How Publishers Encourage Piracy

This post, from Chris Walters, originally appeared on Booksprung on 10/4/09.

When a recalcitrant publisher and an impatient consumer square off online, it’s almost always the consumer–at least the tech-savvy one–who wins. Here are four ways in which publishers are encouraging piracy.


1. By not releasing official digital copies of works online.

Consider the work of Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa. Under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, she published the short story collection Seven Gothic Tales in the 1930s, and the collection Anecdotes of Destiny in the 1950s. She’s a little obscure, but not forgotten; her short story “Babette’s Feast” and her novel Out of Africa were both adapted into Oscar-winning films in the 1980s, and she’s a widely acknowledged and praised artist.

Her work, however, isn’t available in ebook format on the Amazon Kindle store, the Sony ebook store, or fictionwise. If I want to read her work on a digital device–and I do–my only recourse is to scan a printed copy, convert it to a digital copy, and create my own digital version.

This digital version will exist entirely outside of the official publishing world; whoever holds Blixen’s copyrights will never see revenue off of it. By contrast, if either of those short story collections was available on any of the three ebook stores I mentioned above, I would have already bought them.

It’s not just a problem for dead authors, of course. In May the New York Times pointed out that a digital copy of J. K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard appeared on the website Scribd earlier this year. What’s more telling is that a reader wrote, “thx for posting it up ur like the robinhood of ebooks,” on the Sribd page. That’s not the cackling of a pirate, but the enthusiasm of a fan.

Rowling is famous for refusing to release her books digitally, and yet I can locate and download all seven Harry Potter books, plus the Beedle the Bard collection, in less than an hour. There are readers clamoring for her books in digital format, and they’d be more than eager to pay for the privilege; instead, she’s allowed piracy to dominate her online sales.

I would argue that every time a stubborn author or publisher refuses to release a popular book digitally, she contributes to the wider problem of piracy by helping normalize both the procedures by which one pirates a book and the behavior of reading unauthorized copies. That’s right, all you midlist authors afraid of your income drying up; you can thank Rowling for helping the ecosystem of pirated books grow larger by the year.

2. By crippling content so that it only works on one device, or only works if the reader is given permission by a retailer or publisher to open the file.

When I first bought an Amazon Kindle, one of the first frustrations I experienced was that my ebooks were tied to the Kindle device for no good reason. (Well, for no good consumer reason.) I had other devices that would display ebooks just as well, including a Nokia smartphone and an Asus netbook, and depending on the day I might have any combination of the three devices with me. What I discovered was that in order to read the ebook when I wanted to using whatever I had nearby, I would have to crack the encryption that locked the ebook to the Amazon Kindle.

But note that by doing that, I would be creating a new, unlocked version of the work that existed outside of the publishing industry. What’s worse, it would be in a standardized format (like ePub or PDF) that would be more popular and more robust than the locked Amazon format–which means it would be more attractive to other consumers should I ever put that new file online.

Read the rest of the post, which includes 2 more ways publishers encourage piracy, on Booksprung.