Bill's Blog

E-book Piracy – What Digital Distribution Means for Authors, Publishers, and Consumers

Dec 7, 2010

With the advent of any new piece of technological gadgetry, people will inevitably find a way to exploit it. When compact discs became prevalent in the 1990s, they brought a whole new standard to the music industry. CDs gave us better sound quality, increased data storage, and easier access to our tunes than previous technologies, but with it came quicker and easier (and unauthorized) ways to duplicate songs. Music piracy became a global threat in a way we’d never seen before. And this was merely a dark cloud gathering before the storm that was coming just around the corner with MP3s and the Internet. Rampant digital piracy would shake the recording industry to its core, and for better or worse, the whole music culture was forced to change and adapt.


There’s an obvious parallel that can be drawn between what happened to the music industry and what’s now occurring in the book publishing industry. E-books and e-readers are steadily pushing their way into the reading culture, and we’re already seeing the effects these new technologies are having on copyrighted material. An anti-piracy content-monitoring company called Attributor conducted a recent survey on e-book piracy, noting that there are on average “1.5-3 million daily Google queries for pirated e-books,” with a “50 percent increase in online searches for pirated downloads throughout the past year.” Studying major file-sharing sites like RapidShare and smaller sites that host digital books, they found a clear increase in demand for pirated material. And their survey results are likely far understated, because they weren’t taking peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent into account.

So with e-book piracy on the rise, what does that mean for publishers? How is the market adapting to this shift in distribution?

Some members of the industry, as frustrated writer Edward Champion noted after attending the BookExpo CEO panel, are simply in denial of the coming (and ongoing) changes. Champion reported that the moderator of the panel, Jonathan Galassi, “not only maintained the old warhorse position that hardcovers would still be desired by 100% of book purchasers, but clung to such feeble driftwood as ‘We’re always going to need warehouses’ and, on the position of enhanced books, ‘Who has time for the enhancement?’ He also claimed that no author is going to want to publish his work online for free.”

The fact is, digital media is here to stay, and book piracy is as inevitable as pirated music. Whether the pages are being scanned and uploaded as PDFs, or the pirated material is being offered in an e-book format to begin with, people are finding ways to get copies of electronic books for free.

What are some of the solutions being implemented to slow the onslaught of e-book piracy?

DRM, or digital rights management, is a term not unknown to the digital music and gaming worlds. DRM technologies can be used by publishers, copyright holders, and any other parties interested in preventing the unauthorized duplication of digital content. Publishers are already employing DRM to limit the copying and sharing of e-books. Different e-book formats (mainly ePub, PDF, Topaz, and Mobipocket) and software programs (Adobe Reader and Microsoft Reader) have encryption codes that limit a user’s ability to read an e-book on alternate devices, or that inhibit a user from treating the e-book like a normal text file.


For instance, when a publisher or distributer decides to put heavy DRM restrictions on its PDF e-book files, the PDF is stripped of its normal text-copying and printing functions. Microsoft has created its own e-book format (with a .lit, or “literature” extension) that can only be read with Windows software. The Reader does not allow access to protected books if the user has not activated the software, and Microsoft limits the number of installations that can be activated per account. Microsoft has a few different levels of protection for its books, and its strictest form involves linking the purchased book to the user’s Passport account, so the e-book can only be opened on the computer where it was downloaded.

Some companies, like the above-mentioned Attributor, give publishers tools to detect and remove unauthorized copies of e-books across the Internet. “The Attributor Guardian service combines extensive web crawling with a trained professional services team to detect pirated copies of your works, encourage equitable re-use, and—if a fair resolution cannot be reached—effectuate removal of the unauthorized copies and take steps to ensure that piracy does not recur.”

Another way that authors can try to reduce the amount of book piracy is simply to refuse distributing electronic copies of their books in the first place. For lesser known books, this method might slow piracy down, but it’s not a sure-fire solution, especially for popular authors. Fearing Internet piracy, J.K. Rowling did just that, refusing to authorize electronic copies of her Harry Potter books. The e-book version of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome was delayed several weeks in an attempt to save sales and put a hold on immediate illegal distributions. Of course, despite these efforts, the books were still scanned manually and released on the Internet.

Should we be panicking about piracy?

It’s only natural for authors and publishers alike to be concerned. But we must also realize that, just as there are advantages and disadvantages to newer forms of digital content, there are also pros and cons to the way we deal with them. Denial won’t get us anywhere—the times are a-changin’, and a notable portion of consumers are going digital whether we like it or not. Refusing electronic distribution could frustrate the growing number of people who prefer to read in this new format, never mind that one dedicated scanner with an Internet connection will blow these print-only anti-piracy efforts out of the water. Proprietary software and hardware are another potential nuisance, since they restrict the way customers are allowed to use and interact with the e-books they’ve legally purchased.

DRM ultimately failed in the recording industry, because people found ways to strip the DRM from their music files, and when dust settled from that battle, they realized that people are still purchasing music. The industry adapted, finding a standard music format and selling individual files for a reasonable price, and musicians are still making money.

Time will only tell how the book publishing industry will react to these new changes. No one wants their work to be pirated, but enforcing too-strict policies on e-book distribution can also damage a book’s potential readership.

Questions about this topic? Call me at (505) 401-1021 or send me an email at I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.

For a limited time, submit your manuscript for a free edit review!