Science & Technology: Spreading the Word ; like Music, Books Have Now Fallen Prey to Internet Pirates Who Go to Great Lengths to Make the Latest Blockbusters Available Online. but Lawyers Want to Stop the Scam in Its Tracks, Says MICHAEL POLLITT

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Bought any good books lately? While recent best-sellers such as J K Rowling's The Order of the Phoenix had eager buyers queuing outside bookshops, a group of dedicated internet users had other ideas. Just 18 hours after publication, a free electronic copy was available in an online chat room, where it joined the preceding four titles. Since downloaded many thousands of times, the pirated copy has also spread fast through peer-to-peer technology and web sites. But unlike music or movies, which are easily copied, the effort involved in pirating the 766-page book was considerable. Each page had to be scanned, converted to text, and proof-read.

According to Envisional, a Cambridge-based company that specialises in internet monitoring, online book pirates are like "kindly digital librarians" - they'll lend you a book forever, and recommend many others. But unlike public libraries, the authors will never get royalties based on the book borrowing figures. Neither do the librarians charge the customers; it's a totally free - and illegal - resource.

"These are people who love to read and love others to read," said David Price at Envisional. The company's specialist software continually surfs the net, looking for corporate copyright violations, and has been tracking book piracy. "There's little rush among book pirates to have the latest new release available for download as soon as possible. The Order of the Phoenix was an exception. Typically, a pirate will read a book, like it, copy it, and share it."

Around half the top 10 hardback and paperback fiction books have been pirated. Non-fiction appears less popular, though current best- sellers including Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything are freely available.

Unlike music-swapping, which is brazenly carried out on popular peer- to-peer file sharing applications such as Kazaa, Gnutella and WinMX, most book piracy is hidden away in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and newsgroups. There appear to be only a few hundred active pirates, but their illegal activities are growing.

They're copying science fiction, fantasy and pulp-fiction detective novels, plus less popular and out-of-print titles. Dr Price said: "We've found more than 25,000 copyrighted books that have been pirated and made available to anyone on the internet."

The main source of pirated books is Internet Relay Chat channels (rooms) that are easy to find. Audio books are also widely pirated as MP3 files. IRC client software is just another download to your PC, and learning to participate is easy. One of the most popular chat programs is mIRC.

Once there, you find a constant buzz of people offering, requesting and downloading books. You can search for books and automatically receive details of how to obtain your choice from several pirates.

Readability is an important question here. One reader says that a laptop with a well-presented PDF in portrait mode is like a hardback. Handhelds are also contenders, while another option is use audio books (MP3 files) or a text-to-speech package.

But why? Paperbacks cost less than a CD. So what's the point in book piracy? Some pirates believe that information should be free irrespective of copyright, while others are just collectors. Some try to make money. Computer enthusiasts like books in electronic formats, despite the reading drawbacks. And there's also the thrill of evading detection.

Chatroom users hide their identities behind nicknames. …