One of the biggest issues with the rapid advent of eBooks is that of piracy. Before eBooks it was next to impossible to pirate a book. I mean if someone REALLY wanted to they could photocopy an entire book or manuscript or re-type it into a word processor, all of which would cost a bucket load and piracy is about convenience, making a buck and/or getting something for free.
Music and video have always been at the mercy of piracy, from people making their own cassette tapes in the 80s to the dodgy videos you bought in Bali (and now illegal downloads). I think nearly everybody has encountered some a form of piracy. Physical books however were not compatible with cassette recorders, video recorders or Bit Torrents until now. The digitization of books and the ability to read them digitally has opened the door to piracy of books.
The industry’s reaction to the threat of piracy has been a blind faith in Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM is used to limit the number of times a file can be shared therefore limiting the ability of a purchased file being distributed for free by another party. The protection of copyright is vitally important not only to ensure that the creator(s) of any content is rightfully acknowledged and remunerated but also to stop a non-creator from making profit from work that is not their own.
DRM can be incredibly frustrating for book readers. One of the fundamental pleasures of reading is being able to share a book you love with friends and family. However, depending on the DRM, eBooks will not allow you to do this. The standard at the moment for sharing an eBook file is about 3 devices (but this is beginning to increase). But if you sync your eReader with your computer that automatically take up 2 devices and if you want to use your smart phone as an alternative reader you’ve already exhausted your file sharing ability. Hopefully the move to ‘clouds’ and ‘digital lockers’ will elevate some of these constraints.
One of my biggest frustrations as a bookseller is not being able to access advanced reading copies as eBooks. Booksellers have always received either manuscripts (bound and unbound) or ‘proof’ copies of books 1-6 months prior to publication. It is vital for a bookshop’s buyer in determining the books they are going to stock and promote. But it is also very costly for the publisher and there is also an environmental cost. Many publishers promote the fact that their in-house staff use eReaders now instead of manuscripts and laud the benefits but why is this not being passed on to booksellers? I have been told by numerous people that it is because of the fear of piracy. But booksellers have never pirated advanced copies of books before (that I am aware of) and surely if DRM is the answer to piracy then DRM can be set accordingly for advanced eBooks?
There is a great website in the US called www.netgalley.com that allows the sharing of digital galleys (advanced reading copies). But Harper Collins US is the only major publisher to make their advanced reading copies available this way (and they have some great books available!). I think this is a fantastic idea. Not only does it give booksellers greater access to the books they want to read (no wasted reading copies) but it also gives booksellers the experience of reading eBooks to share with their customers. I would love to see an Australian version.
In the digital age the “pirates” are always going to be ahead of the curve. You are never going to stamp out piracy completely. While DRM is an important tool in curbing piracy there are other ways that piracy can be addressed.
I think the best way of combating piracy is to make content easily accessible. The harder you make it for a consumer to access an eBook the more you are going to drive them towards an alternative source which more often than not will be a free, illegal, pirate copy. DRM on music is becoming more relaxed and television stations in Australia are learning that if they screen TV shows as close as possible to when they are first shown overseas then they get their audience back. I think the Australian eBook market is under greater threat of piracy than the US or the UK because we have the most impediments to consumers wanting eBooks. These barriers to Australian consumers exist in order to protect the Australian Book Industry however things have moved (and continue to move) so slowly here that the industry risks driving the market to illegal sources.