People who want to read the latest Harry Potter book but don?t want to wait in line or pay for it can download a free copy.
As a result of the increasing ease and speed with which a book can be scanned and repackaged into an e-book format with common technology, the latest installment of the Harry Potter series--along with its four predecessors, movies based on the books and audio versions of the texts--can be obtained as easily as an audio file on file-swapping services such as Kazaa.
That, some predict, could be a harbinger of a nascent Napsterization of the book publishing industry.
"I think that just like MP3s, popular books will become popular downloads as more devices allow people to read with the ease of carrying the real thing," said Wayne Chang, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and systems administrator for PickATime.com, an online appointment book. "These e-books are made by users, not pros."
Many Web sites provide step-by-step instructions on how to scan books and format them for use with various software, including Microsoft's Reader. Because the books are scanned from printed copies, they evade the copy controls put on e-books that publishers produce and distribute.
Other sites aggregate shared e-books for download, much like the ill-fated Napster and a host of successors have done for audio and video files.
Released June 21, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the 5th installment in the British children's book series by author J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter publisher Scholastic sold 5 million copies
of the book on the first day of sales and has scheduled a third printing in the United States.
The online traffic in Harry Potter and other e-books comes as the motion picture, software and music industries step up their legal assault on traders of such files. Citing copyright infringement, the industries have increasingly targeted networks that facilitate swapping and individuals who use them.
The publishing industry also has been active in targeting suspected infringers.
Earlier this month the Association of American Publishers, a trade association whose members include Scholastic and software publishers including Microsoft and Adobe, said it had participated in raids on Malaysian photocopy shops. Authorities seized copy machines and more than 200 copies of allegedly pirated textbooks.
The association also says it has used provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to compel sites to remove copyrighted works.
So is the trade in bootleg books the next Napster?
Not until people become more accustomed to reading books on PCs, say traders and industry associations.
"With published books, most are released in hardcopy print first," noted Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs for the AAP. "File sharing requires conversion through scanning, and just as consumers have not indicated that they are wildly accepting of e-readers, it's not clear that most readers would find unauthorized scanned works downloaded online to be a preferable form for them."
Adler pointed out that e-books have yet to become popular with consumers because of issues such as incompatible formats, short battery life and hard-to-read screens. Given these obstacles, Adler said, "it's not clear we're going to have the same kinds of problems" that the recording and software publishers have experienced.
Even Chang, now on page 66 of his downloaded copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, agrees that e-books have a long way to go before the file-sharing networks attract the full attention and wrath of book publishers.
Chang added that he is not worried about the book equivalent of the Recording Industry Association of America coming after him with a cease-and-desist letter.
"Not unless some wonderful technology comes along that can replicate holding the book in your hands with that snuggly feeling," he said.