Some thoughts about piracy
As part of the program-creation process for Digital Book World, I had a round of conversations with the top executives of the Big Six companies to discuss the agenda, mostly with the CEOs. The purpose of the check-ins was to find out what topics the CEOs wanted their companies to speak about and, of course, which they wanted to avoid for reasons of diplomacy, commercial politics, or legality.
One topic I had left out of our program initially was “piracy”. Some of the executives I met with found this a very troubling omission. My first reaction was “what’s there to discuss? We’re all against piracy and there isn’t much we can do about it. So what else do we say?” Although there are two of the big houses where that view is, to some extent, shared, most of the others disagree, some vehemently. In fact, Macmillan has a “seven point program” to confront and combat piracy, which will now be the topic of a presentation by Macmillan president Brian Napack on the first morning of Digital Book World.
The topic of piracy is a part of the conversation about “digital rights management”, software that manages how a file can be used. DRM is a pretty standard aspect of software and DVD distribution but it comes in for a lot of complaint and criticism from very knowledgeable observers and participants in the ebook scene.
There is a “first sale” doctrine in copyright law that gives the purchaser of a book (or sound recording or DVD) the right to give away or re-sell that good. It does not give the right to sell or give away a copy, but it does allow you to “share” your book or CD or DVD with your mother, your sister, and your aunt and then to sell the used copy on eBay. Those rights have never really extended to software, which often knows if you’re trying to load it onto a second computer and won’t let you. Attempts to control sharing of music through DRM are commonly blamed for the piracy that became rampant in that sphere (although I don’t buy that; there are other explanations I find more compelling.)
The question of DRM-or-not in the ebook world is a very complicated one, although opponents of DRM often paint it as very simple. O’Reilly Media sells its ebooks “DRM-free”, as do some upstart ebook first publishers. The ebook self-publishing site, Smashwords, also sells only DRM free from their own site, although Smashwords-originated files might have DRM added by intermediary resellers, with which it is making more and more deals.
The opponents of DRM point to the incontrovertible fact that its existence does not stamp out piracy, which is transparent at a time when you can type just about any book title into Google with the word “file” after it and be directed to sites that offer you a free pirated download. In fact, even not publishing the book digitally is insufficent DRM to keep it from pirate distribution.
Mark Coker of Smashwords, despite the fact that he sells onlyDRM-free ebooks from his site, is an avowed opponent of piracy, and even of sharing. He suggests a boilerplate notice in his ebooks that tell you that you should go buy another copy of this book you’re about to read if you didn’t buy this one, or else you’re cheating the author. Mark believes the key to combating piracy is education; he admits to an unusually strong faith in consumer integrity.
But despite the lengthy introduction, this post is not about DRM; it’s to propose what is the ultimate defense against piracy: ebooks that aren’t static; ebooks that change.
The secret sauce behind O’Reilly’s DRM-free policy is that when you buy an ebook from them, you are entitled to the updates to that ebook…forever. The implicit message there is there will be updates.
There is no better antidote to piracy than this. If the pirated or peer-to-peer edition of a book is yesterday’s, or last week’s, and the book is changing, then it’s yesterday’s paper (which the Rolling Stones noted long ago, “nobody in the world” wants.)
This is beyond wrenching to publishers; it completely changes the workflow and it completely changes the business model. The rhythm of a publishing house is based on the fact that books are, at some point, finished. There is a Henry Ford assembly line aspect to how things have always worked. Whether you’re an editor, a marketer, or a sales person, new books have a pretty reliable “cycle” for you: their existence in your life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The conveyor belt moves the book away from you so you can’t spend too much time on it and can move on to the next one. Having authors not stop adding to or changing a book, even after it’s published, is totally disruptive. And what would we do about the ISBN numbers?
Yet, the possibility for ebooks to be totally up-to-date is one publishers can’t ignore. The Little, Brown division at Hachette has just announced that on December 1 it is publishing a 2,000 word update on the H1N1 (swine flu) virus in the ebook edition of “The Vaccine Book”, which was originally published in 2007. If something startling happened that should change that text on February 1, wouldn’t it make sense for them to update the book again? In October, Wiley published, as an ebook only, “The Swine Flu: The New Pandemic” because they wanted to get the most up-to-date information out quickly. By that logic, wouldn’t they also want to update their ebook if what was up-to-date in October isn’t in March?
And if they did that, what possible value would a pirated edition of yesterday’s ebook have?
Of course, swine flu is a dynamic subject. It isn’t a novel; it isn’t history. It isn’t even programming or software development or technology, the subjects O’Reilly publishes (and often updates.) But every editor knows plenty of authors of non-fiction books that wanted to keep writing and changing and adding past every deadline the house presented. Let the new process start with those; there will be plenty of candidates.
Furthermore, the biggest threat from pirated ebooks is to the most established franchise authors. I believe Tim O’Reilly is responsible for two cogent and pithy observations about piracy: that obscurity is a greater threat to most authors than piracy, and that piracy is “progressive taxation.” Both express the reality that the marketing for most books fails to reach most of the book’s potential audience. That Henry Ford assembly line conveys the book away from the marketers before the task of informing the entire potentially-interested public is anywhere near complete. So piracy, or file-sharing that may fall short of actual piracy, can serve the purpose of spreading the word about a book and triggering more sales. Except there are some authors, and those are the ones that sell the most books for the biggest publishers, who don’t need marketing to inform their audience; their audience, in effect, informs their audience! And those are the ones who would surely lose sales if there were no DRM and books could be freely shared or are made available through illicit channels.
But those authors are also the ones who have the biggest personal followings. They are the most capable of adding material: notes about what they’re working on, correspondence with fans or critics, even observations about other people’s books, that would add some value for many of the readers of their stories. In fact, a regular “update to my readers” from a top-flight author that is available only in their ebooks, or to purchasers of their ebooks, would be an attraction to many and could serve as a constant reminder that downloading their books from illegitimate sources is cheating them.
I’m not against DRM in principle and I’m all for combating piracy any way we can (and I have a couple of thoughts on that subject I’ll save for a subsequent post.) But I am far from certain that piracy represents the same existential threat to book publishers that it did to record companies, although we have others: the music business isn’t nearly so threatened by the shift to vertical.
One of my favorite people in the digital book business, who once worked in the music business said to me: “I don’t worry about piracy. I did in the music business because music was bought by kids. My customers are 53-year old ladies. They don’t go to pirate sites. They’d be afraid of getting a virus!” She’s right about that, at least for today. But for those who are concerned about piracy, I am not sure this problem can be attacked with toughness and muscle as effectively as it would be with creativity and delivering to the market something the pirates just can’t keep up with.
We have observed previously that the day will likely come when Big Authors will go straight to electronic distribution for some ebooks, bypassing the publishers to collect bigger royalties. What could be the first shot of that battle, and a reflection of the ideas in this post as well, may have been fired in the UK where Sony has announced a special edition James Patterson ebook which will contain the new book, “Cross Country”, a month before its general release plus other excerpts and a special letter from James Patterson. Of course, that deal was probably made by the publisher with Patterson’s cooperation, but it points to possibilities that should make publishers nervous.