Can We Stop Book Piracy?

A pirate in 2016 is far removed from the image of Jack Sparrow behind the wheel of a ship; it can be anyone with a computer and a desire to obtain a digital product without spending any money.

It’s surprisingly simple to find illegal copies of any kind of media. Even to an amateur, pirating software, music or even books takes only a google search and a careful eye on what is being downloaded. There are often whole websites dedicated to helping people find what they’re looking for, some utilising forums that allow people to make a request and have someone else fulfil it. A google search for top pirating websites brings up results for Reddit forums listing good websites, fully vetted and tested by others for quality content. On the part of the pirate, there’s very little effort involved to deter them from the activity. What is there to stop people from illegal downloads?

Rates of media consumption across 2015-2016. Source: Intellectual Property Office.

Overview of Piracy

Consumption of media online has slowly risen over the past year, and with it the number of 12-24 year olds who are the primary offenders for online illegal infringement. 20% of those over 12 who consumed TV shows and movies online did so illegally, with 39% of all media consumption being downloaded and 52% streamed. When asked for the main motivations for choosing their method of consuming media – legal or illegal – people responded that convenience and the speed of which they could access what they wanted were the top influences on their media habits. This goes someway in explaining some of the basic reasoning for why people choose to go through illegal means to obtain pirated copies of software, music or books. If it’s easier than the legal method, people will inevitably use it.

It sets up a seemingly simple solution to the problem of piracy: make it difficult for people to do so, and they will have no choice but to go through legal means to buy eBooks or other media forms. This was the thinking behind DRM (Digital Rights Management). Unfortunately, DRM has become a controversial topic, with people doubting its effectiveness in combatting piracy, and blaming it as part of the reason why people would pirate eBooks and software in the first place.

The Issue With DRM

Put simply, DRM is meant to prevent content from being shared between devices and users without the consent of the publisher. In theory, it’s a good thing. Just like alarms in shops, DRM functions by preventing people from attaining something that they haven’t paid for. It’s hard to argue against it without seeming to be arguing for the right to steal content with ease. The issue many people have is that DRM goes beyond stopping you at the doors with a bag full of unpaid goods. DRM locks your copy of Microsoft Word, your Amazon movie or your eBook, and dictates what you can do with it even if you have paid for it legally.

This is the point where people turn against DRM. Consumers can pay for a product and not have complete control over what they do with it, or even in some cases, no say on if they get to keep it once they’ve purchased it. In terms of eBooks, DRM prevents readers from sharing the files or reading the book across platforms by locking it into one format. For example, reading your Amazon-purchased eBook on Apple’s iBooks application is rendered impossible. The lure of pirating eBooks is the ability to eliminate these issues entirely. Pirated eBooks come in every format, from PDF to EPUB to .Mobi, making it a choice of selecting your preferred format and adding it to your virtual library. Without DRM, it’s also possible to share your eBook with friends, much like with a physical book, only without the risk of not having it returned to you.

Bridging the Gap Between Digital and Physical

Source: Amazon

In an attempt to try to make the legal consumption of eBooks more closely match the experience of owning a physical book – and in turn match the benefits that DRM-free eBooks offer – Amazon have created two schemes that change how Kindle books work.


The Lending Library allows Amazon Prime Kindle users to access Amazon’s system of pre-approved eBooks and borrow them for free. The catch is that it only allows one book to be borrowed per month, something that a dedicated book lover won’t find much use for, especially as a £79 per year membership is required in order to use the Lending Library. A further downside is the restricted selection of eBooks on offer, which dampens the benefit of being able to borrow them for free.

Amazon’s Loan or Borrow feature focuses on the issue of not being able to lend a purchased eBook to another person. It works by the lender sending the eBook to the borrower via email, and for the duration of the borrower having it, the lender is unable to view the eBook. This approach cuts out the problem of needing to create a duplicate copy of the book in order to give it to someone else and allows people to engage in the normal behaviour of sharing books with other people. Despite initially being launched in 2010 the scheme remains US-only, and has the drawback of only allowing a book to be given to a friend for 14 days before it is returned to the person that has paid for it. Along with that, it won’t work for eBooks purchased outside of Amazon, leaving the only way of sharing non-Amazon eBooks as sending a pirated copy or physically giving your eReader to someone else.

In theory, Loan and Borrow brings the experience of owning an eBook closer to that of a physical book, but Amazon’s failure to expand the feature globally suggests that it’s just not caught on or popular among readers.

How Much of an Issue is Piracy?

The failure of programs like Loan or Borrow by Amazon, or even attempts to create a Netflix for books, implies that the problem of piracy in the book industry isn’t dire enough to justify an overhaul of how eBooks are sold and consumed.

book infringement.png
Rates of illegal activity for Books in the UK between 2015-2016. Source: Intellectual Property Office.

The UK book market is worth £0.6 billion, £46 million (8%) of that is attributed to eBooks. During March-May of 2016, only 7% of people in the UK who consumed eBooks were found to have done so illegally. It’s a 1% increase from 2015.  Not only is the pirating of books only affecting 8% of the UK book industry, its growth isn’t particularly alarming.

It’s a small percentage of people to have used illegal methods of reading eBooks when compared to the 15% of people who illegally consume movies, or 13% for music. The piracy of eBooks just isn’t as lucrative as other forms of media.

They coverage that book piracy gets is telling towards the attitude the industry has for it. When eBook piracy is discussed online, often it will be the authors who are at the frontlines, pushing for change and scouring the internet for the websites that host the pirated books in order to take them down. They are the ones starting a dialogue with their readers about why they pirate their books, as well as promoting alternative solutions, such as libraries, that avoid methods that take money away from the publishing industry. Authors such as Joanne Harris take it a step further and talk to those outside their readership with the help of platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, addressing the impact book piracy has on authors, as well as calling out the faulty logic of those that try to defend digital piracy.

Publishers’ input on the problem is more muted. They use DRM to try to make it more difficult for pirates to share the books, and they often place a page in the eBooks warning against illegal copies and have an email address to report illegal activity, but beyond that the discussion isn’t as intense. It suggests that eBook piracy is at the stage where, for the most part, DRM does enough to hinder it. Some publishers, such as Tor, have ditched it entirely, but the majority seem content to continue using it as its main method of prevention.

Where Does that Leave Us?

There are many different paths that can be taken in the search for how to expand and enhance the security for eBooks, whether it’s finding a model similar to Netflix and Spotify that brings a wider array of availability to consumers at affordable prices, or following Tor books in removing DRM to allow access across all platforms. Whatever the solution may be, the timing clearly hasn’t been right yet for people to make the move to back it.


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