Want to fight piracy?

Try being truly open and interoperable

In a post that dates to last February, Cnet’s David Carnoy lamented what he called the “acceleration” of Kindle e-book piracy.

Carnoy trotted out the usual suspects in pursuit of piracy:

- BitTorrent feeds offering 650 to 2,500 DRM-free books as bundled downloads (conflating the instance of piracy with its impact)

- a claim that the PSP (PlayStation Portable) has been “severely impacted” by piracy (no data is supplied; it’s just that the file size of a PSP download is close to that of a bundled BitTorrent seed)

- the “rise of the iPad has spurred some of the pirating” (even though Simba finds that 40% of iPad owners have never downloaded a book)

In short, there was so much wrong with the column that I just let it stand.  In a world in which the most ardent book readers might read 25 titles in a year, the fear of downloading your next 100 years of reading seemed misplaced.

Last week, CBC News interviewed me for an article on the possibility that piracy could help sell more books by increasing awareness and trial.  Our own research is limited, but the conversation gave me a chance to trot out my own usual suspect:

Piracy is the consequence of a bad API.

The publishers who fear piracy lead with their belief that every instance of piracy has a direct, negative impact and must be stopped.  If that’s your focus, you will favor enforcement and naturally ignore what the data can teach you.

When I hear stories of humongous bundled downloads, I wonder why they would have any appeal.  I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to learn what anyone does with 100 years of advance reading.

One possible answer: whatever we want.  If the titles are DRM free, I can read them on whatever device I choose.  I can move them across platforms without checking with the company that sold me the book.

And yes, I can lend some of the titles to my friends.

That’s one hypothesis; there are others.  If mine held up, it would suggest that publishers might rethink their approach to open.

The current approach features closed platforms (Kindle) and device-specific DRM.  That may comfort publishers in the near term, but it pretty much guarantees that digital book content will never qualify as “open and interoperable”.

To minimize the impact of piracy, publishers should study it to understand where and why it happens.  As David Carnoy’s column illustrates, the data is already out there.  A bit of digging might even show you how to sell e-books at a higher price.

Edited May 1 to add a link to Chris Meadows post on Teleread.  His analysis and the comments that follow are both useful.

Posted by Ron Martinez
Apr 30, 2011  at  01:15 AM

Brian, isn’t it less about who would bother to download hundreds of titles, and more about legit-appearing servers full of pirated works in remote, impenetrable jurisdictions selling, say, the Harry Potter collection for $5.99.

Not that I’m a fan of DRM, but isn’t the class break that unlocks the value for large numbers of people on a per book basis more of a threat than the downloading of large numbers of books on a per person basis?

Posted by Brian O'Leary
Apr 30, 2011  at  09:23 AM

The answer is, I don’t know.

People (including David Carnoy) point to threats, but the instance of piracy isn’t the same as its impact.  My larger point, made here and earlier, is that even if the impact is significant, piracy itself is telling you something.

The Harry Potter downloads could be reframed as the reaction of avid e-readers to a prolonged refusal to publishing any of the series as digital books (frustrating demand).  The large bundles could signal the rejection of the prevailing model for selling territorial rights.

I brought up the DRM angle in part because someone actually took the time to strip it from several thousand books.  That says to me that there may be a market for DRM-free titles.  I’d like to test for that.

It could also be a growing number of people who want to kill publishing.  That’s not my first choice, but it’s a hypothesis.

I’d be willing to test all of these ideas and more.  But things like equating PSP piracy to book downloads because the file sizes are the same just make for bad science.

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