Monday, January 25, 2010

Arrrh! The E-Book Piracy Nightmare Scenario

Just yesterday my first Unanswered Question about the future of publishing was, Is pirating of books, which is now so easy to do, going to be an annoyance--i.e. a perpetual problem, but one that is not large enough seriously to affect the industry--or is it going to take a huge, crippling bite out of sales as it seems to have done in the music business? Right on cue, Sathnam Sanghera of the London Times has stepped in with an article that offers his own alarming answer, looking at how digital downloads have affected the music industry. Citing the Digital Music Report 2010, he writes that the industry
has been decimated. Even though legitimate digital sales have grown nearly ten-fold in the past five years, overall the music industry’s global sales have fallen 30 per cent over the same period. Illegal downloads still account for 95 per cent of music downloads worldwide.
I don't happen to believe that the music business is a perfect analogue for book publishing. For one thing, the experience of listening to a song from your iPod is he same as listening to it from a CD, but reading a book on your Kindle is not the same as reading a hardcover.  So I suspect printed books are going to remain a much bigger piece of the market than either CDs or vinyl did.  

I also think Sanghera's article conflates different approaches to "free" book content. He treats publishers deliberately giving away free samples to spur sales as if it were the same as illegal file sharing. Nonetheless, it's salutary to be reminded of just how cavalier consumers can be about paying for the sweat of an author's brow.  To go from the faceless statistics of the Digital Music Report to the anecdotal evidence of one candid ripoff artist, just read this eye-opening interview from The Millions with one file-sharer calling him- (or her) self The Real Caterpillar. 
In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few.
"Only" 50 books uploaded this month!

Caterpillar has a complicated morally self-justifying calculus by which he/she doesn't pirate new books by some authors, to "avoid causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so." But Caterpillar cheerfully acknowledges "it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing" while continuing to do so. 

It seems pretty likely most file-sharers don't even bother to think about the moral issues this much while they do their Blackbeard act on authors', and publishers', livelihoods.  Having read these two articles back to back today makes me feel that anyone who doesn't think piracy is going to be a really significant problem in the coming years is being willfully naive. 

(illustration by the great Howard Pyle, from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates--copyright expired!)