Ebook Piracy and the Libraries of the Future

Books GeekMom Technology

Image: Sarah Pinault. Toby’s first visit to the library.

My husband has been lucky since acquiring his iPhone. He was looking for a book to read to test out the reader function, saw a commercial for A Game of Thrones, decided to read the book and it was being given away as a free ebook that month in preparation for the show. After that, several people recommended that he read The Pillars of the Earth, lo and behold, a quick Google search and it too was a free ebook that month from a national retailer. Then it got trickier.

After deciding to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever following the directions for picking a Sci/Fi Fantasy book, he could not find a copy anywhere. He was now hooked on finding them for free. He found a hard copy at a library of which he is a member, he also found it illegally as an ebook. Surmising that since a library book was reading it for free, and he wanted to read it on the iPhone, downloading it made it just like reading the copy at his local library. He lasted about an hour with that logic, before deleting the file and becoming grumpy, in a holier than thou kind of way. My husband is a very honest man, it’s been two weeks and he still hasn’t bought or read the book. With Amazon’s addition of the Kindle Lending Library last week, the dilemmas facing my husband seem to be the wave of the future. A few overdue fines at the library pale in comparison with the fact that e-readers may be taking literature the way of Napster and iTunes, as far as morality and public ownership go. As the music industry continues to debate its own standards of ownership, I wonder where e-readers are taking us, and if recent court rulings will have any affect on how we view books that are still covered by their copyright. If I lose my hard copy of a book, am I entitled to an e-copy for free?

Behind the scenes at GeekMom the Kindle Lending Library raised some minor discussion. I am hesitant to accept anything for free from a company that possesses my credit card information, but I am quite happy with a world that accommodates both my love of paper, and my husband’s love of the convenience of his e-reader. Otherwise we have a split between those of us happy to forgo paper for .doc, and those who relish wandering around the local library. Would this new policy have any effect on libraries or e-readership figures since it is limited to one book a month? With the grassroots library movement, that GeekMom Melissa talked about this week, I have great hope in the future of the library.

So my question is, am I reading too much into my husband’s one-time moral dilemma, or should author’s fear for the sanctity of their work?

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17 thoughts on “Ebook Piracy and the Libraries of the Future

  1. there have been IRC book trading channels for quite sometime. Those preceeded the music and movie piracy waves, because those are the kids that organize and distribute everything. Within 3 years, this is going to be a central issues, and a major problems for authors. Think about how the web has destroyed newspapers.

    1. “Think about how the web has destroyed newspapers.”

      There are many reasons newspapers are gasping for breath. Having to compete against free content is one important factor, but it’s only one, and not necessarily even close to being the biggest.

      1. I have no sympathy for the newspaper industry. They are now primarily owned by Eastern media giants and rarely by people or entities residing within their readership area. Given their intentionally biased political views, and the exploitation of their circulation to attempt to sway political opinion, I’m happy to see em go. The faster the better. It’s called a paradigm shift. Surely, there were a lot of disgruntled horse-drawn carriage makers who resented Henry Ford. Suck it up.

    2. The Internet is a disruptive technology. Like every other disruptive technology that preceded it, it’s going to cause consternation among the established economies of manufacture, distribution, and consumption.

      This is not a Bad Thing, it is merely a Thing. Like the printing press put scribes out of work, reduced the cost of publishing, and made information orders of magnitude cheaper; like the automobile put farriers out of business, decreased travel times, and opened new methods of trade; and like electronic recordings threatened the established business of live concerts- the Internet is simply changing the way information, goods, and services are marketed, distributed, and consumed. To use a word like ‘destroyed’ (particularly in reference to the newspapers) is to ascribe malicious intent to the creators and users of the Internet, when in reality, the Internet is simply fulfilling a need that was waiting for a technical solution.

      Will the Internet change the publishing industry? This is a foolish question, for we can see that it has already been changed in fundamental ways. Naturally, there’s the whole issue of ‘piracy’ (more correctly called ‘copyright infringement’). Statistically speaking, piracy of literary works is trivially small, especially when compared with other forms of entertainment such as films, music, audiobooks, and television programmes. But we also have the issue of ensuring that authors get paid, while libraries continue to provide valuable services to our society.

      Should libraries and publishers work towards more e-lending? Most decidedly, or they are at risk of marginalising their tech-savvy patrons. Should they stop publishing and lending bound volumes? Definitely not- or they risk marginalising those of us who prefer the ‘real thing’. However, the most important thing they ought to consider is that greed is not becoming: e-books should in no way cost what publishers are charging for them. E-books should represent a new revenue stream for publishers, for sure- but when they charge 10% less for an electronic copy than they do for a paper version, where is the incentive for me to buy the e-book? Knowing the manufacturing and distribution costs for physical books, and calculating the profit per copy sold (not per copy distributed to stores, remember, as stores can send back unsold copies for a refund), we can see that the profit differential between e-books and physical books is ludicrous. You see, libraries create demand through scarcity: it’s impossible for a library to own enough copies of a popular book for every patron to borrow it simultaneously, so everyone takes turns. Sometimes, a volume is costly and rare enough that a local library may not even have a copy, so they need to bring it in via inter-library loan, and require patrons to agree to shorter lending periods. Electronic books, however, have no such limits, as it costs essentially nothing to create and distribute additional copies. So arbitrary lending limits on e-books have nothing to do with reality and everything to do with economies of scarcity.

      Until the cost of e-books comes down to where it’s based on either making the author wildly rich (almost unheard-of), or saving me money on the purchase, I will continue as I have for years: Buy the physical copy from a bricks and mortar store or my favourite online retailer, and download a copy for my mobile device so that when I travel, I can take my library along without risk of damage or loss.

  2. Of course, lots of larger libraries (and groups of smaller libraries) are offering eBook borrowing through programs like Overdrive– which you DON’T have to pay for at all and you DON’T have to share your credit card info and you DON’T have what you read tracked and used for selling you stuff.

    The question with eBooks is, technically you NEVER are buying the book vs borrowing it, because Amazon or whoever can always up and withdraw access, so where’s the line between what libraries have always done for free and what subscription eBook lending would want to do? Technically, I’m for subscription-type access to eBooks over paying for them individually. If I buy a book, I want a BOOK, to keep forever. But if I want to pay for content, a subscription system makes more sense to me. But then I see what free libraries already do, already offering these things, and I say, huh. Wonder how this works.

    1. This! Definitely check to see if your library has ebook lending! If they don’t have the title you’re looking for, PLEASE ask! That’s the one thing I wish more library patrons were aware of: politely requesting for a title in a format helps us librarians out when we’re trying to decide what to order for the library! Unless it’s something ridiculously exact or just something that the library wouldn’t carry (i.e. workbooks, pamphlets, etc.), it’s a lot easier to purchase an item when you know that someone will definitely be checking it out!

    2. Our library rarely has a digital copy of anything I want to read, and when they do, I’m 8th in line. There needs to be a huge ramp-up of ebook loaners, and it doesn’t have to be free, just inexpensive. Most (75% or more) of the new arrivals are kids books. Why can we afford $150,000 domestic surveillance drones and not provide literature?

  3. I think this would fall in the old scenario, if you bought a movie on DVD, you don’t have a right to walk into the store and take a Blu-Ray of the same movie without paying for it saying “I already bought this”. I have really thought of scanning all the childrens books we have to .pdf, which we can then use on our HP Touchpads.

    1. Exactly–or more accurately, you don’t get to download the movie of a DVD your kid decided would look better snapped in half. Not that mine have done that.

      1. Yes you should be able to Downlaod a replacement. I bought it already I shouldn’t have to payfor it again. Now if I’m going to better by buying it again then I’ll be happy yo buy it again. But I should be able to make a back up of a movie I bought but some silly rule stops me from backing up.
        I can back up software I bought, I can back up music. why can’t I back up a movie? If the only way to make that back ups is to break copyright to copy the disk what difference does it make I break the same law to download it.
        I think what disney does is great. I get a Digital copy when I buy my physical media. All the companies should do this.

  4. Take the Geek-Dad book that was just released, I could download it, but then what is the reason to create a fourth book beyond vanity?

    I like the subscription aspect as long as big G isn’t involved.

  5. I think it’s a very valid fear. My husband and I have eReaders and we felt that we should be able to have e copy’s of the books we’ve already purchased over the years. We think if you own the hardcopy then you have a right to the ecopy.

  6. Piracy is here to stay. Once something is digital it can and will be copied. With movies there is still the theater. With music there are still the concerts. With books, the only long term income will be advertising, in the book. Then you can give them away. This is not what the movie, music or book industry wants, but it is the only way it can work in a digital age.

  7. Although this is an older piece, I feel a need to comment, primarily in support of this article.
    I bought an expensive ($150) Nook under the impression that there would be some decent free content and affordable mainstream content. I was wrong. The ebook prices are ridiculously high. For instance, I can get a legal paperback copy of several current affairs books for $6-8 shipped online, when an ebook can run $30. Also, I have no need to keep fiction paperbacks after I’ve read them and usually donate them. I can go to the second hand store and get used paperbacks for a quarter, so why cannot I find used or donated ebooks? The writers and publishers are being greedy and now I’m compelled to seek bootleg copies, when I’d much rather pay for my content. If I buy a book new, I feel I have the right to the digital format as well, due to the near costlessness of virtual media, if not free, for a very small fee to cover expenses of the book “media switching”. Sure, there are costs to create the ebooks, but how much? A dime? Quarter? This attitude does not extend to other forms of media. For instance, if you buy a paperback, you aren’t entitled to the hardback and the movie, etc..Only the digital form when you buy the book in print, brand new. If one feels the publishers can charge as much as they want, the public is going to be fleeced. Capitalism combined with ethics dictates a responsibility to provide their wares at a fair price, due to the fact they are using the buying public as their vehicle of income, and taking a space in the retail world. There are a limited number of spaces, afterall.
    If one needn’t be wealthy to read books, why should they need to be wealthy to read ebooks?
    Example: I have a collection of clean, used fiction paperbacks on my headboard. There are 71 books written by M. Connelly, DeMille, Preston & Chld, Wilbur Smith, Lee Child and a few others. I estimate that I paid an average of 75 cents each, therefore I spent maybe $50-60 total. To collect these same books on my Nook would run most of a grand! WTF? And how can I recoup my cost if I want to sell my collection? When I buy a book in paper, it retains some value. When I buy an ebook, it retains no value
    Publishers and authors aren’t helping anyone. We need a way for people to get the books affordably, and compensate authors in the process. The publishers are expecting too big a cut because they are inefficient with their money, creating unnecessary and excessive overhead costs, and expecting excessive profits given their miniscule efforts. To say “If you don’t want to get screwed, don’t buy it.” is niave and ignorant of human nature, and borders on mean-spiritedness.
    How about a format like the libraries use, a timed access. Books could be sold for a buck or two, and expire in a month or two. Make them un-bootleggable, so the world isn’t saturated with a trillion illegal copies. Plus a low price would kill the black market. Just my 2 cents worth.
    Jay Emerson

  8. Hey Sarah,

    I cant imagine having to compare digital piracy of eBooks with the library on the other hand.
    The two are definitely not the same. A library will actually buy the book and if more people request it, it will buy more copies. Also the library will after some time due to damage and ware buy again the book. Something that digital piracy of eBooks doesnt provide, instead everyone downloads illegally a copy without having to pay a cent or even care about the damage they do to the authors.

    Whats even worst is that in many cases the piracy websites are higher in the rankings on Google search than the actual authors websites or Amazon store. This makes it even easier for people to get a hold of the illegal content!

    In my opinion, piracy is stealing! Getting a book from the library is not, its just a low cost way for someone who cant afford a book to get it.

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