I read a great deal of noise from authors concerned about theft of their ebooks online, and it seems to be one of the primary fears they have about DRM-free (Digital Right Managed) electronic distribution. But if illegal ebooks prove to be anything like old-school internet warez distribution, I believe authors can worry a little less.
In those primeal internet years, well before peer-to-peer technologies such as torrents were developed, ugly entities called warez sites sprang up to distribute illegal copies of software, games and serial numbers one might otherwise have to pay for. Hackers became crackers (mostly from mainland Europe I seem to remember), specialising in breaking through each new level of software piracy protection. Geeks would hoard thousands of applications on bulging, expensive hard drives, boosting their community status by boasting “ownership” of PhotoShop 2.0 less than one week after its release. (I am talking about everyday internet users here, not organised software “pirates” who burn duplicate disks and print fake boxes.)
Warez were downloaded simply because they could be; because they were there. Sure, some illegal copies were used, sometimes commercially, but the vast majority – and I’m talking from my personal experience with geeks from that time – were downloaded purely for status and by individuals who would never have purchased the paid version in the first place. They downloaded, installed, played for an hour or two, then shoved them onto an archive or backup disk (remember computer hard disks were both small and hugely expensive). It would be simply impossible for any individual to utilise the vast libraries of collected software for any real gain.
The majority of deliberate software piracy I came across working in the design industry – which utilised what might be regarded as the prime piracy targets: Adobe, Quark, et al – came from companies with multiple computer workstations but only one or two legitimate serial numbers.
I remember freelancing for a regional but prestigious design company, just after Adobe introduced network serial number checking. Each workstation had its ethernet network cable connector deliberately routed around the front of the computer. Before booting Photoshop, I was instructed to disconnect the network cable to prevent the software sniffing other copies with the same serial number on the network.
More ebooks than ever
It is not hard to find ilegal download locations for individual books or even collections of thousands of books. Such downloads are not limited to ebooks, you will find countless converted scanned printed books, too.
I believe the warez mentality of the early internet prevails here.
[aside]those downloads are made by individuals who would never have purchased the book in the first place…[/aside]
Authors and publishers may be facing the prospect of many thousands of copies of their books illegally downloaded, but I believe the vast majority of those downloads are made by individuals who would never have purchased the book in the first place. Consider this: if you download a hundred books, how many will you actually read? How many would you have purchased if the illegal download option had not been available?
Are authors losing revenue? Of course, but I do not believe the level of lost revenue from illegal file sharing is as significant as the publishing industry, and many authors, insist.
The situation is very different for DVDs, movies and audio books. These media types can be viewed or listened to whilst working, for example. It is no stretch of the imagination to appreciate that it is far more likely downloaded movies will be watched than downloaded books will be read – purely because of the time commitment.
Online vs offline
I continue to believe the vast majority of genuine readers – by that I mean individuals who select a book because they wish to read it rather than simply “own” it – will continue to purchase the majority of their book collections, even with the growth of reading devices.
The internet gives us a distorted view of the world: geeks are the mainstream. (Though where an author’s audience consists of a majority of geeks, perhaps they have greater cause for concern than if the audience is generally over 65 years old.)
As authors and publishers, we must use our energies in educating readers about the nature and benefits of books in whichever format – particularly regarding their pricing (that’s a whole other story) – and not waste too much energy worrying about illegal distribution amongst the ethereal audience: individuals who would never read our books at all if forced to pay for them.