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The New York Times has noticed that e-book piracy seems to be picking up along with e-book popularity, and has interviewed a number of authors, publishers, and other personalities about it.

Some of the authors and publishers, such as Harlan Ellison, are very energetic in their pursuit of pirates. The irascible Ellison, who famously filed the first major lawsuit against unauthorized Internet posting of his work and has pursued 240 cases of unauthorized posting since then, is quoted as saying, “If you put your hand in my pocket, you’ll drag back six inches of bloody stump.”

John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the “Dummies” books, employs three people full-time to do nothing but search out unauthorized postings. Others, such as Cory Doctorow, are more sanguine, and Stephen King does not regard it as worth his time to pursue:

“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys,” Stephen King wrote in an e-mail message. “And to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

Some suggest that the book industry could afford to learn from the mistakes of the music industry. However, this quote drips with what a friend of mine would term “rich, Corinthian irony.”

“If iTunes started three years earlier, I’m not sure how big Napster and the subsequent piratical environments would have been, because people would have been in the habit of legitimately purchasing at pricing that wasn’t considered pernicious,” said Richard Sarnoff, a chairman of Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer titles.

A quick check with Fictionwise’s advanced search finds that at least 5,400 of the 9,413 items offered by Random House—well over half the books they sell—have a suggested retail price of $12.95 or higher. 1,100 of these are $19.95 or higher. Given that this pricing is dictated by the publisher, I would hate to know what level of pricing Random House would find “pernicious.”

If publishers really do want to learn from the music industry’s mistakes, they should learn to stop trying to charge the same amount for e-books as for their physical equivalent. iTunes and Amazon started out selling most MP3 albums for $9.99 no matter how many songs they had on them, as opposed to $14.99 physical CD price.

They should also do something about the regional availability policies that have recently begun to be enforced on Fictionwise and eReader. It would be one thing if each region had its own e-book seller able to offer titles restricted from external vendors, but this is sadly not the case for much of the world.

Authors who are holding out against publishing e-books due to piracy concerns, such as J.K. Rowling, need to get over themselves. They are doing far more to promote piracy by not offering legitimate versions of their books than they are to prevent it.

It also does not help that the e-book market is currently a confusing morass of different e-book formats so that a reader can easily buy a book in a format he does not learn he cannot use until he tries to load it onto his reader. (Whatever its other faults, at least Amazon gets this part right.)

When the only seller of an e-book will not sell it to the people who want it, or it is not offered in a format they can use, or not offered at all, then of course those people will feel justified in pirating it. Likewise when the price at which it is offered appears out of all proportion to its value.

Being just text, or text with a few graphics at most, e-book files are absolutely tiny compared to music or movies. Bundles of hundreds of the most popular books can be downloaded within seconds via BitTorrent, Usenet, or foreign websites. It is flatly impossible to stamp out.

“It’s a game of Whac-a-Mole,” said Russell Davis, an author and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a trade association that helps authors pursue digital pirates. “You knock one down and five more spring up.”

Publishers need to stop attacking the symptom of piracy, and focus their attention on the disease of the anti-consumer practices that are making legitimate e-books difficult or impossible to obtain. Until they can pay more than lip service to the idea of rational pricing and availability, disgruntled would-be customers will get what they want however they can.

 
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