A laser-focus on preventing piracy, punishing pirates, and enforcing DRM is rampant in the music and movie industries, perhaps even spiraling out of control. The publishing industry is dangerously close to embracing the same demon, and it's time we took stock and put our money and energy in more productive, effective areas.
Piracy, of course, is nothing new. A recent paper (PDF) from the American Assembly — a coda for their Media Piracy in Emerging Economies study — delved into the history of media piracy. The report notes that repeatedly through the centuries, "book cartels were challenged by entrepreneurs who disregarded state censorship, crown printing privileges, and guild-enforced copyrights," and that these pirate publishers served two key functions: "they printed censored texts, and they introduced cheap reprints that reached new reading publics."
The report points out as well that the cartels themselves created the market inefficiencies that allowed pirates to rise and thrive, and that though governing powers could maintain the status quo for the short term, "in the long run, pirate practices were almost always incorporated into the legitimate ways of doing business" and "regulatory frameworks changed to accommodate the new publishing landscape." If the researchers are correct, we're finding ourselves at similar crossroads now, wherein we'll ultimately have "to assimilate the pirates, together with their marketing strategies, their novel approaches to production and distribution, their expanded audiences, and above all their lower prices."
Thus far, we're mainly fighting the tide. Music and movie industry executives are becoming more and more desperate as their battle progresses, taking increasingly absurd-to-extreme measures — Kywan Fisher was ordered by an Illinois federal court to pay $1.5 million to Flava Works for sharing 10 of their movies on BitTorrent, the largest damage award to date in a BitTorrent case; a 9-year-old Finnish girl had her Winnie the Pooh laptop confiscated and authorities advised her father to pay a settlement of 600 euros, all for an unsuccessful album download attempt for an album the girl and her father ended up buying anyway; Internet providers are throttling connection speeds for repeated infringers; and billionaire Alki David is looking to get all BitTorrent downloads banned from Download.com.
The publishing industry is in its early days of this battle, but it's not without its own absurd-to-extreme moves — textbook publisher Pearson filed a DMCA notice for a 38-year-old questionnaire, Beck's Hopelessness Scale, that a teacher posted to share with students. The notice resulted in nearly 1.5 million teacher and student blogs being taken down. Quartz news outlet posted a static screenshot of a New York Times interactive visualization, linked to it and praised it, only to be met with a "take this down or else" letter. Late last summer a group of authors succeeded in temporarily shutting down ebook lending site LendInk by mistakenly claiming the site's service breached their rights. And in a lawsuit that harkens back to the Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuit to block the release of the first MP3 music player, a group of academic publishers are suing open-education startup Boundless Learning for its "textbook replacement" service that pulls free content from the Internet and organizes it to mirror popular textbooks; the publishers are arguing that "the order of chapters is sacrosanct," that the table of contents ought to be copyrightable.
There's some anecdotal evidence, however, that the publishing industry might be coming to its senses at a slightly faster pace than the music industry, at least on an individual level. While major publishers are filing lawsuits against BitTorrent, for example, authors such as Tim Ferriss and Megan Lisa Jones have recognized the marketing and promotion value of the platform. And author Peter Mountford recently stepped in to help a pirate translate his book, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, into Russian, a language into which his book has not been translated and a country where his book was not being sold, and more importantly, was not being read. In the music industry, a recent study by the American Assembly found that peer-to-peer (P2P) users on platforms like BitTorrent spend 30% more on legal music purchases than their non-P2P counterparts — a trend author Paulo Coelho has long recognized to be true for books as well.
This fixation on piracy prevention — as well as our death grip on DRM — also is undermining the industry by not only allowing, but practically requiring platform lock-in. Taken all together, we're working so hard to keep books out of people's hands that we're ultimately keeping books out of potential customer hands. Do we really want to create a sort of police state, where we increasingly spend our time and money battling a problem that hasn't actually been proven to be a problem (and may actually be a counter-intuitive benefit in many ways) — and even if it is a problem, it's a very small percent of our big picture? Wouldn't it be better to spend our energy and money on creating quality content that people want to pay for and focus on improving distribution, making that content as available and accessible as possible in a global market?