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Responsibly Assuaging Author Concerns about File Sharing and "Piracy"

Eric Freeman, co-author of O’Reilly’s Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML and Head First Design Patterns, recently asked via email about a rise in activity for Head First books on a popular file-sharing site. His query sparked an interesting thread on the Radar back-channel that I thought worth sharing here.

The original question (sent to Tim O’Reilly, who passed it along to the Radar list):

Tim

Any thoughts on the rise of Head First titles (mostly HFDP and HTML) on Pirate Bay? I’m trying to just take it as a sign there is strong interest in the books still ;)

Hope all is well,

Eric

First to respond was Nat Torkington, who nicely summarizes the "Piracy is Progressive Taxation" argument (emphasis added):

Fantastic! There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, and unless you see sales dipping off then I don’t think there’s anything you *should* do about it. The HF books work really well as books, so at best the torrents act as advertisements for the superior print product (not often you can say that with a straight face). At worst most of your downloads are going to people who wouldn’t have bought the book at cover price and who will, if they enjoy it, rave about it to others.

So long as the royalty checks are strong, take BitTorrent as a sign of success rather than a problem. A wise dog doesn’t let his fleas bother him.

Nikolaj Nyholm followed up referencing Make Magazine’s experience:

I agree with Nat. Tim, this is your own "my problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity." PT [Phil Torrone] has made the argument that he tracks Make popularity based on number of seeders on Pirate Bay (correct me if i’m wrong, PT). However, I’m starting to see O’Reilly books in Poland, printed in China, but with a different cover. While it’s a market that you probably wouldn’t reach with their current buying power, it’s something I’d look into nonetheless. I’ll pick up a couple of books next time I’m there and bring them next time I’m stateside.

… and then Make’s own Phil Torrone weighed in (again, emphasis added):

Yup – seeing your books / magazines on Pirate Bay is always a good thing – You’re current, you’re interesting, if you’re lucky your content transforms in to advertising for other things – for Make, the magazines become a campaign for our kits and events.

Authors are rightfully concerned to see their work pop up on peer-to-peer file sharing sites (though on occasion they’re the ones who put them there), but the answer should not be to reflexively seek to stop it (you can’t anyway).

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  • http://davidgerard.co.uk/notes/ David Gerard

    It’s interesting they’re not even terribly worried about actual commercial piracy of physical books, quite apart from noncommercial filesharing. Swooping like a ton of bricks onto commercial bootlegging is the sort of thing no-one much could morally object to.

  • No Name

    I pirate eBooks, but probably not for the reason you suspect. A large portion of my library is now available in electronic form, and wasn’t at the time of purchase. The eBooks that are available allow me to host them (behind a passworded section of my private web site) and reference them at work, or from my relative’s house, without requiring me to haul them around.

    So I still buy the physical book, but I want the ability to reference it. (Microsoft’s books are great in this respect; they include the eBook version on CD in almost all cases now. Apress’ books require me to register and download a protected PDF, also acceptable.)

    As a side note, Tor recently released a large number of their books in electronic format for free. Of the authors who had content released, I’ve purchased printed copies of almost every one. (Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson, caused me to purchase Elantris, Mistborn, and pre-purchase the second book in the Final Empire series. The David Drake release reintroduced me to his work, which I had forgotten but absolutely love.)

    Nothing, however, takes the place of a good book, with good binding, that you can leave open next to you while you work. The index of a book is rarely reproduced properly in PDF format, and CHM books cannot be read over a network (all sorts of strange errors result). Virtual bookmarks can never replace a dog eared page… so no, I wouldn’t worry about eBook piracy. Most of everyone I know buys the books anyway. =)

  • http://emeraldimp.blogspot.com/ Geoff

    Going along (but slightly contrasting) with No Name, above: as useful as an index is, it can’t compare to the full text search of a PDF – if the PDF is not just images of the pages. The ebook and the paper book are complements.

  • Jonathan

    @Geoff: “Nothing, however, takes the place of a good book, with good binding, that you can leave open…”

    It’s amazing how often you see this whenever ebooks are discussed in any way. It’s almost like some compulsory mantra that has to be added (“Ooh, somebody hasn’t gone all misty eyed yet – better get that in.”).

    I don’t dispute that you like a good paper book with a lovely leather cover and somewhere to slot a postcard from an old flame to be discovered years later by the light of a log fire while smoking a fine cigar etc. etc. But after using a Sony Reader a while back I think it whips the pants off any paper book. Ease of use, convenience, pleasure… in just about every respect I can think of.

  • Jimmy Karumalil

    Just out of curiosity – what was Tim’s response to Eric’s mail?

  • http://toc.oreilly.com Andrew Savikas

    @Jimmy,

    Tim’s response was to forward Eric’s email to the Radar backchannel email list for comment, which is basically what I’ve reprinted here with minor editing (and permission of all involved). Eric was included on the discussion.

  • http://paulm.com/ Paul

    The “if you can’t beat ‘em, rationalize why it’s good for us” attitude is great in the case of PB & torrents but what if anything have O’Reilly done about the longstanding copyright violations of websites directly publishing material (e.g. here)? Presumably legal intervention here is straightforward.

  • Nancy Ward

    @ Paul

    “Here” belongs to O’Reilly. :) And every one of the publications belong to O’Reilly, so there seems to be no problem.

    Have you noticed the copyright notices for those publications?

    HTML 3.2? No, thank you, since I have Microsoft’s HTML and XHTML Step by Step book. And it’s old enough with a copyright of February 2006!

    I might download a couple of the more general web building books, but nothing else strikes my fancy.

  • FlapperDoodle

    @ Paul

    “Here” belongs to O’Reilly. :) And every one of the publications belong to O’Reilly, so there seems to be no problem.

    Have you noticed the copyright notices for those publications?

    HTML 3.2? No, thank you, since I have Microsoft’s HTML and XHTML Step by Step book. And it’s old enough with a copyright of February 2006!

    I might download a couple of the more general web building books, but nothing else strikes my fancy.