Libraries: Publishing’s First and Best Defense Against Piracy

At yesterday’s On Copyright 2012, sponsored by the Copyright Clearance Center, competing claims about book piracy took center stage for a while. That’s not too surprising.

Generally, publishers and many authors see the instance of piracy as closely correlated to lost sales. While the data that establishes the impact of piracy is far from conclusive, it’s hard to hear Maja Thomas talk about Hachette issuing “hundreds of thousands” of takedown orders and not imagine that there is a true cost in there somewhere.

On the other hand, it is also hard to not ask where the pirated content is being downloaded. Selling books online makes every title visible from the moment it is published somewhere. The prevailing approach exploits territorial rights in stages, making it likely that readers in other markets will not be able to obtain a book using legitimate means.

Last year, the American Assembly released Media Piracy in Emerging Economies, a study that cited high prices and relatively low incomes as the primary cause of piracy in these markets. Price, legitimate availability and perceived value all play a role in the instance as well as the impact of piracy.

Of course, you don’t have to leave the United States to find people who read books without paying for them. At any given time, there are millions of books on loan from libraries that have paid publishers for the right to stock them. As a reader, all you have to do is wait your turn.

At the last session of the day, an On Copyright attendee asked what it would take for publishers to sell eBooks to libraries. The consensus answer: “friction”, meaning that publishers wanted libraries to make it more difficult to borrow a digital book.

In digital realms, things like waiting times, terrioriality and availability are all forms of “friction”. Make the hurdles for library eBooks high enough, and at least some of the people who were willing to read legitimate copies for free will find their way to pirate solutions.

Publishers should be moving quickly to make eBooks available through libraries. As I offered in “Context first“, windows open and close quickly:

Content is no longer just a product. It’s part of a value chain that solves readers’ problems. Readers expect publishers to point them to the outcomes or answers they want, where and when they want them. We’re interested in content solutions that don’t waste our time, a precious commodity for all of us. Perhaps most daunting: readers expect that their content solutions will improve over time. They don’t care that much (or at all) about how it happens.

At a closing reception, a lawyer who works for a larger library put it plainly: libraries are publishers’ first and best defense against digital book piracy. If you’re a publisher concerned about piracy, making it more difficult for libraries to lend eBooks is a huge step in the wrong direction.

Note: When posted on March 31, libraries were described as “publishers’ lastand best defense”. On Twitter, Pablo Francisco Arrieta (@xpectro) suggested that the better phrase is “first and best defense”. I agree, and I’ve changed it here.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.