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Putting Ebook Piracy into Perspective

Adam Engst from TidBits offers a comprehensive rebuttal to David Pogue’s concerns about ebook piracy. Among the many notable points:

… the harder you make it for someone to buy an easily replicated digital commodity, the more likely they are to share that commodity as a way of making things easier for others. Look at the parallels in the music industry. Apple made legitimate purchases of music both easy and inexpensive via the iTunes Store, and anyone who was on the fence about whether it was acceptable to share music suddenly had a viable alternative. Providing a legitimate purchase path for electronic versions not only generates revenue, but also reduces illicit copying.

The teeth gnashing associated with publishing’s transition to digital continues to obscure an important — and simple — point: publishing isn’t the first industry to confront digital issues. Businesses in the music, film and media worlds have been tackling these concerns for years, and there are important lessons to be learned from their failures and successes.

Engst’s argument about ease of use — especially as it relates to iTunes — deftly illustrates this. Regardless of your opinion of iTunes and Apple, it’s hard to argue with the equation they’ve developed: make money by giving people easy access to quality digital material. This trail has already been blazed; publishers just need to pay attention.

On another topic … Pogue’s post cites two examples of scammers who, posing as blind readers, requested book PDFs and then copied them to piracy sites within 48 hours. Engst’s experience with piracy is considerably different:

I have found our ebooks available for download on a handful of occasions; each time it was someone who had put the file on a server without realizing it was open to the public or who was transferring the book from work to home and had forgotten to take it down. I periodically search the file sharing services too, but it’s exceedingly rare to find any of our ebooks there, and those I have seen were wildly out of date.

In short, far from the foregone conclusion that publishing an electronic book will result in rampant copying, our years of experience show just the opposite.

Engst notes that his company’s subject matter (tech) and its size (small) likely minimize piracy, but there’s an underlying point in this passage that’s relevant on an industry-wide scale: blanket statements about the ills of piracy — or the opportunities from piracy — fail to recognize the nuances at play.

Whether we’re discussing Pogue’s run-in with “blind” con artists or Engst’s limited issues with accidental piracy, it’s important to remember that singular examples do not define trends (or unmask ebook cabals). Publishers need to look at ebook distribution, and the potential for piracy, on a case-by-case basis. To paraphrase Tim O’Reilly, certain titles from certain authors may benefit from increased exposure of any sort (that’s the idea behind this experiment), but well-known authors with blockbuster titles might be undercut by widespread copying.

When it comes to piracy, free, and other unusual models, the only real mistake is embracing a closed-minded, all-or-nothing perspective. Doing so limits both the threats and the opportunities.

Engst’s post touches on a variety of other piracy-related topics, all of which are worth considering.

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