significant economic problem in the future. My thought is that it is not and will not become so for the reasons mentioned above. But you are certainly correct in stating that there is always the possibility that technology may entirely change the calculation. And a given author should certainly use every available tool to protect his creative product.

  5. If the sort of people that are doing this are downloading books in their thousands, they're not likely to be the kind of people that were buying books before.

    The UK is a bit behind with ebooks in general. We have a good source of cheap paper books and most ereader owners (myself included) actually prefer to get a real copy if we liked the book. However I'd still pay for it twice in these cases (or once if my ebook was a review copy provided by a publisher).

    Anyway a bit late on commenting but I just stumbled across your blog :)