Books for a song: In the tradition of Napster, entire copies of best-selling authors' novels are being downloaded on the Internet. It's a trend that has some Canadian publishers worried


From National Post (August 30, 2001)

by Jeet Heer

Napster-like technology that allows computer users to download entire copies of pirated books is busy creating a nightmare for the publishing industry, says a British Internet monitoring service.

It is an unnerving scenario that already has some Canadian publishers raising alarms, and it works like this:

If you want to read a novel by Stephen King, the modern master of horror writing, you can go to a bookstore and buy a copy of one of his novels, which usually cost at least $10 for a paperback or $35 in hardcover, thereby protecting the interests of the writer and the publisher.

Or, if you don't feel like paying, let alone leaving your house, you can simply go online and use one of the better-known file-sharing Web sites, such as Gnutella, to download for free any of King's many novels.

It took a National Post reporter 30 minutes to navigate Gnutella, find King's 1984 work Thinner on the network and download the novel. Printing the book required another 15 minutes.

Even accounting for the cost of an Internet connection, paper and ink, this is a saving on the purchase price of the book.

And neither King nor his publisher received a cent from the online transaction.

Prominent writers such as King and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling are already seeing their current books being openly traded online, says Ben Coppin, the chief operating officer of Cambridge-based Internet monitor Envisional.

His company says there are as many as 7,500 pirated books available on the Internet.

"Before the latest Harry Potter book was on sale in Germany, it was available online in German," he says.

In addition to best-sellers written by such authors as King and Rowling, the most widely pirated books online are science fiction novels and computer manuals. The two most frequently pirated Canadian writers are science fiction novelist William Gibson and satirist Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X.

Coupland made the top 10 list of most pirated authors prepared by Envisional. He shared this honour with such writers as King, Rowling, fantasist Terry Pratchett, spy writer Tom Clancy and science fiction satirist Douglas Adams.

"It started with Napster and everybody said, 'Oh well, this will never happen to books,' " says Jackie Hushion, executive director of the Canadian Publishers' Council in Toronto.

"What we are finding now is that books are traded across peer-to-peer networks ... And there is plenty of software out there that allows computer users with access to a copy of a book and a scanner to create a really high-quality reproduction."

The Canadian Publishers' Council is preparing a report examining how the emergence of new peer-to-peer file-exchange systems could pose a huge threat to publishers.

"This is not a rich industry," says Hushion. "So if you take away people's ability to make a reasonable profit, obviously they are not going to reduce their investment on an ongoing basis. If they do that, the next big author might not emerge."

Most online copyright infringement is done by individuals as a favour for friends, or as an interesting challenge for hackers. According to Coppin, the risk is that what is now a hobby could turn into big business the way Napster did.

Napster, a file-sharing system that allowed computer users to swap digital music files, was developed by an American university student, Shawn Fanning, in 1999.

While Napster enjoyed worldwide popularity soon after its release, it was widely criticized for facilitating copyright infringement. In December of 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster, eventually forcing it to shut down.

Napster says it will be back in business at the end of the year, but will charge a fee for every song downloaded.

Not everyone believes there is a similar imminent threat to the publishing industry.

"Stealing a book online seems to me a waste of a thief's time, given the effort involved to save a few bucks," says Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House. "It would not be a very good business or much of a threat to publishers. I would not worry about it now."

In an e-mail interview from his Vancouver home yesterday, Coupland was equally unconcerned about the problem of losing royalties through file-sharing.

"If you look at books purely from a revenue viewpoint, libraries are the big income killers for any writer -- but are libraries somehow more noble than file-sharing? It seems to be the same thing, so getting huffy would be hypocritical. Ditto for loaning a book to friends. Or making photocopies.

"Anyone who's ever read a book in unbound galley-page format can tell you it's zero fun to read a printed-out book," he wrote.

But Coppin says the relative ease of copying a book makes pirating a danger.

"You can get machines now where you slice off the spine of a book, place the spineless book into this machine and it flips through all the pages and scans them all in," he says. "There is obviously software which will convert the pages into something computers can read. This can be distributed immediately to anywhere in the world."

He envisions unscrupulous people setting up shop in unregulated countries in the Far East, scanning books and distributing them for profit over the Internet.

While Hushion believes publishers need to be more vigilant about online copyright infringement, she argues the ultimate solution to the problem may involve book companies making their product more accessible, which means in part making better use of the Internet.

"There is a middle ground," she says. "We as an industry have to do everything we can to make content fairly and easily accessible at an appropriate price to consumers."

Stephen King tried that last year when he released a new book on the Internet and charged a nominal fee to download it chapter by chapter.

He charged users on the honour system and said he would continue releasing the book as long as enough people paid the fee.

After a few months, he cancelled the project.

Color Photo: Paul Joseph Brown, Seattle Post-Intelligencer / Stephen King and ...; Color Photo: Rob Kruyt, The Vancouver Sun / ...Canadian satirist Douglas Coupland are among the top 10 most pirated authors online, according to a British Internet monitoring company.; Color Photo: Fantasy writer Terry Pratchett also made the top 10 list of pirated authors.; Black & White Photo: Lyle Stafford, National Post / J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are openly traded online.