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.



  1. Ted,

    I agree: it’s a form of piracy that the big players know instinctively well. As you say in your book “The Late Age of Print” in regards to foreign copyright rules at the turn of century in America, the big companies initially ignored paying royalties to foreign authors/titles and only changed their minds about it later when smaller book publishers, doing what they were doing, seemed to be profiting from the same publishing profligacy.

    I think the presses will follow the RapidShare example.

    By the way, just finished your book. Outstanding! It’s torn down walls for me and given me a fresh window on the topic of e-books and the changing conditions of literacy.

  2. Daryl Hemeon says:

    Interesting read Ted. I have yet to embrace e-books, but see more and more readers popping up everywhere I go. I like to think of digital music sharing as promos for a band.

    “Hey, have you heard Band of Horses yet? They rock, let me rip you a copy.”

    I would say that amongst my friends that share music we so with the hope that they will dig the music and pop out to your favorite on-line music store and purchase another album from that band.

    Can the same be said for e-books? I would like to think so.

    “You mean you haven’t Alice Seabold’s ‘Almost Moon’. It just about is the happiest book I’ve ever read.”

    So I say, let the sharing and the the purchasing of other material begin!!!

  3. Ted Striphas says:

    @Conrad: thanks very much for the compliments about the book. I’m glad you mentioned the history of early publishing in the US, where pirate publishers significantly helped create the book market. The central issue, it seems to me, is to understand the many value forms of piracy beyond the strictly economic.

    @Daryl: Chris Anderson makes a similar argument in Free, which clearly you’ve confirmed. The trouble right now as I see it comes down to book publishers trying to inflate e-book prices. The magic of iTunes is the 99¢ price-point, which is cheap enough, I think, to encourage plenty of legitimate music purchasing. Until book publishing better understands the psychology of pricing (especially of digital pricing), I’m pretty sure e-book adoption will continue to be slow and uneven.

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