eBook Lending And Pirate Libraries


Just like its MPAA and RIAA brethren, a coalition of publishing firms have gained injunctions against and for illegally offering around 400,000 eBooks for free download. These were some of the biggest sites offering illegal eBook downloads, but as ever with the piracy hydra – as these sites go down, five more will take there place. But the real question here is why people are looking for pirated eBooks in the first place.

The first reason for recent growth in illegal eBook downloads is the same reason for the recent growth in legal eBook downloads – people with Kindles, Nooks, and iPads looking for content to read on their new devices. Just as the iPod fuelled much of the growth of mp3 file-sharing, the iPad and e-reader cousins are fuelling much of the growth in eBook piracy. And just as the music industry failed to adapt to how people were changing their habits and understood pricing of physical vs digital goods, the publishing industry seems determined to stick its head in the sand.

Yes there are ways to easily purchase digital texts through iTunes, Amazon, or B&N, which is the first step towards engaging with the digital revolution, but just offering products for sale does not mean people view them as value for money. How is it possible that for various books it is actually cheaper to buy the physical product and have it shipped to than to download the digital file? Whatever the percentage of the sale value that is the materials, printing facilities, and distribution – delivering a hardcopy is definitely more expensive to the publisher than offering a digital copy for download. And with a hard-copy the book will have resale value – something which is generally completely forbidden with a digital copy via DRM.

People do not like to be taken for a ride, and publishers who believe that maintaining these artificially high prices for eBooks are doing so to maintain physical sales volumes are being wilfully naive. It would be wrong of me to claim that the majority of eBook pirates are those that are digital liberties or anti-DRM activists, pirating only until the publishing industry offers a better model, as it is obvious that freeloaders are a good proportion of such groups. Those that are the liberties campaigners, however, are often the technological tastemakers of their peers – those that explain the best way to download content – legally or otherwise. If the content industries don’t make their offerings competitive and reduce the restrictions on digital liberties, then they are losing the support of those who could help them in the future. Freeloaders will always be freeloaders, but technology tastemakers can be converted and they can convert their friends, colleagues, and families.

The restrictions being enforced by the publishing industry become apparent very quickly when you start to look at eBook lending and digital libraries. Some Kindle eBooks can be lent to others for 14 days and that is about as good as it gets – but why? The limit of a single copy that can be shared is understandable, but why put a time limit on it? If I lend a paperback to a friend then they can read it in their own time and return it when their ready. Or we can simply swap books for good. Why is this not possible with eBooks? Greed. The books are so locked down under the premise of avoiding piracy that readers are simply not offered the same freedoms with a digital product as they would have had with a deadwood copy.

And then you have the issue of public libraries. Free access to libraries around the globe are what have promoted literacy over the centuries, and whilst our current government may be taking away the funding to many such local institutions – they remain havens of quiet and literacy. The British Library has a copy of every book published in the Isles and the public have free access to those books. The publishing industry has long whined that people having access to books from libraries for free eats into their profits, but with each library only having a handful of copies of any title, the impact has always been minimal. With the advent of eBooks, however, the industry seemed to believe that this is their chance to remove libraries from the equation all together by making library users have to actually enter the library in person to be able to access the digital version of a book. Such restrictions obviously didn’t float and with apps such as OverDrive, users of some libraries can access their eBook collections without such restrictions – but this doesn’t stop them trying to make readers pay again and again for different types of access. This is no way to treat customers.

Academic publishing is another area where publishers go for profits over any kind of belief that such research is building our collective future. There is a growing list of academics that are boycotting academic publishing giant Elsevier for their practices. They charge researchers to have their work peer reviewed, and then they charge rapidly escalating fees for access to the journals, often only bundling access of a number of journals together for libraries and institutions making the prices even higher. They then also publicly support measures such as SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and the Research Works Act which would make it illegal in the US for organisation to force open access availability for their research. These journals don’t pay any sums towards the research – they just skim profits off the top, and very healthy ones at that with a £395 million profit for 2011. There is a reason The Cost Of Knowledge website currently hosts over 6,000 signatures from academics.

Just like a number of industries over the past few decades, publishing has lost its way – lost its compass towards anything other than profits – and as such is now facing a crisis as those profits are no longer secure. They are facing a crisis of purpose as money ebbs away leaving little but the tattered ruins of an industry which once promoted global literacy and aided education. This is a crisis they not only deserve for their past greed, but also need to reset the balance away from pure profit motivation – so forgive me if I don’t shed a tear if piracy is causing them issues.

[Image courtesy of Gerald Pereira]

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