On the Piracy of Books

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Digital music sharing--also known as piracy--was a big deal back when I was in high school. Napster rose and fell right before I entered college. We talked about piracy a lot in the mass communications department as I studied motion picture production. As a filmmaker, the digital implosion of the music industry was sobering.

But we movie makers had a buffer: The internet was slow, movies were huge, and there wasn't a great format to share. Also, while it makes sense to spend a few minutes downloading a song you'll listen to a hundred times, was it really worth the bandwidth to take a few days to download a low-quality video you'd watch once?

Then YouTube came along and things have been heating up ever since.

But with the advent of ebooks, why aren't we hearing much about piracy? Tech is certainly not the problem. We now have a plethora of devices that can display text which takes up minuscule amounts of bandwidth. And there are plenty of opportunities to download ebooks across the internet, including sites like Project Gutenberg. So what's going on?

Is it true, as Steve Job's famously said, that "people don't read anymore"? Is it due to the fact that "most people don't think books are worth stealing" because of years of terrible experiences in school?



I think we don't hear much about book piracy because:

  1. Books aren't a "sexy" media like music and movies. There are high profile names in writing, but for all the READ posters that adorn my library's walls, I don't recognize the faces. The newer/cooler versions are littered with TV and movie stars... which is ironic to me. So, the fact the ebook piracy is a big deal to publishers doesn't get much play when there are, you know, royal babies and such to report on.
  2. Piracy is motivated by ease of access. I hear less and less about music piracy now that iTunes and Pandora exist. What started as a fun way to share your favorite songs quickly became the easiest way to get music. It took the industry a while to figure out how to use this to their advantage, but now that they have, the desire to torrent music has decreased. For me, if I can find a movie or show on Netflix, I don't even consider trying to find it elsewhere. With books, reading on a common screen isn't easier, so a good reading device--which is conveniently connected to your purchasing space--makes it worth it to spend a few bucks and be done with it.
  3. Similarly, there is a strong cost-benefit ratio to piracy. When it took twenty bucks and a trip to the store to get the song you wanted, it was worth poking around online for a decent virus-free recording. Make my favorite song less than a buck and have it instantly available for playback? Sweet. From what I've read, the biggest text targets for piracy are over-priced textbooks. Would you rather spend $200 for a ream of black and white text, or get the latest gadget and find the text for free? <hmm> (this also applies to computer software)
  4. Reading books for pleasure is a dying art. There are so many ways to ingest media today. Books are no longer the cheapest, easiest form of entertainment. In fact, books have had a rather short run of that. Before Gutenberg, it was rare to see a book, let alone read one. And today, with blogs, and computer games, and streaming videos, and internet cats, who has time to read? A few. A few who have discovered the joy of reading. The rest? We wallow in the over-stimulated world of flickering screens. Why did we lose this skill? Time--there are other distractions. Emphasis--we were fed terrible literature in school. Sloth--it's easier to pull up a video.

There's more to this tale, I am sure. But these are the ideas tapping at the edges of my brain.

There is a real fear amongst book publishers. They do not want what happened to music to befall them. So, they are dragging their feet as we rush headlong into the electronic reader frontier. Very important questions surrounding DRM, licensing, and security have kept many companies out of the ebook world. How would it work to, say, base your schooling on an electronic text to suddenly have it disappear from your device? How are you going to turn a profit when the price of a book drops from $142 to $14.99? Everyone is playing their cards close to the chest.

This has profound impact on us here at Sonlight as well. Shipping books is expensive--and the prices keep climbing. We would love to offer curriculum electronically, but full-color ebook readers (not to mention books) aren't available yet. Sure, tablets exist, but that's a non-optimal screen to read. Plus, while book piracy may not be that big, we do have to protect our intellectual property. Our Instructor's Guides are incredibly valuable and useful. As we continue to look for ways to offer them electronically, we must find ways to do so that do not encourage people to pirate our work.

Please continue to pray for us as we seek the best ways to serve you and others around the globe. We have no desire to get rid of printed materials, but if electronic options become useful to some of you, we want to be able to help you in that way as well.

Do you have any observations about piracy and ebooks?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Empty Nester

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  1. Alicia Price

    We love books!!!! We have thousands of them in our house, and we also have kindles. However, the Kindle, can not replace the feel and smell of a book. There is nothing like cuddling with my children and reading a book such as A Hundred Dresses, doing that with an e-reader hasn't brought the same feeling of closeness. Keep selling like you are, we are glad to have them for a lifetime.

  2. Tanya Button

    I would love it if the IGs were in electronic form - especially if they were also printable. I love both electronic and paper books and see an advantage to both - especially IG type books. However, I am not really sure how anyone can ensure their electronic books are safe from piracy. I know most PDFs come with a copyright warning - but I wonder the degree to which this is honored. Good luck :-)

    • Lisa

      Yes, please go digital with the IGs!! I would love to stick the goals in my homeschool planner online and be able to move it forward to the next day. Please consider this. I understand that Sonlight would be concerned with stealing, but would there be a way around that? Maybe have a core available for a year online and then log in to be able to access the IG. Or maybe have a homeschool planner that is geared to Sonlight users? I'm not sure what the answer is...

  3. I don't see where you couldn't contract with one of the mega e-reader people to make a device with, say, JUST fourth grade downloaded and those particular titles wired in there (somehow) to not be transferrable. There has to be a way. I'll be praying for you to find a way to make a profit without compromising your ideals or your products.

  4. Julie

    This a really interesting post and one I've thought a bit about. In our family, we love books. I have no idea how many we own. My husband and I each brought a lot of books into our marriage, and although our oldest child is not quite five, we already have LOTS of children's books. There is nothing quite like the feel (and sometimes smell!) of a paper book.

    But, we live in West Africa. Amazon will ship to our country, and so will Sonlight (thank you!) but for a family of voracious readers we just can't have with us here the number of books we'd like to. We've focussed on having hard copies of children's books while getting more and more "grown-up" books as ebooks. I can honestly say that the advent of the ereader has been wonderful for me. Anytime I lived overseas before, I never had enough to read.

    In terms of Sonlight, I think it would be great to have electronic options for some things. Definitely not all of the books, especially in the earlier Cores. Young children benefit from having physical books. But some books which are more text than picture heavy would perhaps work well for some of us. Similarly with the IGs. I could see the benefit of an electronic version (especially for something like worksheets), but at the same time it is nice to have the file just there to open up when I need it.

    Anyway, I will be following what you do in this regard. Thanks for considering it. I do hope that ebooks don't completely take over, but they can be good alongside physical books.

  5. Thanks, Alicia! I feel the same way about magazines. I can get them digitally, but then I rarely read them. It's much nicer to curl up on my couch with printed pages.

    Good points, Tanya and Julie. Having options is absolutely essential.

    Thanks, Mrs C! It seemed like a pretty easy when we started this, I don't know, eight years ago. But it's proven more difficult than I had hoped <smile>. You prayers are much appreciated.


  6. Tess

    I like paper. I prefer paper. I have the electronic magazines. Rarely read them. It's too small of print or annoying if I do zoom in, it's not as comfy holding as a books or magazine, and after awhile my eyes hurt. It's not for me. Or my family. We have a kindle and dh got one to read books at work for work. But the kids and I prefer a book in hand over electronic gadgets.

    I think it's hard to imagine SL in electronic version. Perhaps buy a core with print or combo? Books that can be ebooks you could sell in that format along with the print books/schedule. But you are right...how do you protect your schedule for being shared? Perhaps those that really enjoy books will all gravitate to SL :-)

  7. That would be fantastic, Tess <smile>. And, yes, we have talked about offering books in either format if/when we can make that reality.