image Pirates find easy new pickings in open waters of e-book publishing is the headline of a Times piece in the U.K. As reported there:

–American publishers have lost “more than $600 million” to piracy, by one estimate.

–Readers downloaded illegal copies of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol “more than 100,000 times” within days.

–In excess of 4,000 piracy cases have been reported to The Publishers Association in the U.K.

These numbers are still small compare to total p-book sales, but will increase as E catches on in popularity.

The best way to fight piracy? Get e-book shoppers accustomed to buying from legitimate sources before it’s too late. That means easy downloading, fair prices and the ability to move content easily from machine to machine within a household. Use of the standard ePub format and the end of traditional DRM could go a long way in that regard. Social DRM, anyone?

Elsewhere on the piracy front: Digital divide over filesharing plans: Digital economy bill proposals receive welcome from music and film, but anger from ISPs and privacy campaigner, in the Guardian.

Related: TechCrunch piece on DRM and Chris Meadows’ different perspective. Also see Why social DRM makes sense: Wise words from book maven Mike Shatzkin.


  1. A little perspective, from the article:

    American publishers are estimated to have lost more than $600 million (£363 million) last year to piracy.

    Not to say there isn’t an issue, but let’s not use numbers to justify arguments, because they are largely fudged by the very entities that are resisting the e-book market in the first place.

    And I agree that these numbers are comparatively small right now. There is still time to introduce a fair and reasonable market to e-books, and minimize loss through theft.

    IMO, social DRM doesn’t do it… it won’t actually prevent anything. Social responsibility is the way to go.

  2. Steve. Thanks for your thoughts, but social DRM encourages social responsibility by reminding people that THEY are the owners of the book (in the consumer sense). Embedding people’s names in books won’t prevent copying, just discourage it. But then again, DRM not only is crackable but ENCOURAGES piracy by penalizing legitimate owners. Social DRM on the other hand still permits easy transfer of books to other devices–within a household–that can read ePub or whatever. You can own your book for real. Not such a bad way to promote social responsibility, eh?


  3. You’ll get a much better response from customers with carrots than sticks. Social DRM is a smaller and gentler stick, sure, but it’s still an obstacle you’re putting up between the customer and what the customer wants.

    This problem will remain until new models emerge where we look at “piracy” as promotion and find new ways for authors to make a living. DRM of any kind is a dead end.

  4. My best guess is that the $600 million figure comes from here:

    which shows total sales in 2008 being $600 million down on 2007. Amazing how that ‘piracy’ figure jumps up an down over the years!

    What’s surprising is how fast ebook sales are rising, given the format problems, DRM and insane pricing strategies.

  5. @David,
    I’ve never agreed that the presence of DRM “encourages” piracy, any more than having a road speed limit “encourages” drivers to speed, or having a lock on a door “encourages” random passersby to kick it down. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

    DRM limitations may “encourage” people to crack them, for their own use. But that is a long way from sharing it with others, or downloading it to the darknet, or whatever.

    Personally, I think reliable methods of tracking (most) illegitimate file transfers and penalizing those who sent them is a good idea… even if the penalty is just a charge against their account, equal to the consumer price of the content, to be sent to the publisher of the content.

    ISPs may not be policemen, but there are precedents for industries being directed to include various safety or security systems for the public good… assuming there was such a system available, which we do not have, yet, anyway.

    Since we don’t have a reliable security system in place, it is therefore vital that we take action where we can, promoting social responsibility… which doesn’t require big flags to be put on people’s content, “reminding” them not to give it away. Make sure they don’t need reminding… and make sure consumers don’t have an incentive to take bootlegged copies of works… that’s the ticket.

  6. it is clear that a great many people lack the moral compass to tell them that downloading pirated copies of copyright protected material is wrong. i’m skeptical that all of these downloads represent actual money lost, though. a great many people are only downloading free material because it’s free, and will just bail out if they hit a pay-wall.

    but it may not be unrealistic to think that such people might care about the quality and accuracy of the texts they’re downloading. how do they know they’re getting the actual text they want? has a pirate changed the ending, just for fun? and how about formatting (line-breaks, chapter-breaks etc.)?

  7. That’s the kind of thing a public information campaign can use as a point against bootleg copies… you don’t know that you’re getting the REAL thing (if you can’t appeal to their sense of fair play, appeal to their pride: “Dude, you’re so lame downloading that badly-formatted inaccurate c**p”). In many ways, it’s a psychological campaign, “getting people’s minds right”… but it can be done… it’s been done before.

  8. As an ethical pirate, I’ve never stolen or shared something that I could purchase without DRM. I won’t pay for a book that the publisher will take back away from me when I change my reader hardware or software. If I had author addresses, I’d mail them money every time I downloaded one of their books, but I’ll never support a publisher that takes so much from their authors and gives so little to the consumer.

  9. @Steve Jordan,
    Your comparisons are flawed. Speed limits don’t prevent you from getting where you want to go, driving the car you want, or cause you to lose your vehicle entirely. A locked door doesn’t prevent me from getting anywhere I would reasonably like to go.

    But DRM does prevent me from using the device I want, tweaking the output presentation (such as removing the ridiculously large borders on most commercial texts), using new feature such as text to speech, and keeping my content for as long as I wish.

    The pirate copy has ease of downloading, ease of transferring, and no restrictions. I won’t say that DRM “encourages” piracy, but when someone is offering a better product for less money…

    You posit that people will download the commercial text and use a cracking tool. However, those tools are difficult for most people to use and certainly much more difficult than snagging a copy from a download site. It is far more likely that the “ethical” readers will purchase the book and then use the download _as_ their cracked copy. However, encouraging readers to become familiar and comfortable with, even supporting of, the pirate experience is a really bad strategy.

    I know you are in favor of DRM (if someone comes up with one you find acceptable … which I believe to be impossible), but I bought your books for very simple reasons: it was cheap, convenient, and easy.

  10. Actually, I’m not positing or encouraging that people should use cracking tools… I’m simply aware that some of them do use the tools. Most do not, and don’t want to have to. I don’t think anyone should have to. But I’m not especially concerned with the relatively few people who use cracking tools to free-up a book for their own use.

    My biggest concern is that people who cannot get the e-books they want in the way they want them will simply obtain bootleg copies (which will not compensate their creators), rather than make an organized effort to encourage the publishers to sell the e-books the way they want them… without DRM.

    If publishers saw evidence that consumers would pay for non-DRM’d products, and not download bootleg copies, they’d be more willing to offer products that way. Unfortunately, that is not what they see or hear from consumers. So you can’t blame them for wanting to protect their products.

    Your example of people who buy books, then go download bootlegged copies, is not necessarily representative of the majority of e-book readers. In fact, many readers who learn how easily they can download bootleg copies won’t bother to buy printed copies on the next go-round. So, yes, those people should be able to get non-DRM’d books at fair prices, to do with as they please, to keep them out of the bootleg sites.

    Unfortunately, some of those people will do the wrong things with those e-books. That’s why it’s important to appeal to the public’s sense of fair play and honesty not to rip producers off just because they can. And a message like that is often taken more seriously when there is at least a chance of getting caught, or getting in trouble, if it is violated… sad, but true.

    Yes, I’m in favor of product security. However, I know that existing DRM systems provide nothing of the sort, which makes them counter-productive, and might as well be scrapped. If it means we have to suffer with losses through theft until workable security can be devised, so be it… that’s the market we producers will have to live with.

  11. I don’t have a lot of use for Neiman Marcus. I think their prices are too high, the conspicuous consumption of zillion dollar fashion unhealthy for the economy and for many of their customers’ budgets, and the whole labels thing pathetic. I express my feelings not by walking into their store and shoplifting, but simply by not purchasing from them but instead buying from retailers who, I feel, offer usable product at an affordable price.

    My wish and goal is that readers would do the same. If you don’t like DRM (and I certainly understand why people wouldn’t), why not buy from publishers and retailers who don’t impose DRM? I know Steve’s books are often available without DRM (except where retailers impose DRM). My own books are the same…available in multiformat from Fictionwise, OmniLit and directly from the publisher. It certainly isn’t as if the big NY publishers offer a universally superior reading experience.

    Piracy is destructive not only to the authors and publishers whose books are pirated, but also to those of us who offer our books at affordable prices without DRM encumberence because every time a Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling book is pirated and read, that takes that many reading hours from reading our books.

    Rob Preece

  12. I know Steve’s books are often available without DRM (except where retailers impose DRM).

    Not often, in fact… always. It’s one of the reasons I decided not to allow my books to be pushed from Smashwords up to the Kindle, Sony and B&N stores: To maintain control, and to make sure DRM wasn’t incorporated into my works.

    Rob is right: When a retailer sells in a manner you don’t like, the solution is to shop elsewhere… not to steal from their shop. There may be bad laws that should be opposed by civil disobedience… but this isn’t one of them. It’s just a book. If you don’t like the terms, you don’t need the book.

  13. You mentioned fair prices in your post and I have not seen that in many sites. Often, there is only a small discount on the e Book version compared to it’s printed counterpart. This seems ridiculous when the book does not have to be printed, bound, and boxed – therefore there are no raw material, production labor or shipping costs. Until this pricing is addressed, people will always justify their piracy. I suspect one purchase I made was pirated. The day after my purchase, the seller was gone from the auction site. However, as a previous post stated, I would not have made the purchase at all at the publisher’s prices.

  14. People who pirate always find reasons to justify it… take your pick: “It’s too expensive.” “There’s no physical product.” “The author is dead.” “The author is a jerk.” “My government rips me off.” “My ISP rips me off.” “My gas station rips me off.” “My Dad hates me.” “I lost my job.” “It’s Thursday.” That will never change.

    The day someone can tell me how politely saying “Please don’t steal from me” will override those peoples’ penchant for making any lame excuse to take what they want, is the day I start believing in social DRM…

  15. Ok, let me post a reply from a non-techie consumer’s point of view:

    1. I, like so many of my friends, love to read. I currently purchase paperbacks at Costco, Sams, Amazon and B&N. We sometimes share or exchange books since honestly we are working class and books aren’t cheap. I would rather read than watch alot of the “prime time” junk available on TV and I prefer to wait till a book goes to paperback to avoid a hard cover price.

    2. I am reading this column since the ereader subject interests me enough that I have pre-ordered a Nook. I am trying to learn about formats and the reason I resisted a Kindle for so long was because I learned that their format didn’t work on other books.

    3. I purchased the Nook because it will read: pdf, epub and a few other formats plus play MP3 tracks. I don’t bother with audible books, and what really excites me is that I can use the “reader” to read library books as well as purchased books.

    4. I liked the Nook because its frame seems less thick, more attractive and less bulky in design. Sure the little color touch screen is nice to sort thru covers but the virtual keyboard there is more important.

    5. I intend to share or swap my owned books with friends like we currently do. It appears that the Nooks book lending process is a bit limited but I am hoping that enough “techies” figure out a workaround using the Android OS, to allow us to swap and share our own books.

    6. I refuse to purchase a book that I can’t read on my PC or share. That is simply BS! If I pay for it then it must be MINE, this is not a book “borrowing” fee I pay when I purchase a book, I want to keep it, move it to a newer reader down the road or toss it if it turns out to be crap.

    I hope that as formats are developed or agreed to, that a universal system is developed that will then encourage true competition between ereader manufacturers which in turn, should give us better options and hopefully, lower prices down the road. I respect a public library zapping or locking up a “borrowed” book after 14 days but it would be hell if I paid for the book and 2 years down the road I can’t migrate to a newer reader.

    Publishers and authors need to pay attention to these issues and make their ebooks available to the widest audience possible. I think it easier to pay for a legal ebook than trying to learn or figure out how to get pirate copies, expose my pc to corrupted or infected files, etc. People will carry ereaders that are easy to use and will buy ebooks that are reasonably priced and these should be less than the hard copy. I mean really, why buy something “virtual” when you can get the “real thing” cheaper?

    Thank you for allowing me to rant. I believe in the future of ereaders just like the Ipods and other music devices when they first arrived on the scene. Folks will continue to enjoy music and books, we simply can now take them with us easily and enjoy them anywhere!!!

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