A shot across the bow

Publishers see every download of a pirate copy of a textbook as a sale lost. Now they are fighting back against the bookaneers, writes Rebecca Attwood

April 9, 2009

Ask Robert Hamadi if digital piracy is a problem for textbook publishers, and he will ask you to name a topic. Within a few seconds, using a complex search string, he has pulled up on his computer screen a list of 15,700 illegal digital copies of textbooks on cardiology.

"The problem is huge, and it is growing," says Hamadi, who until recently was head of e-crime at the Publishers Association.

Although the issue is very much a global one, it is clear that UK publishers are being hit and that offenders are operating in this country.

Publishing house Taylor and Francis recently discovered pirated copies of its humanities textbooks being sold on eBay.

Working with the Publishers Association, it compiled a record of what the UK-based culprit had sold over a six-month period and sent him an invoice. The matter was settled out of court.

Not all digital pirates are in it for the money, however. Some sites operated by self-styled Robin Hoods offer unauthorised copies of books that students can download for free.

According to Mark Majurey, digital development director at Taylor and Francis, it is not surprising that digital piracy is becoming such a big problem, given that today's students are both cash-strapped and technologically savvy.

"We produce books for professionals, for academics and for students. I don't think it would be unfair to say that the student market is probably the one most likely to indulge in copyright infringement," he says.

"These guys don't have that much money, and paying hundreds of pounds for textbooks may not be high on their list of priorities when they can download free (illegal) copies."

Publishers initially resisted digitising their textbooks because they feared it would play into the hands of pirates, but many are now embracing e-books.

They have learnt the painful lesson that their early strategy did nothing to prevent people from scanning printed textbooks in their entirety and posting them on the internet.

"It sounds painstakingly slow to do, but there are machines you can buy for a few hundred pounds that will scan a 500-page book in about two hours for you," Majurey says.

"One copy we found on the net even had the (UK) university library's stamp and the librarian's initials inside.

"We contacted the librarian who was very helpful, but ultimately we could not track down the perpetrator because the title had been booked out by a number of people over the previous months. However, the university agreed to send a note of warning to all its students concerning copyright infringement and its penalties."

One of the most infamous piracy sites was the US-based Textbook Torrents, which was shut down last year. It asked students who had found the site useful to "give something back" by adding more textbooks to the website. Among the titles available were pirated copies of books originating from the UK.

"The site was plugged into this social networking, internet community movement. That is what we are up against, and that is why textbooks particularly are at massive risk," Majurey says.

He believes that the vast scale of online copyright infringement of all types is becoming "unmanageable" - but that this will not deter the UK publishing industry from trying to stop the pirates.

At the moment, when a publisher is alerted to a case of online copyright infringement, it sends a "take-down notice" to the internet service provider, asking it to remove the content.

But the sheer number of infringements means that the time and effort required to do this is too great for the industry to support, the Publishers Association says.

To improve enforcement, the association has launched a copyright infringement portal, which will automate much of the work. Publishers can log in, enter the URLs of sites where they have found unauthorised copies, and the portal will automatically generate multiple notices for a single book title.

Taylor and Francis, Oxford University Press, Macmillan, Little, Brown, Random House and HarperCollins have contributed to the development costs.

"Aside from letting our members take immediate action against infringements, the portal will give us concrete facts and figures on the scale of the problem for the first time ever," Hamadi says.

"We will also be able to identify the worst offenders. Should there be a need for legal action, we'll be able to prioritise that action where it will do the most good."

Quantifying the cost of textbook piracy to the academic publishing industry should be relatively straightforward.

"People, on the whole, don't buy textbooks for fun - they buy them because they have to have them for a course. With textbook piracy, it is much easier to make the argument that every pirate download is a lost sale," Hamadi explains.

Majurey hopes the results will prompt action from the Government. "There have been a lot of reports and reviews - there was the Digital Britain Report, the Gowers review of intellectual property and a European Union green paper is being put together on copyright - but very little has actually happened to help us. The portal will allow the Publishers Association to put a number on the size of the problem, so we will be able to prove just how much this is affecting us."

When it comes to the arguments against using pirate copies of textbooks, publishers are keen to point out that these unauthorised versions have no controls for quality.

Mistakes can creep into texts when optical character recognition technology is used to convert scanned pages into electronic text, Hamadi says.

"If those errors get into (the text of) a novel, the worst that can happen is that one of the characters has their name spelt wrong. But if they creep into a dosage chart in a medical text, you can only imagine what could happen. The best-case scenario is that students who rely on those figures could fail their exam."

Majurey believes that marketing is key to stamping out the problem, arguing that many people are driven to seek out pirated textbooks because they can't find a version that is bona fide. He also says that everyone in academia must work harder to educate young people about the value of copyright.

"The average student turning up at freshers' week doesn't necessarily think through the consequences of their actions when they download an illegal file. People see it as a victimless crime, but it has real-world impacts. It affects people's jobs, and authors' royalties, which can be their only source of income.

"Publishers need to work with universities to educate students so that they understand that copyright infringement is going to destroy the industry unless people start taking it seriously."

AN UNDERCOVER OPERATION: DIFFERENT JACKETS BELIE SIMILAR CONTENT

They were sitting almost side by side on the university library shelf: two books, by different authors, on the topic of corruption.

But when Nancy Yang, a research assistant in the faculty of law at the University of Hong Kong, and her colleague Richard Cullen, a visiting professor in the same department, came to examine them, they had a bit of a shock.

First, the tables of contents in Corruption and Government by Susan Rose-Ackerman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Corruption and Good Governance by Naunihal Singh (Delhi: Authors-Press, 2001) were almost identical. Then, the first sentences of both books were the same: "Poverty, poor health, low life expectancy and an unequal distribution of income and wealth are endemic throughout the world."

Yang says: "Even the prefaces of the two books used very similar wording."

It soon became clear that the Singh book was almost identical to the earlier work by Rose-Ackerman throughout - as confirmed when copies of the two texts were examined by Times Higher Education.

Rose-Ackerman is a professor in the Law School of Yale University and an expert on corruption and economic development. Her book has been translated into 13 languages.

In the preface, she describes a year spent as a visiting research fellow at the World Bank, and lists people who helped her during her research and the universities where she has presented her work.

The preface of the Singh book says: "My current work on corruption began before I actively joined politics." Few other biographical details are given.

Singh refers to having given seminars "at a number of universities and colleges", but the institutions are not named and he gives no acknowledgements.

Yang and Cullen, who were beginning a research project on Hong Kong's Independent Commission against Corruption, contacted Rose-Ackerman by email to inform her of their discovery, and she passed the information on to Cambridge University Press.

"I was obviously concerned that someone was using my work and attributing it to themselves," Rose-Ackerman told Times Higher Education.

Yang explains that the Singh book had been added to the "new book list" of one or more academic text distributors.

"Such a list has come through our university library - and likely through many other mainstream libraries. The price is fairly modest for an academic text - less than $32 (£22) on one Indian bookseller's website. There are even some seller reviews pointing out its merits."

When contacted by Times Higher Education, a spokesman for Authors-Press said the publishing house had received a visit from the Delhi office of Cambridge University Press, informing them of the similarity between the two books. He said Authors-Press had offered to destroy all copies they held of the Singh book.

"We are running this small publishing house in a prestigious manner - we never want to have such books on our list," the spokesman said.

He added that Singh was now believed to be more than 90 years old and living with his son in the US. Times Higher Education attempted to contact Singh via his son, using contact details provided by Authors-Press, but has received no response.

Yang says: "The two books have circled the globe to Hong Kong, where, catalogued and shelved, they end up standing almost alongside each other. The high-tech revolution has crucially helped power globalisation. Our experience demonstrates that the two, combined, have proved a boon to those inclined to publish - and sell - fake books."

Kevin Taylor, director of strategy and intellectual property at Cambridge University Press, said: "This is not the first time that a Cambridge book has been the subject of apparent copying on a significant scale, and we are looking into the background of this particular case."

He said Cambridge University Press had secured withdrawal of the Singh book and was considering what further action to take. "I cannot comment on the exact parallels between the two books in this particular instance, but we will certainly be following up as soon as we are sure of the facts," he said.

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