John Wiley's decision to file 10 lawsuits against individuals it alleges have illegally sold its titles represents more than just a publisher trying to recoup alleged losses—it could signal a new era in the fight against electronic piracy.

While the fear of peer-to-peer sharing of book files has long haunted publishers, experts said the scale of these incidents—and the intensity of Wiley's response—is practically unmatched

As reported in PW Daily last week, Wiley has filed 10 separate lawsuits alleging that defendants have illegally sold e-book versions of its titles on eBay, and estimates the monetary value of the combined sales in the solid six figures. In one case, 56 titles allegedly were pirated. The suit, filed in the Southern District of New York, charges that the defendants have sold either computer books or teacher's editions of textbooks—the versions not for sale to the public—as e-books or burned editions.

"This is a new level of sophistication in terms of how they're being copied. And certainly the for-profit angle is a new one," said Random House's Richard Sarnoff, who heads the company's New Media division.

Wiley legal director Roy Kaufman described the problem as exponential: every person who buys an illegal copy in turn makes two of their own and the problem soon explodes. "In this era, anyone with a DVD burner is a book distributor," he said.

For years, publishers have had what you might call the Napster nightmare, as they worried that hordes of readers would suddenly start trading books electronically. In some ways, the problem Wiley faces is worse, since, unlike the music business, it can't be solved with encryption, since many of the pirated books are believed to be scanned editions of print books

Kaufman said that the best way to fight the problem is to go where the record industry fought Napster: the courts. "We need to nip this in the bud, and not just with a Wiley lawsuit, but with many other publishers' lawsuits," he said. And unlike Napster, where free file-sharing was seen as legitimate by many fans, Sarnoff noted that these cases of for-profit piracy are a much more straightforward issue, both legally and politically.

Among the books most vulnerable to piracy are those in subject areas of greatest interest to the tech-minded or to younger readers—educational and reference, for example. Leisure reading remains less of a concern, though given that even the biggest trade houses have reference units (from travel imprints to cookbook lines), the problem leaves few immune from pirates. And trade publishers said they worry that textbooks will serve as a kind of gateway drug. "I'm concerned about the generalized threat of higher-value property developing into a kind of trend that can morph into generalized reading. We don't want any individual element to get established, to create a negative habit," Sarnoff said. He said a publisher's role isn't just lawsuits, but "establishing positive habits beforehand" with e-book programs.

Still, for all the different e-book strategies, even publishers are uncertain about the best solution. "Wiley has been around for 200 years. Until a year ago, we didn't need any full-time people looking at piracy. When I look at Wiley's next 200 years, I really wonder what were going to need," Kaufman said.