Page last updated at 18:36 GMT, Monday, 19 October 2009 19:36 UK

Are we due a wave of book piracy?

Kindle and illustration of Gutenberg's workshop
The item on the left is a long way from the process on the right

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The Kindle is here. But will the arrival of Amazon's much-hyped e-book reader prompt a wave of book piracy?

The Kindle has landed. That is to say, the first Kindles are being sent out by Amazon today. Some may find their way into excited, sweaty palms by tomorrow.

It's a big moment for the e-reader. While the US has had the Kindle for a while, many will be hoping its global launch will be an "iPod moment" where the new technology becomes mainstream.

The Kindle isn't the first e-reader. Sony, Bookeen, Elonex, Samsung and iRex are also among the firms fighting to win this particular consumer technology battle. But it is backed by Amazon, perhaps the most powerful bookseller in the world.


A look at Amazon's new Kindle e-reader

It's hard to sit on a bus anywhere in the country these days without seeing the ubiquitous white bud headphones that signal the presence of an iPod.

And while music downloading didn't start with the arrival of Apple's player, it gave many otherwise law-abiding customers another reason.

So it is perhaps understandable that there will be more than a little trepidation in the publishing industry as the Amazon Kindle becomes available outside the US for the first time.


Even without the proliferation of the e-reader there has been piracy of authors such as JK Rowling, James Patterson and Dan Brown.

"It took three days for the latest Dan Brown to be widely available illegally," says Alicia Wise, digital consultant to the Publishers Association.

No retailer has ever had to promise they wouldn't come into your house and take a book away
Cory Doctorow

But it's also everything from expensive academic textbooks to modestly priced dictionaries.

"All different kinds of publications are being distributed [illegally] online. That drives sales away from publishers and deprives authors of their living.

"In some cases you can get very high quality counterfeit e-books and people even pay full price for them."

Of course, there is a practical obstacle to book piracy. You can become a music pirate in about five minutes. Get a CD off the shelf and rip it on to your computer. Then head to a file-sharing site. With a book it isn't so simple.

Laborious process

"It's incredibly difficult for someone in their bedroom to digitise a book and put it online," says Graeme Neill of the Bookseller magazine.

Most pirates don't type the whole thing out, but it is still laborious.

"They seem to originate from scans of print copies," says Ms Wise. "Somebody has had to sit there and scan it. Quite a lot of effort goes into creating the first pirated copy.

Amazon publicity still of Kindle
Still unavailable in some countries, including Canada
250,000 titles available to UK users
350,000 available to US users

E-books cost more in the EU, partly because of Vat
Amazon primarily uses .azw format
Files cannot be transferred to other devices
Other non-proprietary file formats can be used - txt, Audible, MP3, unprotected mobi, prc
pdf, html, doc, jpeg, gif, png, bmp through conversion
Amazon's Digital Text Platform allows self-publishing authors to sell their work

"Occasionally, an electronic proof file ends up being pirated.

"They often scan the copyright information which makes it easier for me to detect the infringing content."

In some markets, like China, there has been circulation of pirated books in paper. But in the traditional world of Snipcock and Tweed - Private Eye magazine's archetypal fusty book publisher - pirated e-books represent a radical new threat.

"There is definitely fear," says Neill. "They don't want to make the same mistakes the music industry did."

Like the music industry in the early days, many in the publishing industry will want to use digital rights management (DRM) safeguards embedded in content to stop copying.

Amazon says it leaves it to publishers whether they want to apply DRM. But books in its main proprietary format, .azw, cannot be transferred to other devices.

There are some who think DRM represents a blind alley for authors and publishers, and risks alienating readers. Cory Doctorow, novelist and co-editor of the Boing Boing blog, is one.

"[Anyone who believes in DRM] has never met a typist," he says.

Proscriptive measure

The ability to specify you will read a book in one way on one device is unreasonably proscriptive, Doctorow believes.

"DRM is not an effective way of preventing copying nor is it a good way of making sales. There isn't a customer out there saying 'what I need is an electronic book that does less'.

"It's as if Borders do a deal with Ikea and say you can only read this book under an Ikea bulb and have it on Ikea shelves."

Gutenberg Bible
Once upon a time books were expensive and cumbersome luxuries

No-one in publishing is putting all their faith in DRM. Wise says that the Publishers Association liaises with counterparts and music in film, runs a portal for reporting illegal sites and aids legal action against pirates.

But Doctorow has a more radical solution for the piracy threat.

"My books are Amazon bestsellers and are given away free as downloads.

"My problem isn't piracy it's obscurity. Most people who didn't buy my book, didn't because they had never heard of me, not because they got a free book."

The model is even in use at an imprint at one of the big publishers. The Friday Project at Harpercollins exclusively gets its books from the internet, putting everyone from popular bloggers to exotic meat chefs into print.

Their biggest seller is Tom Reynolds, the pen-name of an ambulanceman responsible for the Random Acts of Reality blog.

Present for mum

"We are contractually obliged to give his electronic version away for free," says publisher Scott Pack.

"People do download it, say I love it, I'm going to buy the physical book… it will make the perfect present for my mum."

And apart from the free e-books that Mr Pack has at his imprint, the paid-for ones sell for only £2.99, less than even the cheapest Amazon e-book.

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol
The likes of Dan Brown are regularly pirated

Amazon's titles will cost $11.99 (£7.37) to $13.99 (£8.60) for bestsellers and new releases in the UK. In the US the charge is only $9.99 (£6.14). Amazon explains the discrepancy by saying that Vat has to be applied on e-books in the EU - paper books are Vat-free - and that there are other additional costs.

Mr Pack acknowledges the free model works best while e-books are a relatively new concept. If in 10 years time, 70% of all books sold are e-books and the accepted price is £1.99, the publishing industry is going to be in trouble, he says.

As well as costing almost as much a paper version, when you buy an e-book you don't completely control it. Doctorow thinks Amazon committed an extraordinary public relations own goal recently when - in a twist of irony - users found that George Orwell's 1984 had been remotely deleted from their Kindles because of legal issues.

The company rapidly apologised and gave users new copies,

"They restored the books. The problem was at the bottom of the apology was the statement 'we won't do this again unless a court tells us to'.

"No retailer has ever had to promise they wouldn't come into your house and take a book away.

"Designing book readers that allow books to be deleted without their owner's decision is a design mistake."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I've had a Sony Reader for a while now. The problem with the e-books I've paid money for, from a notable high street retailer no less, is that I paid more than the paperback price for something that was full of stupid errors that made it nearly unreadable (an example being where it should have read "her; its" it was "beret"!). As I said when I asked for my money back, if I wanted something that had been scanned and not proofed I'd have Torrented it. It's getting better; when I first got into e-books, if you wanted a book it was pretty much assured that there wasn't an electronic version. When the publishers put as much effort into e-books as they do into their paper versions, it will take off and treeware will be as quaint as cassette tapes are now. I hope.
Penny, Basildon, Essex

The Doctorow model provides free advertising for the producer, treats the consumer as a responsible thinking creature and clearly pays dividends. Although I have greatly enjoyed the free output of his works, I have also made several purchases for my self and others - behaving as though all your customers are honest builds brand loyalty, who'd a thunk it? The scary horror stories music and books publishers tell themselves around the campfire are seldom if ever based on real world fact. When Napster first came on the scene, music sales went up and there have been a number of subsequent studies that show file sharers buy more music and films.

The Kindle is a failed and limited concept. What the Napster experience and others show is that people want ease of access to a wide range of material, not some locked down, proprietary nonsense. Now if book publishers, magazine publishers and newspapers could bang their heads together and stop being afraid of a few impoverished teenage boogymen we could have an open, subscription-based device that would increase their circulation and income, whilst saving the wasteful production and manufacture of tonnes of paper stock, to say nothing of the transportation costs. Meeting the needs of the customer, respecting them AND making money - there, it wasn't so hard was it?
Tim, Sheffield, UK

As a published author I want DRM, and lots of it. Rejecting DRM on the grounds that consumers don't like it is rather like telling a department store not to employ security guards because that might upset shoplifters.
Graham Barker , Hebden Bridge, UK

I went e-book this summer, using a tool called Mobipocket which runs on any Windows-enabled device... this includes my mobile phone which makes an e-book collection readily portable - the Kindle's way too big & clumsy, and Mobi will cope with text files, PDF files, all sorts of formats.
Megan, Cheshire UK

I read many e-books, some bought, some downloaded for free, BUT, I always buy the original print copy IF I like it. Get a taste for an author and perhaps you'll buy a hard copy, works for me. I do only download DRM-free e-books, I wouldn't touch anything else.
Peter, Basingstoke

There's also the major issue that there's a limit to the number of times you can download the DRM e-book you have purchased. This limit might be as low as once, but usually isn't visible to the user. This despite the fact that there are perfectly legitimate reasons to re-download (lost or broken Kindle, accidentally deleted, deleted due to memory limitations, upgrades wiped data, etc). I have a "library" of hundreds of e-books - most free from Gutenberg or Baen. I resent paying high prices for e-books. The marginal cost of each e-book downloaded is close to zero - there's no printing, materials, or transport cost, so why should it cost as much as the dead-tree version?
Deborah, Amersham

I have had a Sony e-book reader for sometime and I don't really use it. I like the idea but the companies are just to greedy. I can walk into a supermarket and buy two paperback books for the cost of one e-book, what is the markup on this? With the paper book, I pass it round friends etc when I have read it and then leave it at a charity shop. I can't do any of this with the e-books. I can see that the whole MP3 file sharing scenario happening again with e-books as the companies are just to greedy. The only time I use the reader is to view IT text books as most of these have a complementary e-book, but it is easier to stick them all on a pen drive and use the ubiquitous Adobe reader on work pc's. I only paperback novels and I will not buy e-book versions until they are cheaper for me to buy, this will still make the publishers more money but you cannot account for sheer greed and it proves that companies do not always learn from the past mistakes.
Iain, Warrington

I work with some publishers so I know the cost of doing print runs in small to medium scale publications (up to 20,000 copies), and publishers do a disservice by saying that electronic versions have other costs - aside from royalties to the author and one off set-up costs (which would be the same for hard copy), there are no costs other than bandwidth of distributing electronic books. I find it astonishing that some e-books cost as much as the hardback and can't help but think if I pay £20 for a hardback, it should come with a code for a complementary copy of the e-book, or that the e-book should cost a fiver at most. Look at the cost of an album on iTunes compared to a CD on the High St and tell me that an e-book should cost the same as a hardback.
Alex, St Albans

Book "piracy" is certainly not a new phenomenon, people as illustrious as Benjamin Franklin were heavily involved in the unauthorised distribution in the Americas of British authors works in the 18th Century and Charles Dickens conducted a tour in 1842 to try to highlight the problem. Coming more up to date electronic book piracy is also not a new occurrence, and high quality home scanned, and proof read books have been shared on various corners of the internet such as IRC chat rooms, since at least the late 90s. The people involved in these endeavours are certainly not doing it for profit as Alicia Wise seems to suggest as most are distributed via free file sharing servers. Eventually in the 1896 the USA fell into line and joined the international copyright movement. It will be interesting to see if the parallels between lawless early America and the internet continue. Somehow I doubt they will.
Ricky Bruce, Norwich

It sounds as though the chancellor needs to do something about the VAT issue in his next budget. E-books have the potential to be far greener than print media due to the lack of trees and ink required to produce them, and the fuel required to distribute them.
Dave, Cambridge, UK

Its depressing to see Cory Doctorow, who is otherwise bang on target with his views on DRM, can get it quite so wrong about how to sell his books. Giving away e-books versions of a paper book as a way of gaining market recognition is a valid marketing strategy...for selling paper books. If trying to create a market for the e-books themselves, it is entirely counter-productive, because it doesn't make you any money for the e-books, and worse, it encourages the view that anything electronic should be free, regardless of the creators wanting to be paid for their work. He is, of course, entirely correct about DRM, which is so easy to break that it provides no barrier to piracy whatsoever, and in fact encourages piracy by making it harder or impossible to read a book legally than it is to steal it.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this whole business is the publishers claiming they don't want to make the same mistakes the music business did, and then going ahead and proceeding to do just that: slapping DRM on everything, using proprietary formats, that they refuse to share, forcing users to have multiple, expensive, reading devices, and the having the unmitigated gall to charge more for the electronic version than the paper version, when the electronic copy has much lower distribution costs and zero production costs. Is it any wonder people get angry with them, give up and steal them instead?
David Lucke, London

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific