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Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK
Stopping the book thieves
Daniel Radcliffe, chosen to play the boy wizard
Even Harry Potter has to pay for his books
Shoplifters make off with about 750m worth of books a year, mostly children's and travel titles. Now booksellers want to fight back by printing electronic chips in the spines, writes Owen Booth.

Each year 100 million books walk off the shelves in the UK, taken by people the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle condemned as "unnatural" in his treatise, Concerning Books.

Tempting titles
Travel books, especially A-Zs
Children's stories
Art titles
Computer books
Among the books most likely to vanish are children's stories and travel guides, with the former usually stocked in quieter sections away from the main shop floor, and the latter easiest to sell on.

And Maxim Jakubowski, the owner of London's Murder One - the largest crime bookshop in Europe, says it's his true crime section that is most frequently targeted by thieves.

While the occasional shoplifter is caught out at the electronic gate, Mr Jakubowski's staff are also on the look out for more organised criminals.

Bike outside bookshop
Is that a getaway vehicle, perchance?
"There are those people who steal systematically," he says, "who carry bags which contain copper linings, which shield the books from the security gate.

"And on other occasions we have been known to chase people who've simply run through the gate with stolen books, including one who ran straight into a passing police car."

Recognising the scale of the theft problem in the industry, the Booksellers Association is considering possible solutions, including the introduction of security tagging using radio frequency identification technology, or RFID.

Tagging goes hi-tech

Unlike the acoustic magnetic tags attached to CDs, DVDs and videos, which set off an alarm unless they are deactivated before the customer leaves the shop, the tags contain a silicon chip which can carry a large amount of information and an antenna able to transmit that information to a reading device.

It's like putting a licence plate on every book

Carl Lawrence
As well as combining a security tag and virtual barcode in one piece of technology, this makes it possible for a book to "remember" each transaction, from publisher to wholesaler, retailer to customer and (if the book is sold second-hand) beyond. Similarly, books borrowed from libraries could retain a record of every reader to have perused their pages.

Carl Lawrence, the chairman of the book industry's RFID working party, says the tags would give each book a unique serial number, as well as storing other details such as where it was shipped from and when.

CDs for sale
CDs are in the "top 10" of shoplifted goods
"It's like putting a licence plate on every book, and it means we'd be able to track the movements of each and every title published."

Mr Lawrence, who is also on a Home Office panel looking at tagging goods to beat crime, says the chips would also speed up stock-taking as an RFID scanner can read up to 100 chips a second.

The Home Office's ultimate aim is to have an RFID tag on every object sold. To that end, it has allocated 4.5m for a series of pilot projects that show how property crime can be reduced using such systems. The initiative is led by the Police Scientific Development Branch and involves companies such as Allied Domecq, Unilever and Argos.

Brought to book

Not only would RFID chips make goods more difficult to steal in the first place, they would also assist the police in identifying and recovering stolen merchandise.

Mr Men books
Children's books attract light-fingered shoppers
Each chip can carry a record of where it was produced and to whom it was sold. The information is also expected to be admissible as evidence in court.

With the chips already being used in US libraries, the UK's book industry is keen to get the technology into shops sooner rather than later.

Yet the cost of this new technology is, at present, too high to be cost-effective on anything but high-value goods. Mr Lawrence says it is still very much a "blue sky" idea. "But then so were bar codes when we first started talking about them back in the 1970s."

It seems that future copies of Abbie Hoffman's famous 1970 manifesto for a free society, Steal This Book, might one day come with an electronic record of everyone who was tempted to do just that.

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