Tag Archive for piracy

Pirate Pedagogy

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.

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The “Not Enough Pirates” Hypothesis

Yesterday I ran across this intriguing post on The Guardian Technology Blog, about e-books and book piracy.  There, author Bobbie Johnson advances a provocative, and perhaps counter-intuitive, claim.  E-books have yet to really take off, he argues, because printed books haven’t been subjected to a level of online piracy sufficient to inculcate a digital disposition in book readers.  The analogy Johnson draws is to the music industry, where peer-to-peer file sharing helped to promote a system in which music would no longer be tied to a specific — and specifically analog — medium.

I don’t dispute Johnson’s assertion about digital music.  But on the matter of e-books and printed book piracy, I must respectfully disagree.  As I demonstrate in my book The Late Age of Print, especially in the chapters on e-books and Harry Potter, printed books have been going digital and coursing through file-trading circuits for years now.  Probably the biggest racket is in printed student textbooks, which, because of their egregious (captive audience) price, have ended up on any number of fly-by-night bit-torrent sites, such as Textbook Torrents, Rapidshare Textbooks, and others.  Here’s a link to good article from The Chronicle of Higher Edcuation about the former — now defunct — site, if you want to know more.

Popular printed books like Harry Potter also have been photographed or scanned and posted online.  This is exactly what happened when the final installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released in July 2007.  Images of pages began appearing on file-trading sites like Photobucket and The Pirate Bay even before the book was officially released!

And then there’s the thorny matter of academic course packs.  It used to be that educators would create anthologies consisting of photocopied book chapters and journal articles — all copyrighted materials — for their classes.  Usually the course packs would be created and sold by local copy shops.  Following the landmark 1991 Kinko’s decision, most of these shops sought permission to do so through the Copyright Clearance Center, which pays royalties to copyright holders.  But in an age of cheap, ubiquitous scanners, Adobe Acrobat, and password-protected course sites (usually hosted by academic libraries), the traditional course pack has become all but obsolete.  Today, educators assert the exception to the 1976 Copyright Act that stipulates the “fair use” of copyrighted materials for one-time classroom use.  Significantly, very few of these items are “born digital,” even if they may ultimately end up that way.

There’s an even broader argument to be made here, namely, that e-books arise precisely (although not simply) in response to publishers’ longstanding fears about the promiscuity of printed books and their content.  Way back in the 1930s, the publishing industry contracted with public relations doyen Edward L. Bernays to come up with a pejorative word for people who, by trading books with one another, supposedly deprived authors of their royalties.  (The term, “book sneak,” never really caught on.)  Then then there was the whole freak-out over photocopiers in the 1970s, which led to the creation of the Copyright Clearance Center and, shortly thereafter, to a host of lawsuits against copy shops.

There are many other examples like this that I could point to, but the question ultimately is this: given the mobility of printed books and their content, is it any surprise that book publishers would be interested in pursuing a technology — digitally rights-managed e-books — that would allow them to micromanage the whereabouts of book content?

So why haven’t e-books become even more popular than they already are?  The answer isn’t, “not enough printed book piracy.”  In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

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