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.