On the eBook Community list a few days ago, a poster by the name of Bill Czygan posed this question:

I notice that there is quite a good selection of recent books, and especially popular series of books, available on P2P. Does anyone think this is a beginning of the wave toward freely available electronic texts for everything? In other words, does this bode the complete breakdown of copyright as a method of protecting an interest in works.

On the face of it, this seems like a typical newbie question on a subject that has probably been discussed dozens of times on that list (sorry, Bill). But the question, and some of the responses in the thread, led me to some interesting thoughts.

It was Mary E. Tyler’s response that really started me thinking. She succinctly stated, “Not for a generation yet. But in a generation, we’re all in trouble.” I thought, “Why a generation? The MPAA and RIAA are acting like the sky is falling right now.” But then it hit me: the book publishing industry is not in the same situation as audio and video publishers, even though their publications are being shared just the same.

Share and share alike

Despite the best efforts of the ‘AAs, file sharing is not going away. The Internet does not respect national boundaries; if file sharing enablers are prosecuted to extinction in one country, they will simply move to one that does not honor the Berne Convention in the same ways and start right up again. And realistically speaking, there are just too many file sharers and downloaders to prosecute effectively. The only way to get rid of it would be to impose restrictions on computers so tight as to illegalize altogether do-it-yourself operating systems such as Linux—and it is doubtful that will happen.

One unlikely place that the copyright war—or the “copyfight,” as copyright activists often call it—has heated up is in Sweden, where there is a rapidly-growing political party calling itself Piratpartiet, or the Pirate Party. The Pirate Party and two loosely-associated activist groups—Piratbyran (the “Pirate Bureau”) and the Pirate Bay BitTorrent website—have been shaking up the landscape of intellectual property politics in Sweden. But the interesting thing is that they do not see the copyright battle as one-sided, or see the future in clearer terms than anyone else. These excerpts from a Wired News article are particularly interesting:

If piracy’s foes offer flawed solutions, Sweden’s pirates concede that their own vision isn’t utopian. Parting with many copyright minimalists in the United States, Piratbyran acknowledges that file sharing can do real harm to rights holders. When [Piratbyran co-founders] Kaarto and Fleischer discuss this aspect of their movement, their flippancy fades, and their mood becomes reflective. Fleischer tells the story of Swedish jazz in 1962.

When pop music came to Sweden, it hit hard enough that in a single summer most of Sweden’s jazz artists were left scrambling for a livelihood. Just as silent movies destroyed theater, then talkies left the silent stars unemployed, progress, he hints, always creates losers as well as winners.

But progress has to be accommodated anyway, says Kaarto. “You have to change the map, not the world.”


Later, I’m in [Pirate Bay operator] Peter’s old BMW station wagon. “One day, all these cars will run on hydrogen,” Peter proclaims, gesturing around Malmo.

“How will they make the hydrogen?” I ask.

He answers quickly, smiling, “I don’t know!”

But, he assures me, they will and it isn’t his problem to figure out how.

It’s not the problem of the pirates, he tells me later, to figure out how to compensate artists or encourage invention away from the current intellectual property system—someone else will figure that out. Their job is just to tear down the flawed system that exists, to force the hand of society to make something better.

If the next thing isn’t good enough, they will tear that down, too.

Caution: Demolition in progress

Like Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man in the last few chapters of the book, the music and movie industries may be starting to see their established models, the ways they think and operate, being torn down and taken apart. They are reacting confusedly, trying to litigate and educate the threat away, but in the end it’s all just taking up arms against a sea of troubles; they seem to be losing the battle for the public’s hearts and minds.

According to an LA Times/Bloomberg poll:

Among teens aged 12 to 17 who were polled, 69 percent said they thought it was legal to copy a CD from a friend who purchased the original. By comparison, only 21 percent said it was legal to copy a CD if a friend got the music for free. Similarly, 58 percent thought it was legal to copy a friend’s purchased DVD or videotape, but only 19 percent thought copying was legal if the movie wasn’t purchased. Those figures are a big problem for the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, both of which have spent millions of dollars to deter copying of any kind. The music industry now considers so-called ‘schoolyard’ piracy—copies of physical discs given to friends and classmates—a greater threat than illegal peer-to-peer downloading, according to the RIAA.

The ignorance of teenagers as to matters of copyright law is hardly surprising in light of the recent Zogby poll that showed most Americans know significantly less about law, politics, and history than they do about pop culture—there’s a lot of ignorance going around these days. And copyright advocates are probably shaking their heads at these numbers and bemoaning the callousness of our youth, so freely copying and swapping the hard-produced sweat of artists’ brows.

But look again at those numbers. Why would so many fewer teens think it was legal to copy it if their friend got it for free than if their friend paid for it? You would think it should be the other way around. Perhaps our youth isn’t quite so callous after all; it seems to me those numbers bespeak an awareness at some level that the artists deserve to be paid for what they create. Granted, this awareness still falls well short of the law, which says the artists should be paid for every single copy, not every nth copy—but at least it shows they’re thinking about it, not just copying blindly because they want it.

Nonetheless, the music industry and the movie industry are under siege right now. People are swapping audio and video files via peer-to-peer or “schoolyard” trading, burning them to CD or DVD or just playing them on their computers. The MPAA is putting paternalistic public service announcements at the start of every theatrical film and sending IR-goggle-equipped patrols roaming through theater seating; the RIAA is suing random people for huge sums and offering to settle for their life savings.

The book publishing industry is…getting upset because someone might make a profit out of indexing its books.

The Peer-to-peer dichotomy

That’s right; with very few notable exceptions, writers and publishers are taking almost no action against the Internet sharing of their books—or at least no action that draws widespread public notice the way the RIAA’s and MPAA’s do. We’re not seeing “Downloading books is wrong!” advertisements in our novels (beyond the “thou shalt not copy/store/transmit” notice on the copyright page, and the occasional “if the cover was ripped off, the author didn’t get any money” stripped-book warning, but those have always been there); we’re not hearing about widespread lawsuits against dozens of book-sharers at a time. The biggest bugaboo that the publishing industry can muster right now is Google Book Search, and that’s hardly a threat on the same level as tens or hundreds of thousands of people cheerfully consuming entire works of content without paying one red cent. Why are they reacting so differently?

There are probably a number of reasons, such as the sad fact that there is just more money in the music and movie biz than in print publishing, so there is more money at stake for the ‘AAs and they can afford to throw more of it around. But I would guess that a fairly large reason is that there just isn’t enough demand for e-books in general right now, as compared to e-music and e-movies.

Music was the first medium to feel the pinch of peer-to-peer. Thanks to Winamp and the Diamond Rio, and later iTunes and the iPod, people can use music as soon as they download it. Just stick it in a playlist, sync it, and you’re done. Or just stick a blank CD in the drive and hit burn. It’s easy. Your grandmother could learn how to do it. The music sounds just as good as CDs, or close enough that most people can’t tell the difference. And beginning with Napster, all the music on anyone’s hard drives was right there at your fingertips.

Movies took a while longer to be widely shared. At the outset, the MPAA was slow to move to counter the threat. And to be fair, for a couple of years the threat wasn’t there. After all, DVDs were copy-protected. And even if someone cracked CSS, a DVD movie would be several gigabytes in size. Who was going to have the bandwidth or disk space to share that? But then broadband took off like a rocket (perhaps fueled by peer-to-peer—suddenly people had a more compelling use for all that bandwidth than just surfing the web faster) and hard drives grew larger and larger. A Norwegian kid and some friends came up with deCSS, and some enterprising hackers combined Microsoft MPEG4 video with MP3 audio and a confusing name and DivX was born. And suddenly near-DVD-quality movie files an order of magnitude smaller than the MPAA had predicted were whizzing through the peer-to-peer networks.

Even multi-gigabyte uncompressed DVD files are now shared with little reluctance; people create and share burnable DVD images of TV show broadcasts and theater-taped movies all the time. People download and burn those to DVDs for playing in ordinary DVD players. They download DivX movies and watch them on their computers, or hook their computers to TV sets, or even burn the files to CDs or DVDs for use with one of the numerous DVD players (such as the Philips DVP642) that will play DivX movies. Just as with downloaded music, downloaded movies give viewers almost as good an experience as they would have gotten from watching a commercial version.

Books have always been widely shared; even before peer-to-peer came about there were binary USENET groups for such things. And they’re still widely shared to this day, perhaps even more so than music or movies, due to their relatively tiny size. You can regularly go on peer-to-peer networks and find files that say “500+ SF e-books” or “30 books by (author).” So why isn’t the publishing industry feeling more threatened?

Because unlike e-music and e-movies, e-books currently fail to offer a compelling experience in comparison to their original format. Far fewer consumers want to read commercial e-books than printed books, let alone the “It Came from Planet Typo” scanned ASCII versions that make up the majority of peer-to-peer. Part of this is the “Tower of eBabel” that David Rothman likes to harp on, the confusing surplus of available e-book readers and file formats, but I would say a larger part is the lack of a high-resolution, high-contrast screen reading surface that is acceptable to the majority of readers. Add to this the poor quality of most illegitimate e-book scans (though they are getting better as technology improves) and you have the peer-to-peer equivalent of a “Someone Else’s Problem” field: the majority of readers barely even notice peer-to-peer e-books, because they’re just not anything they would be interested in reading.

Peer-to-peer vs. music, movies, and books

And this brings us back to Mary E. Tyler’s statement that “copyright as a method of protecting an interest in works” will “not [break down] for a generation yet. But in a generation, we’re all in trouble.” Right now, we are on the cusp of having the first portable device screens that compare favorably to paper. Given a few more years, or Mary’s “generation,” their price may come down to the cost of a cheap transistor radio. Presumably, the “Tower of eBabel” issue will have been solved by then, too—by market forces if not by the intentions of e-publishers. After all, it is in the best interest of the burgeoning e-book industry to create a greater market for its wares. But this is a double-edged sword.

In that brave new world, the e-book experience for the average consumer will be close enough to the p-book experience that a purchased or illicitly-downloaded e-book will be nearly comparable to a p-book for significant numbers of people. That’s when we’ll start seeing the print publishing industry experiencing the same phenomenon as the music and movie industries today Only, it may be even worse for them, for the simple reason that there is no way to put DRM on a printed book.

Both the music and movie industries are trying to protect their works so that people can’t copy and share them. Movies are doing this most successfully (at least, if we measure success in relative terms); DVD and its successor formats all have DRM (Digital Rights Management) built in. Not very strong DRM in the case of DVD, but given the legislated protection for DRM inherent in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act it doesn’t have to be strong; it only has to be there at all.

Compact discs, on the other hand, do not have DRM built in, which leaves music manufacturers with a problem. They have tried to retrofit DRM to the CD format, but so far have not been having much luck; all their attempts have been defeatable with a Sharpie or the shift key, or in one extreme case rootkitted the consumers’ computers. This leaves the music industry in a bad position, because when they first introduced the compact disc they did their job too well. CDs are “good enough” to be the last generation of physical audio delivery method; they can’t induce consumers to upgrade to a new DRM-protected “HD-CD” without the consumers laughing in their faces. The music industry will only be able to force universal DRM protection when all music is delivered the way the iTunes music store does it, as downloadable files that you then stick on your storage medium of choice. Given that CDs do have some distinct disadvantages compared to hard-drive or flash-based players—they’re bulky, have a very limited capacity, and require battery-intensive spinning motors to be played back—that probably will happen sooner or later. But books are another story.

Mention e-books in a crowd of old-guard bibliophiles and you might as well have shouted “fire” in a crowded theater; the air will resound with the battle cries of people who love the smell of paper, the feel of the pages turning, the fact that you don’t need a battery to read them, and so on. The e-book will never replace the good old-fashioned p-book, they will say. And while there are those who would call them luddites, they do have a point. Books are the result of thousands of years of technological development; they’re exactly what they need to be for the purposes for which they are used. In terms of advantages and disadvantages, p-books and e-books stack up about the same. In some areas e-books are a little stronger where p-books are a little weaker (such as the ability to carry many more of them in your pocket), but there are also areas where p-books are stronger and e-books are weaker (such as not needing to rely on a fallible and possibly expensive technological gadget to view them). It’s a stalemate, and without some seriously compelling reason to switch, p-books will probably never die—at least not in our lifetime.

Harry Potter and the illicit e-book

The problem is that p-books are a completely analog format. We consume them with no intermediary; the words go directly from the page into our eyes. And that means there’s no way to prevent them from being copied. If they can be read by human eyes, they can be read and transcribed by digital eyes, or by human eyes with typing fingers. This has the effect of making some publishers’ attitudes toward commercial e-books look rather silly.

Case in point: the Harry Potter books. When pressed as to whether Harry Potter e-books would be made available, the publisher elected not to do so, “citing security concerns.” They were afraid that an e-book version could be cracked and illicitly downloaded. “Oh, that’s too bad,” said the legions of e-book-wanting Harry Potter fans—and then they went home to their computers and downloaded the illicit version, which had been completely scanned within eleven hours of the printed book’s release. And it’s not even the first time this had happened to a Harry Potter book, either. Thus, the publisher has foregone in the name of “security” a revenue stream that, while nowhere near as large as the print version’s, would still be additional income requiring almost no additional expenditure—while still publishing its work in a version that is far, far easier to copy than a properly DRM-protected e-book could ever be.

And this is what is ahead for print publishers: a future in which electronic books become ever easier and more desirable to read, while paper books remain ludicrously easy to copy. There’s no way around it; the genie of file-sharing can’t be stuffed back in the bottle. It is hard to see how we can escape the necessity of some sort of change to the current models of publishing. It may well be that unless someone can “figure out how to compensate artists or encourage invention away from the current intellectual property system,” “we’re all in trouble.”

Insecurity through obscurity

Some of the other discussion in that ebook mailing list thread has pointed out that the majority of the books circulating on peer-to-peer are ones by popular, established authors—the ones for which there is already a demand, in other words, since nobody wants books by authors of whom they have never heard. As Robert Nagle put it in his response, “To avoid piracy, then, the key is to keep your novel unknown (?!)”

It is hard to be certain, but I believe this answer was not meant completely seriously. After all, if someone is publishing his work for profit, the last thing he wants is to remain unknown; the more people know about his work, the larger his potential paying audience will be. And thus I made my own response to Robert’s, in similar vein: “Or, conversely, to keep from being unknown, get your novel pirated.” This has subsequently led to one poster suggesting a methodology for promoting one’s book by posting it pseudonymously to binaries newsgroups, but in all seriousness it is a valid point.

In his introduction to the Baen Free Library, Eric Flint opines that e-book piracy is a nuisance at best, and more than offset by the additional publicity (and, hence, sales) it engenders for the author. In some of his Prime Palaver essays, he provides proof to back his assertions, tracking the effect that releasing free electronic versions has had on print sales. It is undeniable that the Baen Library and Webscriptions have had a salutatory effect for Baen overall; it has been going for seven years now with no signs of stopping, and even early in the program the New York Times reported on its benefits. Non-Baen writers such as Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, and Charlie Stross have seen similar benefits in releasing free electronic versions of their works.

In an oft-circulated article, technical publisher Tim O’Reilly notes that obscurity is a far greater threat to authors than piracy. He then goes on to cast piracy as a progressive tax on fame:

For all of these creative artists, most laboring in obscurity, being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement. Piracy is a kind of progressive taxation, which may shave a few percentage points off the sales of well-known artists (and I say “may” because even that point is not proven), in exchange for massive benefits to the far greater number for whom exposure may lead to increased revenues.

He makes a number of other good points, too, such as that customers usually want to do the right thing, if they can—which ties in nicely with that survey I mentioned above, where significantly more teens thought it was okay to copy a work that had been paid for than a work that had been gotten for free.

Might the above provide the clue to how authors and publishers will survive once e-books are more widely accepted? Will most people who download an illicit book, and like it, go on to purchase it legitimately, and other works by the same author?

Or might the piracy threat be overblown? Harry Potter aside, most young people are going to be more interested in television, movies, and video games than books. Especially as time goes on, most readers are going to be older folks, the sort who have a more firm moral grounding and more purchasing power than youth. That being the case, it might well be that the majority of a book’s potential audience would have no interest in downloading it illicitly and the book industry might be safe after all.

The only thing that’s certain is that it is far too soon to know how it will turn out. The next few years have the potential to be very interesting, both for the publishing industry and for those of us who like to watch it. Perhaps someday we will be able to tell our grandchildren about witnessing the birth of a new media explosion firsthand.

Or perhaps we’ll just see more of the same old ones.