Friday, 18 June 2010

Revisiting book piracy

My post the other day on music piracy vs book piracy generated a bit of interest so I wanted to quickly come back to it and add a few extra thoughts.

Clearly we're entering a new age when it comes to books, the Kindle and other ebook readers (I dont class the iPad in this group, its primary purpose isnt ebooks), have changed the game. However, books in an electronic form have been around for a lot longer than these products, and the emergence of ebooks is only the latest chapter.

I first became aware of ebooks over a decade ago when I was introduced to Project Gutenberg. They currently host 32,000 books out of copyright. Since the law changed in the 1970s in the USA copyright extends 70 years after the death of the creator. Previously it was much shorter, so it is from this pool which Gutenberg draws its materials.

Illegally copied books have been around for quite some time too, the majority of early examples being scans of comic books. Or at least that's my understanding. The fidelity was very high, and the file size wasnt excessive, so they've formed a cornerstone of piracy for quite some time. When I was at school I even had a couple of photocopied comics, but dont tell anyone.

Full books have also been around for quite some time. Although I'll admit in far smaller numbers, since it is harder to produce a high quality copy of a page written on paper.

My point in essence however is that illegally obtained electronic copies of written materials are not new, but we are clearly at the tipping point at which the tens of thousands of books which fall into this category will quickly grow to tens of millions and beyond.

We're also entering an age into which unconventional actors are going to be a big player in the distribution of ebooks. Google being one of the biggest players. They will be providing both copyrighted material (with royalties to authors and publishers) and out of copyright to anyone who can access Google Book Search, and I'm all for that. Robert Danton has an excellent essay on his personal viewpoint on this issue here, and I'd advise you give it a look. (Credit to my friend and scholar Simon Taylor for the reference)

So we're now at the moment when book publishers have to confront the same problem which the music industry had when people started making mix tapes. Its suddenly very easy to steal high fidelity copies and distribute them for next to zero cost.

Its clear however that the publishing industry is behaving differently to the music industry. Even as pirated ebooks explode on bittorrent and other outlets, there are no massive lawsuits pending, no frothing op-eds in the mainstream press, the spit and bile just doesnt seem to be there.

Here's why I think its different.

The music industry have spent decades fighting against a slowly rising tide. Music has been pirateable for quite some time, although copies suffered from diminishing quality. The battle lines were drawn a long time ago, and the industry has consistently lobbied for tighter regulation, and sought more effective legal means to combat the threat. Over time quality has grown, and sharing has grown more convenient.

Books on the other hand have snapped, from relatively difficult to obtain illegally, to suddenly being both incredibly easy to obtain and in perfect quality. No battle lines have been drawn because the change has been so sudden that no one realised there was going to be a war. Its already been lost.

There's also the difference in consumer attitudes. A CD costs me the equivalent of a couple of hours work (I have no idea if thats actually true, I've not done the maths, but you see the point I'm trying to make), wheras I can go online and buy a book for around a quarter of the price of a newly released CD.

As a consumer I always compare cost to cinema tickets. If it costs me £10 to go to the cinema and I get entertained for 2 hours, why would I complain about paying £8 for a book that'll last me 2-3 days? On the other hand, why wouldnt I complain about a CD costing me £12 lasting 45 minutes and containing only 3-4 good songs?

(For the discusson of costs, I'd recommend a look at the Wired article which spawed The Long Tail, don't read the book, its only a longer version of the essay)

Music has always been percieved as overpriced, books have always seemed reasonable, and that'll affect how people pirate.

It'll also affect how much is charged for an ebook.

I think the publishing industry is far more likely to pursue the long tail model when distributing ebooks. Put everything you have online, charge as little as you can, and sell as many copies as you can. For ebooks the distribution cost is next to zero, the cost of stocking is nearly zero, so why not charge a very small amount and sell an unbelievable amount of your product. With such a vast back catalogue why wouldnt you?

At the end of the day its a structural difference. The music industry has been awash with lawyers for decades, fighting a battle against illegal distribution. The publishing industry has entered a whole new world overnight which they mostly didnt see coming, a world in which they're set to make a lot more money. Why fight the future when its set to put you on top of a huge pile of money?

Its interesting to note that the Nook e-book reader has a built in 'sharing' option. Allowing you to wirelessly lend a book to someone else. You lose possession of it for a limited period, and someone else can read it on their Nook. If anything speaks to the psychological difference its this single fact. Can you imagine Apple producing an iPod that let you share your music with others? It simply couldnt happen.

I've not discussed DRM or how book companies might seek to stop sharing, or at least make it difficult. They will introduce it, and rightly so, the costs are low for the product and its fair they should want more of us to buy an individual copy, I'm cool with that. If I can get a book for a few pounds, thats fair enough.

Who knows, I could be utterly wrong, and we'll know a year or two from now if I am, but for the minute, it seems like we're going to get a lot more words for a lot less cost and with a lot less fuss than we'll get musical notes.

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