Digital Digest: If Sharing Is Caring, What’s Stealing?

Adrian Versteegh
From the May/June 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

On March 7 HarperCollins raised the hackles of librarians across the country when it revised the rules governing the way its titles are offered for digital borrowing. Under the old agreement, each “copy” of an e-book—in effect, a content license—could be checked out and returned an indefinite number of times. But e-books sold to libraries under the new terms will expire after having cycled through twenty-six loans, a period the publisher says was chosen to approximate the life span of a printed book. The change, disclosed in a letter from digital distributor OverDrive about ten days before taking effect, prompted an immediate backlash. Within hours, members of the library blogosphere had launched a letter-writing campaign, amplified calls for an e-book users’ bill of rights, and announced boycott actions that ran the gamut from refusing to review HarperCollins titles in trade publications to avoiding business with the publisher entirely.

The controversy is only the newest bone of contention in a relationship that has long been uneasy. Despite a 200 percent increase in e-book checkouts last year (according to OverDrive), librarians have continually taken issue with the transition from an “ownership” to a “licensing” model for e-books, citing the difficulty for patrons of negotiating a plethora of conflicting formats and devices; the restrictiveness of digital rights management software; and the frequent unavailability of new titles (two of the so-called Big Six publishers, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, have yet to make any of their e-books available for lending). Now, with HarperCollins’s introduction of “self-destructing” e-books,some in the field are worried that libraries may be locked into an endless cycle of license renewals, putting further strain on already eroding finances.

For its part, the publisher has responded by emphasizing the lower list price of digital editions and by promising to peg subsequent licenses for expiring e-books to paperback prices, characterizing its move as an attempt to balance the interests of all parties. “We have serious concerns,” wrote president of sales Josh Marwell in an open letter to librarians, “that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book ecosystem, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.”

At the core of publishers’ concerns is the question of how an industry originally based on selling units of tangible product can survive now that digitization has made the concept of a discrete “copy” obsolete. And looming, as always, over this issue is the specter of piracy. Publishers have spent the last decade casting nervous glances at the music business, and many are worried that just as MP3 players spurred the upending of that industry, the mounting popularity of e-readers augurs an approaching deluge of book piracy. A study conducted last fall by the content-monitoring firm Attributor seemed to suggest precisely that, tracking a 54 percent rise in demand for pirated e-books since August 2009, and associating the spike with the boom in e-reader sales—particularly those of Apple’s iPad.

The music-industry example has been invoked by Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, who, since taking office a year ago, has been outspoken about the need to counter book piracy. On February 16 Turow testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, a bill that would give the government greater power to choke off funding for file-sharing sites. “Authors and artists have always been free to give away their work to build an audience,” Turow said, “but there had always been the prospect of making a bit of money in the end, that there would be a functioning market to take advantage of. That prospect is disappearing before our eyes.”

Two days before testifying, Turow coauthored an op-ed piece in the New York Times that connected the emergence of professional authors in the early modern period with the establishment of “cultural paywalls,” barriers—such as literal theater walls and, later, copyright schemes—that let creators earn a living by permitting only paid access to their work. It’s these walls—or, rather, their absence—that has become the issue, with piracy taking place not simply overseas but also in an online world where borders hardly exist at all. In Russia, where e-reader sales have jumped sevenfold in only two years, the market for pirated e-books is estimated at five times the size of its legitimate counterpart, according to local research firm J’son & Partners. “It’s the pirates who are killing the book business, not the e-books,” Vladimir Obruchev, nonfiction director at Eksmo, one of Russia’s largest publishers, told the Russia & India Report. “It’s virtually impossible to convict people who distribute illegal e-books, because their server could be located anywhere.”

But many question whether the demand for pirated e-books necessarily translates into a threat to writers. Brian O’Leary, founder of the consulting firm Magellan Media, cautions that digital file sharing remains understudied. “It’s not that piracy is not a problem,” he told O’Reilly Radar, “it’s just that it’s not demonstratively a problem until you know what’s actually happening.” O’Leary dismisses the logic that insists that each unauthorized download is a lost sale, suggesting instead that piracy may have a positive side. A study focusing on titles published by O’Reilly and Thomas Nelson “showed a net lift in sales for books that had been pirated,” he says. “So, it actually spurred, not hurt, sales.”

Some writers have been noticing the same curious effect. In a widely circulated video produced with the Open Rights Group, author Neil Gaiman recounts how the correlation of sharing and sales led him to experiment with making his work available for free. “I used to get really grumpy with people when they put my stuff up on the Web,” says Gaiman, “and then I started to notice that in places I was being pirated—particularly Russia—I was selling more books. And I started to realize that actually you’re not losing sales by having stuff out there. You know, that’s really all this is: It’s people lending books.” Gaiman is far from alone in this experience, and his observations suggest that piracy, rather than being uncomplicated theft, is an element in the strange engine that drives literary culture. Part of the task for publishers, libraries, writers, and readers, as they work toward a new economic model, will be to find some means of harnessing this fundamental sharing ethos.   

Adrian Versteegh is a Henry MacCracken fellow at New York University and the editor-at-large of Anamesa.

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