Is iPad supercharging e-book piracy?

The huge popularity of the iPod indirectly fueled the piracy of music. Will the iPad do the same to e-books?

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
7 min read

Illegal bookshelf: Most of the e-books in this iBooks library are pirated copies. CNET Networks

Recently, Scott Turow, the best-selling author of legal thrillers, including "Innocent"--his just released sequel to "Presumed Innocent"--was named president of The Authors Guild. That Turow, a practicing lawyer, was named president is probably no coincidence, considering the myriad issues that authors and publishers now face as digital books and e-book readers not only disrupt the marketplace but leave it vulnerable to that nasty little vermin commonly known as piracy.

In an interview with Media Bistro's Galley Cat (see video below), Turow talked about how author royalty rates for e-books were too low, but the larger problems for authors and publishers involved piracy. "It has killed large parts of the music industry," he said. "Musicians make up for the copies of their songs that get pirated by performing live. I don't think there will be as many people showing up to hear me read as to hear Beyonce sing. We need to make sure piracy is dealt with effectively."

Why this suddenly more-alarming tone? Well, though Turow recognizes that the iPad has clearly taken the e-reader to a whole new level, he doesn't specifically single out the iPad as the No. 1 catalyst for pirating. But I am.

To put it in the context of the music world, it goes something like this: You remember the first MP3 players to catch on? They were from a company called Rio and the early ones used SmartMedia memory cards as their storage medium. Then there were more Rios, and most of them were really pretty good (I still run with a Rio Chiba). I look at these players as the Kindles, Nooks, and Sony Readers of the e-reader world.

But then the iPod showed up. Sure, there had been piracy ever since people started burning CDs, but the iPod was the big accelerant. You can say what you want about iTunes ruining the music industry with its 99-cent single-track downloads (why buy the whole album for $10, when you can buy just the two good songs on it for $2?), but the fact that so many millions of people were carrying around iPods that could store thousands of songs only fueled the transition to fully digital music, no discs attached.

As e-readers go, Amazon won't let us know exactly how many Kindles it has sold, but most estimates put it in the 2 million to 3 million range, give or take a few hundred thousand. Apple sold a million iPads in a month. And though sheer numbers and critical mass are important, what's more alarming is what the iPad can do. No, it can't support Flash, but it sure does a nice job with PDF files and a host of other document formats that can be easily imported to the device via the appropriate app, most of which cost less than $3. (GoodReader, which I use for PDF files, costs 99 cents; you transfer files to the app via iTunes.)

A quick scope of Pirate Land reveals a hodgepodge of content in a variety of formats, and other bloggers have already touched upon this aspect of e-book piracy in other pieces. I particularly liked an article done earlier in the year by The Millions' C. Max Magee titled, "Confessions of a Book Pirate," in which MacGee does a Q&A with a BitTorrent uploader who goes by the handle The Real Caterpillar. My favorite Caterpillar quote:

"Perhaps if readers were more confident that the majority of the money went to the author, people would feel more guilty about depriving the author of payment. I think most of the filesharing community feels that the record industry is a vestigial organ that will slowly fall off and die--I don't know to what extent that feeling would extend to publishing houses since they are to some extent a different animal. In the end, I think that regular people will never feel very guilty 'stealing' from a faceless corporation, or to a lesser extent, a multimillionaire like [Stephen] King."

This guy, like most e-book pirates--or the ones uploading the files--tends to take the time to scan the physical books into a computer, obtains the text via OCR (optical character recognition), makes corrections, and converts them to a variety of file formats. The same goes for comic books, which are being rampantly shared on The Pirate Bay. As you might have guessed, a number of comic book reader apps are available for the iPad and its large high-resolution color screen, turning it into the perfect digital comic book reader. And let's not leave out magazines, which are also being scanned and uploaded to BitTorrent sites.

At the moment, book piracy is dwarfed by that of the music, movie, and game industries. But it is gradually growing. Shortly after the launch of the iPad, TorrentFreak took a look at a small group of popular business titles and calculated that unauthorized e-book downloads on BitTorrent grew by 78 percent on average--and that was when Apple had sold only about 300,000 iPads.

Ironically, though the early lack of standardization may have adversely fragmented the e-book market, it may have also slowed down piracy. The Kindle still has its own platform and file format for e-books, but most of the big e-reader players, including Apple, have now adopted the ePub format.

It seems that most of the EPUB files available are converted from PDF files (scans of books), but what's scary is how compact the files are (less than 1MB) and how easy they are to load into iBooks and other e-readers that support the EPUB format. Though the size of movies and games can easily exceed 1GB and take hours to download (just ask folks who own the PSP Go how they long they have to wait to download games they've legally purchased), e-books can be shared in a few seconds. It seems that it's only a matter of time before file sharers move from exploiting the "analog hole" (scanning a hardcopy book) to the digital world of cracking copy-protection schemes and stripping legally bought e-books of their DRM.

For now, readers who are upset with the rising price of e-books have taken to posting low ratings on books on Amazon. Turow's "Innocent," for instance, sells for $14.99 as an e-book, which is essentially what the hardcover costs, and certain readers have given the book one-star ratings to express their displeasure. Turow is quite aware of the situation, but still supports his publisher's pricing scheme, arguing that if you don't want to pay $15 for the e-book, buy the hardcover (or wait for the e-book to go down in price). He's right, but certain people get angry when they feel they're getting a raw deal, and, like the publishers who are free to price their e-books however they want, these protesters are free to rate books however they want. As an author, it is incredibly aggravating, because you have no control over pricing--only the publisher does.

Free markets and free speech aside, I have my doubts that higher pricing for e-books is a good long-term strategy. Alas, as we've learned from the music industry, keeping prices steady at around $10 to $12 an album has done nothing to help combat piracy and may have, in fact, contributed to it. Eventually, more people are going to go from leaving bad ratings on books at Amazon to doing something more vindictive, like uploading DRM-free EPUB files to file-sharing sites. And mega-bestselling writers like J.K. Rowling, author of the "Harry Potter" series, are finding out that readers also get angry when you don't make your book available as an e-book. "Harry Potter" books are among the most heavily pirated out there.

How much is pirating hurting the publishing industry? Well, in that same "Confessions of a Book Pirate" article, Magee cites a study done by Attributor, a "firm that specializes in monitoring content online," that claims that "book piracy costs the industry nearly $3 billion, or over 10 percent of total revenue." Most people think that figure is very inflated, but the point is there are some big numbers involved and they only stand to get bigger as powerful e-readers like the iPad become more prevalent and tempt people to acquire content without paying for it because, well, too many of them have become used to it.

If there's a silver lining, it's that people don't read anymore. At least that's what Steve Jobs said in January 2008 in The New York Times when the Kindle first appeared.

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore," he said. "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."

Of course, that was then, and this is now: Apple is now a full-fledged bookseller, going head to head with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders--not to mention any place else you can buy books, from Wal-Mart to your local drugstore. When the company announced that it had sold 1 million iPads in a month, it also bragged that iPad users had downloaded 1.5 million e-books from its iBooks Store. I assume the host of free public-domain e-books in Apple's catalog make up a large portion of that number (although it apparently doesn't include the freebie "Winnie the Pooh" that was offered with the iBooks app). So the appetite is there, particularly if the price is right.

What do you guys think?


Confessions of a book pirate (The Millions)

E-book dodge (Column by the New York Times' "Ethicist" Randy Cohen about downloading an illegal copy of a book you already own)

Digital piracy hits the e-book industry (CNN)

E-book piracy surges after iPad launch (TorrentFreak)

Publishers fear e-book piracy, but shouldn't (TorrentFreak)