e-Book Piracy: The Next Big Threat?

According to a CNN article, in less than 24 hours following the September 2009 release of Dan Brown‰Ûªs blockbuster novel The Lost Symbol, pirated versions were discovered on file sharing sites, such as RapidShare and BitTorrent. Within days, the book had been illegally downloaded more than 100,000 times. As of late October 2009, 166 illicit copies of The Lost Symbol were available on 11 sites.

Dan Brown‰Ûªs novel is hardly the only fiction bestseller targeted by pirates. Stephenie Meyer‰Ûªs Twilight books were reportedly the most downloaded fiction books on BitTorrent in 2009, being downloaded somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 times. While none of J.K. Rowling‰Ûªs Harry Potter books are officially available as e-books, pirates have scanned all of her books and converted them into PDF files which can be viewed on any e-book reader. All told, one-third of Publisher‰Ûªs Weekly‰Ûªs 2009 top 15 bestselling fiction books were found available for download.

For better or worse, pirates do not discriminate when it comes to book genre. In addition to bestsellers, pirates also make available illegal copies of textbooks, professional books (such as medical books and technical guides), business and investment books, and general fiction and non-fiction books.

What‰Ûªs driving the uptake in e-book piracy? One plausible factor is the emergence and growing popularity of several e-book readers over the past couple of years. An interesting TorrentFreak study examined the impact of the recent iPad launch on the levels of e-book piracy. The study looked at the level of illegal downloads of e-books several days before and after the e-reader‰Ûªs official launch on April 3, 2010. The study found that 6 of the top 10 bestselling business paperback books were in fact pirated, and that illegal downloads of these books grew 78% after the launch. (Curiously enough, the study did not find any of the top 10 all-around best selling books were pirated at the time.) For example, illegal downloads of David Allen‰Ûªs book Getting Things Done increased 57% after the launch from 277 to 435 per day. Downloads of Freakonomics jumped 140% from 187 to 381 after the launch.

While the surge in illegal downloads may seem staggering, the absolute volume of illegal e-book downloads is actually relatively small when compared to downloads of popular music and film releases, which can reach more than 1 million downloads in one week. A likely reason for this is that the installed base of e-readers is still relatively small when compared to the installed base of MP3 and DVD players. Another potential reason is that most books are not yet available as e-books, legally or not. Unlike other digital formats which take just minutes or a couple of hours to pirate, creating an illegal e-book can take hours upon hours to scan, convert to readable characters (via an OCR application) and proof, or for determined hackers, at least some effort to crack the DRM technology.

E-book piracy has indeed had some initial traction, but has not spun out of control yet. Authors, publishers and book sellers still have an opportunity to get this right and have already taken several steps in the right direction, including offering legal e-books at an attractive price and making them convenient to access (as Apple did with music sales via its iTunes store). In tandem, the publishing industry should continue to aggressively defend its rights online by detecting and quickly responding to illegally hosted copies of their copyrighted works. Otherwise, it risks allowing e-book piracy to become firmly established and accepted by readers, which will be harder to address down the road.