22 October 08 | Chad W. Post

This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.

As Richard Nash and I agreed, the only thing that needs to be said about book piracy is that there’s no where near enough of it. Anyway, here goes:

The possibilities of the internet and our increasingly-connected culture can make a publisher’s eyes light up and can strike fear in his heart simultaneously. As we all know, the internet is a great tool for finding information, for connecting with other people, and now, in this “web 2.0″ world, for creating and sharing your creative endeavors, developing new communities, and connecting with friends and colleagues from all over the world.

It’s also a place where you can illegally download scanned versions of books (a la the last Harry Potter book that was leaked online days before arriving in stores), audiobooks, mp3s, movies, etc. Thanks to filesharing, one-click download sites, and other digital “pirates,” bascially anything you want you can find online for free.

To help give publishers advice on these wonderful/scary opportunities, the International Publishers Association hosted two panels today: “Online Book Piracy: Will the Internet Kill Publishing?” and “Preparing Publishers for Web 2.0.” It was interesting how well these two panels fit together in terms of viewpoint and overall tone, going from a more outraged and suspicious view of how the internet is stealing business, to a more optimistic look at the future of publishing in our digital age.

Martin Steinebach started off the piracy panel pointing out how easy it is for someone to create and disseminate a digital version of a book. Through sites like Pirate Bay (more on that in a minute) and Literature-Free.com, one can find thousands of e-books and audiobooks that can be downloaded for free (illegally, of course) with the click of a button. He also pointed out what an enormous challenge it is trying to shut down digital pirates. Every time a site or distribution method (such as a peer-to-peer site) is shut down, another site or mode of dissemination (such as a one-click download site) comes into existence. Because of the money pirates make via ads and user fees is so significant, trying to completely prevent online piracy is like trying to reverse a hurrican with a small fan.

That’s the situation in Sweden anyway, where Kjell Bohlund is trying to takedown Pirate Bay, but is struggling to overcome the dominant political and social scenes in which these digital pirates are seen as Robin Hood-like figures making cultural ideas available to everyone for free. In fact, in a recent survey 92 per cent of Swedes thought too much time and effort was going into trying to stop file-sharing websites. And the Prime Minister – in talking about illegal downloading – once said ”You can’t make a whole generation into criminals.”

Although stopping illegal downloads seems to be a Sisyphean task, there are a lot of people out there trying to curb their monetary “losses.” (I have to admit that I’m pretty suspect of all statistics on how much money is lost due to pirates. These figures seem to assume that people who “stole” a song or ebook would have bought that particular book or album if only the free downloadable version weren’t available. Which is pure rubbish and is why some publishers are experimenting with free downloads of their books.) The law firm of Covington & Burling is like the CSI team of internet enforcement, monitoring illegal downloads and helping takedown a number of these services. In the near future, educational e-books published by Even-Moor will be able to ”phone home,” allowing the publisher to “track usage of the book by IP address.” (Which sounds incredibly invasive to me. Could you imagine if there was a way that the publisher could tell where a particular copy of a print book was being read?)

The second panel on this thing we call “web 2.0″ (a term which all the panelists agreed was rather silly and meaningless) was much less reactionary. Instead, they focused on mechanisms that could be created to assist in controlling your digital content without creating such a devisive situation. As Mark Bide pointed out, right now our only tool for dealing with online copyright infringement (such as “re-using” someone’s content in a YouTube video) is litigation, which is a costly and ineffective tool. He pointed to Google Books as a better model for dealing with these issues in our day and age. Rather than suing and countersuing over copyright infringement when Google started scanning the world’s books, publishers and Google came together and came up with mechanisms and protocols so that publishers could control how much of their content was made avaialble and what restrictions were put in place. (For example, a publisher could place a restriction that only 10 per cent of a particular title can be viewed by an individual in a given day.)

Gatekeeping and the relationship between audiences and creators was the key for this panel. The web 2.0 model is one of interactivity and re-use. Of allowing audiences to participate in creating content, closing the gap between publisher and reader. Author sites, wiki sites, co-created sites, and similar ideas present amazing marketing opportunities (Simon Juden of the Publishers Association emphasized the new ways in which communities can be formed around ideas, books, or authors, in today’s world, and the ways in which this can be advantageous to publishers), and sticky rights issues. Looking to the future though, publishers will have to deal with these isuses and strike the correct balance that allows readers to creatively interact with a publisher’s content while also rewarding creators and maintaining a certain degree of control over how their intellectual property is distributed.

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