Digital pirates cause havoc in academic publishing

Self-styled 'crusaders' find a receptive audience for illegal copies of textbooks. Jon Marcus reports

January 8, 2009

Scholarly publishers typically count their sales successes by hundreds of volumes sold, not thousands.

So the Brookings Institution Press was delighted to receive an order for 180 copies of its timely new title Government Failure Versus Market Failure, by the economist Clifford Winston, for use in a class at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Then came word that 164 copies were being returned, not because there was a problem with them, but because an unauthorised version had been posted on the internet.

It was a dramatic example of the new and escalating global trend of digital piracy that is causing chaos for publishers of textbooks and scholarly works used in university classes and sharply reducing royalties for authors, who are often members of university faculty.

"That kind of a return, though the numbers seem relatively small, is important to us, and important to the author, so it hurts financially," said Bob Faherty, press director of the Brookings Institution.

"But there's also a great concern about how widespread this already is and how much more widespread it seems to be getting."

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has unearthed websites offering pirated versions of as many as 5,000 textbooks each, often using BitTorrent technology, which splits files into pieces hosted by internet-service providers all over the globe to prevent easy detection.

Some are simply scanned into a computer a page at a time and then shared for free or at a fraction of the cover price.

Increased use by American publishers of companies in India and China to typeset books has also resulted in at least four cases of texts being intercepted electronically.

The problem is becoming so extensive that the Geneva-based International Publishers Association held a seminar about it in Frankfurt last autumn.

Not on the radar

"Let me put it this way: six months ago this wasn't even on the radar," said Peter Givler, director of the Association of American University Publishers.

"Everyone was coasting along on the comfortable assumption that online piracy was a problem for the publishers of the Harry Potter books and computer manuals and so on.

"But what we have discovered since the summer is that virtually any book that is used as course material, and that includes scholarly monographs, is now susceptible."

One offending site, Textbook Torrent, was shut after being threatened with legal action by publishing giant Pearson Education. It resumed its operations using an internet-service provider in the Netherlands before closing permanently in October.

Pirate Bay, a site based in Sweden that had an advertising agency in Israel and a bank account in the Cayman Islands, began by making pirated music and films available and now offers textbooks.

Such sites "country-shop".

Ed McCoyd, director of digital policy for the AAP, said: "They go to an ISP (internet-service provider) host in a country where they think the law is not as stringent."

The people behind these sites say their activities are a protest against the high price of textbooks, which cost students at US private universities an average of $1,080 (£740) a year.

Writing before Textbook Torrent was shut, the site's operator, "Geekman", said: "I am at heart an activist, a crusader for the underdog. When I see something that I believe is wrong, I do what I can to fix it, if only in some small way."

He and his counterparts have a receptive audience.

In a survey of students at US universities in Chicago and Portland, Oregon, more than a quarter said they had shopped at least once for a pirated book.

Seventy-five per cent said piracy would increase if textbook prices continued to rise, and student websites unashamedly share information about where to find pirated books.

But publishers rejected the idea that textbook pirates were interested only in robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

Swedish publishing officials claimed, for example, that Pirate Bay made $2 million last year.

Mr Givler said: "It began with this kind of Robin Hood spirit ... but it's turned into a business in its own right."

Scholarly presses, he pointed out, are non-profit organisations whose work is meant to advance and disseminate knowledge, often in esoteric disciplines.

"It's university faculty doing research and working on a scholarly book for three years, five years, ten years sometimes.

"And the way those kinds of books get picked up for course use is they establish themselves in the field; they make significant advances."

Whether or not sales have been affected by piracy yet is unclear.

Sales by university presses, already down 3.6 per cent in the past year, "fell off a cliff" in October, Mr Givler said, and titles used in university courses were particularly hard hit. "That doesn't necessarily mean it was piracy, but it certainly doesn't help," he said.

Further complications

A shift by publishers to electronic texts may cause further complications.

Five major publishers, including Pearson, Wiley and McGraw-Hill, have already banded together in a venture called CourseSmart to make their textbooks available online at half the cost of the print versions.

But this also means that there will be more digital copies in circulation. Mr McCoyd said companies will have to make sure that the increasing migration to electronic publishing does not make the problem of piracy even worse.

After all, said Mr Faherty of the Brookings Institution, for publishers of scholarly works and textbooks, "there's already enough to worry about; there really is".

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