E-book piracy is here. So what?

E-Book piracy has arrived, but it’s a limited threat, thanks to the way e-readers are designed

While browsing a social news site the other day, I came across a link to an e-book search engine. Sadly, alongside the many free e-books available, such as those from Gutenberg, thousands of pirated e-books were being freely offered. I won't reproduce the details of the site here and I ask that, if you know of it (or others), you keep it to yourself too.

The way the site was talked about by users indicated they didn't realize or care that many of the electronic books offered were copyrighted and being shared without the owner's permission. The attitude reminded me of the early days of MP3 sharing in the late 90s, back when nobody understood the implications of music copyright.

All genres of books appear to be on offer at the site, from fiction to textbooks. Books released very recently sit alongside golden oldies. Virtually every entry in Amazon's current bestseller fiction list is available, for example.

As you might expect, from a computer security point of view, the Website is as safe as walking through a bad area of town after midnight wearing a coat made of $100 bills. It's full of questionable ads and pop-up windows. The site itself doesn't host files, but links to equally questionable file sharing Websites. I ran a full virus scan of my computer after clicking the close button.

The quality of the e-books is good, as far as I can tell; there were no typos or major formatting errors in the few I downloaded. This is almost certainly because the pirated books are official releases that have had the digital rights management (DRM) components stripped out. The e-books are available in a variety of formats, from EPUB to HTML and PDF.

The search engine is a clear indication that e-book piracy has arrived. The site is strongly reminiscent of the nascent world of MP3 sharing in the 1990s. However, nobody working within publishing will be surprised at the development of e-book piracy. Most have been waiting for it.

There are significant differences between e-book piracy and that of music and movies, and these differences are very likely intentional.

The first difference is that there's significant confusion over file formats. EPUB files won't work on the Kindle, for example. Other e-book readers support EPUB but not Kindle's proprietary AZW format. Some support the MOBI format, while others don't.

One of the reasons the MP3 piracy scene was possible was that, along with the capability to shrink music to a 4MB file, it was built around a standard file format, MP3, which was supported by every media player. DivX brought the same standardization to movie piracy. In both cases, an entire ecosystem arose, based around the common file format.

EPUB is supposed to be the e-book standard file format, but by refusing to adopt it for the Kindle, Amazon is taking one step towards stopping a piracy ecosystem developing for e-books. Conversion to a compatible format is, of course, entirely possible, but Amazon may be hoping that the difficulty and hassle of doing so will put many off.

The other strategic difference when e-book readers are compared to media players is that e-book readers usually have built-in bookstore browsers. This was the failing that initially allowed MP3 piracy to gain a hold. In the late 90s, people had MP3 players and software but no legitimate source of MP3s, other than ripping them from CDs. It took Apple and the development of iTunes to bring some order to the chaos, to the extent that now most people are happy paying for music, and piracy is limited to a hard core of people who never had any intention of paying anyway.

While there are still many questions over e-book pricing, statistics released from the likes of Amazon indicate that people are happy making use of e-book stores straight from their devices. While piracy will always be an issue for any organization offering creative content online, all the signs are that those behind e-book readers have thought things through so that they're able to avoid e-book piracy being a necessity, and also less of a temptation.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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