D&D bookThe other day, I made an on-line purchase of an old TSR role-playing game PDF. Wizards of the Coast has recently begun offering a substantial portion of TSR’s back catalog through a number of PDF e-tailers; at some point I will write a longer entry looking at that phenomenon in greater depth. The store I used for this particular purchase was Paizo.com; it had the best price on the book I was looking for.

The book in question was the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, the penultimate compilation of all the old “Basic” D&D rules into a single volume. A friend was contemplating running a game of it, and at $4 for the whole book (without restrictive DRM but watermarked to discourage redistribution), I couldn’t lose.

However, as it turned out, a popular game supplement had been released as a PDF that very day, and currently everyone was downloading it—which meant that bandwidth left over for my download was minimal. I was getting a 1K per second transfer rate—which meant that the 80-megabyte file would take over 24 hours.

Pictures don’t lie

Given that I had just paid in full for the right to make use of that particular book in PDF, I had no qualms about obtaining a less-than-legitimate copy of it from another source. The file I found clocked in at 18 megabytes; I figured that it would do until I could complete my download of the “legitimate” one.

The next morning, my purchased download had completed, and I was able to make a side-by-side comparison of the legitimate and illicit versions. Based on the following images, which do you think is which?

Is this the legitimate one?

Or is this?

If you guessed from the misaligned table column on the top one and the colored backgrounds on the bottom one that the top was the illicit copy, you guessed right.

But which one of them is easier to read?

More licit is not more legible

The paper version of the Rules Cyclopedia, which I also have, is printed in black and green ink on off-white paper. There is no color artwork in it, save for green leaves on the header and footer filigree, and the green backgrounds on some tables. Nonetheless, it was scanned in color and treated as images with OCR’d text overlaid, producing an ivory-colored background—and a file size four times larger than the other one. The illicit version was scanned in black and white, apparently processed via OCR and reconstructed; it lacks the table backgrounds—but on the whole, it is much less blurry and more legible, and is the version I would prefer for reading. (Not to mention printing, given the cost of colored ink.) Also, though not directly related to readability, the illicit PDF file had a better, more detailed table of contents.

Understand, I am not condoning downloading books illicitly instead of purchasing them. Given that these books are available for purchase at incredibly inexpensive prices through multiple online outlets, supporting the publishers should be a no-brainer. However, it does appear that in some cases, the publishers could stand to learn a thing or two from the “pirates” about legibility.

Previous articleClosing the set: H. Beam Piper
Next article‘Activists unveil stealth browser’
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


  1. Actually, the classic PDFs were released about 3 years ago, or so. The project was begun then, and I donated a few old classics I had to the project. It’s just that in the last year, WotC has opened it up to a few more retailers (namely DriveThruRPG and Paizo). Originally, they were sold through a site of their own, then through RPGnow (which still offers them).

    The trouble is, the project never got much funding and was essentially a one-man job. When he could no longer keep up, it died. He managed to get a bunch of classics scanned and put up, but there’s a few notable ones missing still.

  2. Actually, there are a number of cases where the pirated versions of content are “better” than the legitimate versions. It really points at the lack of vision of content companies, and also at the care and love given to content by amateur hobbyists.

    PC games are one realm where you’re often better off getting a pirated copy than a legitimate one – the legitimate copies are locked down with copy protection that sometimes interferes with other software, requires the game disc to be physically inserted, and other minor annoyances. The pirated versions are much easier to install and run.

    Similarly, DVD movies often have unskippable advertisements, including copy protection warnings. The downloadable versions of these DVDs leave out the useless stuff and let the user play the movie right away.

    It’s sad that the customer who downloads often has a better experience than the paying customer, but really the blame lies firmly with the content provider. It’s no wonder that customers choose to pirate so often. I imagine the people like Chris and I – who buy the legitimate version as well as downloading – are few and far between.

  3. That confirms my observations 🙁 not only concerning ebooks, but also audio books and other digital editions delivered over an intangible medium. Even tough you pay, you get less (and often slower), as the companies do not care that much about a) the ease of use and b) the single title.

    Concerning a: The “pirates” often seem to use their own product, ergo their product is user-centric, and moreover they have no money to loose => no motivation to restrictions. Thus, this advantage of priate’s versions is not likely to change, unless companies change their fundamental attitudes, e.g. towards “we employ only people consuming our products”.

    Concerning b: The “pirates” seem to produce few titles only and thus are optimizing per title.What I do not understand: The companies are producing a big amout of titles, thus the price of good equipment spreads among enough titles, and they accumulate a lot of experience — thus they shall be producing the better quality…

    Anyway, I wish you a nice role playing evening 🙂

  4. I had the same experience with comic books. On my blog I have done all I can to publicize the Marvel CD/DVD releases of Spider-Man, etc., and written quite a few e-mails to various journalists who have written about the dearth of legit digital comics from major comics publishers.

    But the bottom line is that the scans I can download without paying a penny are much higher quality than the legit DVD releases.

    Why don’t the companies just nab the scans and re-sell them? It’d be a lot easier than trying to download all of them from the fanboy’s perspective, there’s no upfront cost of having to do the scan themselves (which, as one of the other commenters notes, is very laborious), and surely there aren’t any IP issues given that the people scanning and uploading comics are almost certainly committing a crime in doing so.

  5. Here’s my take… it’s all in profits… they get 5 or 6 bucks a copy for a netbook they MIGHT sell a copy of. to do a netbook right would take a person the better part of a day just to scan and OCR… let alone the several days to repair layouts, correct mistakes, update with erratta, and finally index and bookmark in PDF. All told.. a truly professional job would take over a week per average sized book. I know… I’ve done it with books before so my players would stop spilling their sodas on my good hardcovers. Economically… you would have to sell hundreds of copies to pay for the man hours… even at a low hourly wage… to pay for someone to create even a handful of them. No… all they are going to do is create them as fast as humanly possible and then update the ones that users really complain about… maybey. Now what I’m planning to do is buy the PDF’s, then give them extreme make-overs. If the company is lucky I may even upload the enhanced edition back to them in exchange for a new book to copy… what can I say… unlike them I LOVE gaming and am willing to put hours into it for slave wages.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.