Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Why is music piracy different than book piracy?

Simple answer: Because one isnt called piracy, its called lending

I've been dwelling a lot on content distribution recently. Its a passion of mine and something I spend a fair bit of my spare time working on in some fashion.

One thing which has occured to me today is that there is difference in expectations between publishers of books and publishers of music.

Both of these mediums are now in the same space, distributed via the internet and in hard copy, and easily pirated.

The remarkable difference is that whilst representatives of the music industry wax lyrical about their desire to bring back the death penalty for pirates, publishers of books are remarkably silent, even as piracy around their product grows by leaps and bounds.

I think the difference is a subtle one, its that publishers of books know their product is handed from hand to hand, and they can only hope to make money from the first copy. In fact entering the digital realm has, for the first time, given book publishers a chance to sell one off copies of their product which can't be shared easily amongst friends.

Probably 3/4 of my books are second hand, possibly more. A lifetime of browsing in second hand book shops and later getting far too enamoured with Amazon have made me a book publishers nightmare. A consumer who never pays the artist or the publisher for their product.

But do I hear the sound of jackboots kicking in my front door? No, because the expectations are different, and the legal system surrounding the product is more advanced.

Laws around book publishing are ancient in comparison to those which regulate music. The industry has grown in such a fashion is accepts a healthy flow of its product between people, outside of its control. No one is arguing that book piracy through second hand book shops or people lending them to each other takes money off the artists, even though that is essentially what is happening.

I'd love to speak to some publishers direct on this topic, and some writers and see what they think. I hope they'd agree with me.

The music industry needs to accept that it too produces a product which is easily shared between friends, distributed for free and that they cannot regulate away piracy without abandoning the very freedoms which foster creative industry. They need to find new mechanisms which encourage people away from piracy, broaden their offer so that more products are avaliable at low cost, in more specialist markets, and embrace the huge community of people who love music, rather than treating them as criminals.

People arent stupid either. We know how much it costs to produce music, and how much it costs to distribute it. £10 for a CD is a crazy markup, 20p for a single song via digital distribution is also a hell of a lot. If I can buy a hard copy book for £2.76 (Amazon's 1p books plus postage and packing routinely gets me books at this price), I should be able to get music for a reasonable price.

Once again this post has descended into a flight of idealism, but I think there is something important to consider here. How is it that two identical industries, which make their money in nearly identical products, take such different approaches to their audience. Why can I take one product, and use it in almost any way I please, and using another in the same fashion could land me in prison.

Maybe this is a daft post, maybe there's something fundamental I'm missing, but its a question I think is worth asking.


  1. I think there is something to what you're saying, but the major difference is the physical nature of the media involved. The problem with music is that, in a digital form, it can be duplicated without loss of quality. Duplicating a book on the other hand, if done in an amateur setting through photocopying, obviously does. So in terms of "lending" a CD or a book there isn't much difference, but in terms of copying there's a big difference. And we're already seeing the attitudes of book publishers changing with the advent of e-readers and e-books, where duplicates can be made with no loss of quality.

    Of course this doesn't explain why the music industry were such a bunch of arseholes about taping music when there was a loss of quality, but there you go, they probably just are arseholes.

  2. Well, as you mention, the book publishing world have recently discovered the wonders of e-books, to which they can apply all the draconian DRM restrictions more commonly applied to the music world (as Amazon demonstrated when they mass-deleted a particular e-book from everyone's Kindles). So the question isn't about books vs music, it's about the difference between sharing something which is onerous and uneconomic to duplicate in its physical form, and something which is trivially separated from its medium of delivery... at which point the answer becomes obvious (and explains why there wasn't a particular problem with music piracy in the heyday of vinyl either).

  3. I agree in part with both of the above comments. And yes, we will see a change in the way book publishers deal with their product, however the visceral reaction of the music industry shows no signs of being replicated.

    The Nook e-book reader is an interest example of the difference in approach as it comes with the potential to 'lend' books for limited periods of time to other users. Now, I realise not every publisher will see that as a good idea, and will impose DRM to protect their books, however its interesting that its even a feature.

    Its still early days at the moment, and it'll continue to evolve. I think the inbuilt psychology of book publishers is such that there will be a different approach. The music industry has always been fighting against pirates, whether on tape or P2P services, and as such have it built into their DNA.

    Thank you both for the comments, very much appreciated, good perspectives on the issue.

  4. Also occured to me to mention graphic novels, which have long since been pirated using scanners, and distributed for free either online or in hard copy. Yet the publishing industry has never really gone mad about this in the way of the music industry.

    So there is a longer term legacy of piracy here which predates significantly the emergance of the e-book.