Frustrated publishers find there are no easy solutions to book piracy

Digital files make chasing book pirates more difficult. Photo: (RT) Book piracy is on the rise.

DOTHAN, Ala., June 19, 2013 — Piracy is back in the news. This is not the kind of piracy that involves hijacking ships, but rather the kind that involves hijacking books. The latest legal actions in the book industry are highly reminiscent of what the music industry went through some years ago.

Several large publishers, including John Wiley and Sons, Elsevier and McGraw-Hill, have filed a joint lawsuit against a file sharing system called Usenet. The suit seeks to force Usenet to reveal the names of two specific members who have uploaded hundreds of illegal e-books. The user names given in the filing are “Hockwards” and “Rockhound.” You are strongly advised not to download anything from them or you may find yourself part of the lawsuit.

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Pirated digital editions of Stephen King’s new book Joyland started circulating on the internet only days after it was published. The publisher, Hard Case Crime, takes a pragmatic view of the problem and admits that piracy is almost impossible to stop. That seems to be the opinion of a lot of frustrated publishers lately.

With a little online searching you can find unlicensed copies of most current bestsellers and thousands of backstock books. Pirates seem to pride themselves on variety and selection.

Statistics on pirating are sketchy because publishers are hesitant to give them out, but it is estimated that by the end of 2011 over 20 percent of e-book downloads worldwide were pirated editions. In the UK, an independent regulating agency called Ofcom reports that as of January 2013, nearly 400 million digital files had been downloaded illegally. That includes entertainment content besides books.

Other countries where book pirating is rampant include Russia, Spain, Nigeria, Pakistan, Germany, Peru and India. No figures are readily available for pirating activity in Asia, where a lot of music and software pirating originated in the past.

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According to Russia’s Press and Communication Agency, during 2012 over 100,000 pirated e-books were available on Russian websites, compared to only 60,000 legitimate titles available. In Peru, more illegal than legal editions of books are being sold, and pirate firms there employ more people than legitimate publishers do.

In Mumbai, India, children work the streets and earn $2.00 for each pirated book they can sell. One child interviewed by the New York Times typically sold three pirated print books a day and was earning more than his father did as a plumber. Most children who sell the books cannot read.

Under current U.S. laws, pirating books is technically not theft. It is infringement of copyright, and that does not carry major penalties. Additionally, laws are uneven from country to country. What is considered “fair use” (free of copyright restrictions) in the U.S. does not often match the definitions of other countries.

In other words, what is illegal in the U.S. may be considered legal elsewhere, making tracking and enforcement difficult. Simon & Schuster is enlisting the aid of its authors to find and report pirate editions. S&S and other publishers also use a service called Attributor that routinely scans the internet for illegal e-books on download sites.

Many book publishers use special coding called DRM (digital rights management) to prevent copying and duplicating e-books, but coding experts admit most DRM schemes can be disabled or cracked open. Once that happens, the proverbial horse is out of the barn and a book can be duplicated an unlimited number of times. Some publishers prefer to avoid the cost and trouble of DRM, but they are mostly in specialty or niche markets with honest, loyal customers.

New DRM schemes are constantly being developed, some better than others. The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany has developed a new watermark for e-books that involves making slight changes to the actual text of an e-book as a way to track the owner. For example, it might change the word “invisible” to “not visible” in one volume, or “coat” to “jacket” in another. The advantage is that each book then has its own identity, making the scheme almost impossible to defeat.

Academics oppose the idea and are not in favor of changing anything the author originally intended. Privacy advocates are concerned that the scheme could serve as a sort of fingerprint to identify readers.

Further complicating the piracy issue is a growing demand for selling used e-books the same way print books can be traded. Amazon was just granted a patent for technology to resell digital goods, but seems to have no specific plans for used e-books at this time. Critics point out that a used e-book is virtually identical to a new e-book since they suffer no wear and tear, so why bother?

The problem of pirating is not limited to duplication of legitimate e-books. Print books such as King’s Joyland are scanned and the digital files manipulated into various e-book formats. Programs that scan text, called OCR (optical character recognition), have improved to the point that accuracy is close to a 100 percent match against the source. Some typographical errors still occur and appear in recognizable patterns, which is how experts can determine if something is original or copied.

It is interesting that even with all the work involved in scanning a print edition, pirates can still make enough profit to justify the cost. However, they don’t have obvious overhead costs such as royalties to authors or advertising expenses.

One interesting angle on pirating comes in the form of an organization that claims to be a church. If you believe all information regardless of source should be free, then the Missionary Church of Kopimism may be for you. Aside from free information, doctrines of the church focus on learning and communications with some loose ties to Chinese aesthetic traditions. No specific references are made to belief in a deity or higher power, though some followers apparently consider information itself to be a higher form of life.

There are also no specific references on whether the IRS has granted them tax exempt status.

The group runs a large download website called Tuebl that claims 36,000 books, nine thousand authors and over 7 million downloads to its credit. Many current bestsellers are available at no cost, including Joyland and J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, but a great deal of their content appears to be self-published novels with racy covers.

The Tuebl site allows searching for e-books by subject categories. There are quite a few entries under “erotic,” but the topic of “ethics” is noticeably absent. You may draw your own conclusions about that. 

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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