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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