I certainly haven’t always agreed with everything Paul Carr has had to say, but a recent column he penned on TechCrunch about how much of a menace e-book piracy isn’t hits just the right tone. Carr looks back on a column he wrote in 2003 predicting that the best way to fight piracy was to make e-books easy for customers to buy at reasonable prices (something that for the most part wasn’t even on the horizon back then, since Amazon was years away from its $9.99 Kindle sales) and reflects with satisfaction that he was right.

But e-book piracy in general, Carr writes, is a non-issue. The amount of lending of physical books between friends or from libraries, which also doesn’t pay authors (save for a token amount in countries that have public lending right fees), dwarfs the amount of pirated e-books.

Now here’s the kicker — none of that free sharing of books (with limited exceptions around Kindle lending) is possible with most of today’s ebook readers. Ebook lovers don’t have the luxury of joining public libraries or scooping up handfuls of paperbacks in Goodwill. Therefore, before we can measure the real impact to the publishing industry of books being “stolen” online, we really should subtract the millions of physical books that are shared every day. And, of course, we should also consider the hundreds of millions (billions?) of physical books (100 million in the UK alone) that are stolen from the world’s bookstores annually. Suddenly online sharing seems less of a terrifying innovation and more of a digital continuation of a centuries-old reality.

He also points out that most of those pirated e-books don’t actually represent lost sales, since most of the people downloading them would never have bought them anyway. (He doesn’t mention, though I think it’s worth bringing up separately, that most of those pirated e-books will probably never be read—the pirates are simply downloading for the sake of having them, not of using them. Heck, I haven’t read all the e-books I did pay for from Baen, and probably never will.)

I wonder if the publishing industry will ever recognize how pointless it is to fight against piracy with restrictions the way that the music industry did when it de-DRMed iTunes. Sometimes it seems unlikely; other times it seems inevitable.


  1. The Nook ereader dies allow one to lend a book, but with a few limitatiins that no doubt are designed to support ebook sales by Barnes & Noble. One can only lend to another Nook owner, and the lent book returns to its owner automatically after a week or so.

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