Book piracy is nothing new. In the mid 500s, so the story goes, St. Columba copied by hand a manuscript St. Finnian had lent to him. The king was invited to call on the legality of the act; his judgement, "To every cow belongs her calf, to every book belongs its copy," would certainly please publishers (and dairy farmers) today.
Yet the rulings of kings and judges do little to stop people trying to get hold of information. A few years ago, the main reason for piracy was because publishers were not keeping up with the needs of their readers; the Harry Potter books are only now appearing in a digital format via the Pottermore website, but back in 2005, people made their own digital versions instead.
Today, most major titles are available in digital editions as well as print. However, many people question why e-books are so expensive. They are often the same price, or close enough, as the print editions, despite the lack of paper, printing, warehousing, physical distribution and retail sales costs involved in their creation.
As more people start to use e-readers, the issue of piracy is only going to become more pressing for the industry. It is becoming a serious legal and professional concern, as the BBC recently pointed out in a radio documentary. Will illegal downloading lead to the collapse of publishing as we know it?
In an interview last year on the website The Millions, a book pirate going by the name The Real Caterpillar suggested a simple solution:
"I guess if every book was available in electronic format with no DRM [Digital Rights Management; the ability to choose on which devices you can read and share a book -- Books Editor] for reasonable prices ($10 max for new/bestseller/omnibus, scaling downwards for popularity and value) it just wouldn't be worth the time, effort and risk to find, download, convert and load the book when the same thing could be accomplished with a single click on your Kindle."
That's probably only true to a point. More likely is that, as it gets easier to create and find pirated books, the publishing industry, like the record and movie industries before it, will have to accept that many of the people who download pirate copies would never have bought the books anyway. To measure these as "lost sales" seems a little dishonest itself, and to focus their energies on prosecuting those who download pirated books is perhaps not the best of use of a publisher's increasingly scarce resources.
Instead of trying to scare people away from downloading pirated copies, it would be better for the publishing industry to focus on what it does best: packaging and sharing stories that people want to read, in formats that they want to read them, without what people might view as unreasonable restrictions. (Imagine how you'd feel if you were arrested for trying to lend a book to a friend.)
Previously, publishing has been about creating engaging, affordable physical storytelling experiences that fill our bookshelves and share our lives. The challenge today is to create similarly immersive and affordable digital storytelling experiences that people see as great value for money.
If the industry fails the challenge, then the pirates will win -- not because people inherently want to break the law, but because only the pirates will be giving most people what they want.
And if publishers can't do that, then there's nothing that even kings or courts can do to save them.
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