Napster for Novels?: Not Even Pirates like E-Books. (Culture & Reviews)

By Godwin, Mike | Reason, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Napster for Novels?: Not Even Pirates like E-Books. (Culture & Reviews)


Godwin, Mike, Reason


Is THE AMERICAN book publishing industry headed for its own Napster crisis? To judge from a recent report from Envisional Ltd., a British digital rights management company, Napster-like online trading of bestsellers may be accelerating even as the industry's own efforts to get a digital product out the door are slowing to a crawl. Paradoxically, publishers' fear of a Napster scenario--thousands of users trading copyrighted works over the Internet without a dime going to authors or publishers--may bring that very scenario about.

The original Napster crisis was instructive: While music companies dithered about how best to distribute their intellectual property to consumers over the Internet, an entrepreneurial programmer named Shawn Fanning created a networked system for trading music online. The resulting product and service, Napster, exploded onto the national scene, with millions of users trading thousands of compressed digital music files in the MP3 format. The music companies were forced to respond, and they did so quickly--not by getting their own product to market, but by suing Napster and similar upstart companies into the ground. As it stands today, Napster is moribund (though Audiogalaxy and other rivals are still flourishing); the music companies say they plan to roll out digital distribution systems soon, but consumers are still waiting to see a new paradigm that they like.

Similarly, in recent years American publishers have been quick to embrace the concept of "e-books"--digital editions of books that can be read on computers, handheld devices, or special e-book readers--but slow to find or exploit a market for the product. Not least of publishers' concerns has been the perceived need for software makers to prevent would-be pirates from making endless and perfect copies of the original.

But while publishers have been handwringing over the prospect that their e-books will be pirated, Internet-based book pirates have sidestepped e-books altogether, choosing instead to scan the text of traditional paper editions and make the results available on the Internet, often through Napster-like file-sharing services. In an exhaustive August survey, Envisional Ltd. claimed that as many as 7,300 paper editions of popular books have been scanned and made available on the Internet through distributed file-sharing services such as Gnutella. Among the most commonly traded books are titles from bestselling authors such as Stephen King, Tom Clancy, J.K. Rowing, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Does the Envisional survey mean that book piracy on the Net has taken off, much the way that sharing of MP3 music files did two years ago? No one has a clear answer to that question. Harriet Dorsen, general counsel of Random House, Inc., remains unpanicked by the Envisional report, since "at the moment there doesn't seem to be much of a market for reading books electronically."

Dorsen was alluding to a New York Times story last summer that called into question earlier predictions that e-books might make up 10 percent of the book-publishing market as early as 2005. Those predictions, made by the consulting firm now known as Accenture (a spinoff of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm) seem overoptimistic now. To be fair, Accenture spokesman Alex Pachetti is quick to point out that the original, bullish prediction was contingent on a number of technological advances, including cheaper e-book readers and secure and-piracy measures, that haven't taken place yet.

In spite of the disillusionment some publishers now feel about whether there will be a significant market for e-books in the near future, the American Association of Publishers is adamant about the need to advance e-book anti-piracy technologies, and to use the Digital Mullennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to prosecute those who develop means of circumventing such technologies. …

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