The art of piracy

  August 8, 2003 at 5:40 PM ET
  grae     The Leaky Cauldron (via

Would it surpise you to learn that most publishers aren't too worried when it comes to internet piracy? In her article, Joy Press explains why most publishers are still skepticalopens in new window that readers will trade their books for pixels on a monitor screen, even after witnessing the worldwide pirating of books like Order of the Phoenix.

Bibliophiles find absurd the idea that people will ever abandon the sensuous pleasures of reading—the smell of the paper, the heft of the book—for dematerialized text on a screen. But record collectors said the exact same thing about the compact disc, complaining about the sterile perfection of digital sound and the disappearance of lavish album sleeves. Since then, a new generation has emerged that is totally comfortable with the idea of music as disembodied, digitally encoded information. Instead of records, the new fetish objects are the sleekly futuristic-looking MP3 players and iPods, which are prized more for their portability, ease of use, and ability to amass vast quantities of sound files than for the actual music coming out of them.

Still, most publishers are skeptical that readers will trade paper for pixel, pointing to the relative failure of the eBook as proof that people don't enjoy viewing text on a screen. (There are plenty of other reasons eBooks haven't caught on, though: The technology isn't yet up to snuff, and the lack of a uniform format for eBook players severely limits which eBooks you can access.) But if a book you were dying to read—let's say the new Jonathan Franzen novel—just popped up in your e-mail box, would you delete it? And if you already have it, or know you can get it for nothing, would you really trudge to Barnes & Noble and pay the full hardback price? Be honest: not always.

Press also discusses the pirating of Phoenix, as well as the possibility of others in the future.

Now, academic texts aren't likely to fuel a roaring black market trade. And it's hard to imagine anyone going out of their way to pirate collections of literary short fiction or novels (bar the occasional cult figure like Thomas Pynchon or Neil Gaiman). But many categories clearly are vulnerable to piracy, such as self-help, travel guides, cookbooks, technical and reference books—all of which are designed to be used piecemeal rather than read all the way through. Digital versions of these books might actually make for easier use—you can efficiently search for a citation or pasta recipe.

Even if something's sent out in old-school paper style, today's scanners can quickly convert a whole book to a format that's easily e-mailed or uploaded. That's apparently how Harry Potter pirates got The Order of the Phoenix online, scanning every one of its 870 pages manually. This takes longer than creating a sound file, and digital files don't look as good as a well-packaged book. But the visual experience of reading onscreen may soon improve drastically, thanks to new technology like the TabletPC—screens that are the same size as a piece of paper, more portable than a laptop, and have crisper imaging.


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