On February 10, 2010, a German court began what may well be the start of the book industry equivalent of the dismantling of Napster.
Earlier that month, six global publishing firms — John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Reed Elsevier, Cengage Learning, and Pearson — filed suit against RapidShare, seeking an injunction against and damages from the file-sharing service for having violated the publishers’ copyrights. At the center of the suit were 148 e-books that the publishers alleged had been uploaded to the site and subsequently distributed without compensation to the rights holders. RapidShare, they claimed, had become a pirate vessel teeming with all sorts of illegal e-book booty.
The question I want to raise here is this: does it make sense at this particular juncture for book publishing to go the way of the music industry in chasing down websites that facilitate digital piracy?
I began pondering this question last week as I drove from Indiana to the University of Illinois, where I delivered a lecture at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The extended car travel gave me the chance to listen to the audiobook of Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price, which I’d downloaded gratis shortly after the book’s release last July.
I was deeply intrigued by Anderson’s discussion of Microsoft’s anti-piracy strategy in China, where the illegal trade in the company’s products reportedly runs rampant. In the 1990s, Microsoft took a hard line against Chines software pirates — publicly, at least. Behind the scenes, however, company executives secretly understood that while software piracy may hurt them financially in the short-term, it had the positive effect of locking the Chinese market into its proprietary platform over the long-term. With China’s growing economic prosperity, Anderson reports, more and more people there have begun purchasing legitimate Microsoft products. “Piracy created dependency and helped lower the cost of adoption when it mattered.” In other words, it was piracy that significantly helped seed the ground for Microsoft’s present dominance in China.
Now, it seems to me that there’s a similar case to be made for e-book piracy. A little over a year ago, the Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson offered a pro-piracy argument for e-books, suggesting that publishers will only move into the digital realm in earnest once they realize there’s sufficient piracy going on there. Until they discover they need to control the e-book market, Johnson argues, there’s little incentive for them — and by extension, readers — to make the shift.
While I’m persuaded by Johnson’s thesis in principle, he doesn’t take it far enough. I’ve already commented on his amnesia about printed book piracy, which over the years has fueled many e-book initiatives. Now I realize there’s something else going on here, too. Johnson claims that the music industry embraced digital downloading only after pirates dragged the industry kicking and screaming in that direction. And where music publishing goes, says Johnson, so too book publishing must go.
The problem with this claim stems from the rather different material histories of sound recording and book publishing. Wax cylinders, forty-fives, LPs, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, mini discs, digital audio tapes: the fact is that music formats have changed significantly — indeed, regularly — over the last 50 or 100 years. Music lovers have long understood that “music” is not equivalent to “format.” Even before the introduction of digital music downloads, listeners were well disposed to format change.
The same isn’t true for books. With the exception of relatively minor disturbances — chapbooks and paperbacks come most immediately to mind — bibliographic form hasn’t changed all that much since the introduction of the codex. The result is that book readers are much less inclined to embrace format change, compared to their music-loving counterparts. And this inertia is, in part, what has held up widespread e-book adoption.
All that brings us back to RapidShare. What the presses who sued RapidShare don’t seem to understand is that if e-books do indeed represent the future of publishing, then you need to provide readers with significant incentive to embrace the change. That’s exactly what RapidShare and other file-trading sites have been doing: educating would-be e-book consumers in the virtues of digital reading.
It isn’t stealing. It’s pirate pedagogy.