Everything’s Free on Planet E

I’ve got bootleg Harry Potter for my Palm device. And I downloaded it free from a software pirating site on the Internet.

Everyone is feeling the pull of the E. Like a huge planet, the digital format is drawing everything into its orbit: film and video, music, and of course, books. Planet E promises a paradise of cheap and fast methods of production and distribution. When it comes to ePiracy, however, those features are a liability, and though all digital media are at risk, the eBook is most vulnerable because of its inherent portability.

Many blame Napster and its ilk for music piracy, but I saw music on web and FTP sites long before peer-to-peer sharing reached the masses. Music piracy has flourished due to a combination of distribution (Internet) and portability (the MP3 format). The average uncompressed four-minute music file is an unwieldy 40 megabytes; the MP3 algorithm crushes this to one-tenth that size, making the file portable without a significant reduction in quality. Video is even larger and more complex than audio. Text files, on the other hand, require no compression and no special encoding. All ~210,000 words of Moby Dick occupy only 1.2 megabytes of space, small enough to fit on a floppy disk, small enough to transfer via modem in 200 seconds.

Because digital text requires no compression, it suffers no degradation when transported. Certainly the debate rages over the aesthetic experience of reading from computer screens, handheld devices, or even specialized gizmos like the Rocket eBook Reader. But like the tinny speakers once standard on all computers, these limitations are hardware based, and hardware improves. Two things are going to happen: devices will advance, and people – especially children – will grow accustomed to them. And eReaders offer options no book ever will: backlights, text magnification, hot dictionaries, non-destructive annotating, plus the ability to contain many – hundreds, thousands – of concurrent texts. The hard book may not disappear soon, but what fool denies the inevitable steamroller of progress?

Hard books enjoy an excellent system of copy-protection. As anyone who has duplicated and/or read a photocopied book knows, books are both inconvenient to copy and aesthetically disappointing in their duplicate format. It is easier to copy films, video tapes, vinyl records, CDs, and DVDs. The eBook format is uncharted territory for the written word; no one really knows how the public will react to freely-available books.

Will they be freely available? Microsoft – which estimates that it lost a half-billion U.S. dollars in 1999 just in the state of Florida due to software piracy – hosts on its website a series of pages entitled “Protecting Against ePublishing Piracy” [page gone] which trumpet the “Three E’s of Preserving the Value of Online Content”: Education, Encryption, and Enforcement.

Microsoft explains that educating people on “the value of protecting eBooks and other copyrighted electronic materials,” and explaining “the importance of copyright protection on the Internet” will help, but this sounds to me like an appeal to consumers to protect commerce, not the artist’s work. The general public is not sensitive to the labour of the artist. As many as 60 million people have tried Napster; how many are unaware that downloading copyrighted materials is illegal? Yet only legal interference has halted Napster’s swelling popularity. Because electronic duplication leaves the original unmolested, many cannot comprehend the harm in copying. They do not equate duplication with theft in the way that stealing a Mercedes is theft. Bolstering this misconception is a growing sense that intellectual property should be free, a perverse ideology that free music and movies and books equal democracy and liberty. Indeed, groups have appeared on Internet sites and newsgroups whose mission is to liberate texts. The manifesto of RHONDA (Robin Hood – Online Network Distribution Anarchy), states, “We refuse to recognize any copyright claimed on any text. . . . Books come from the minds and mouths of the People so books rightfully belong to the People.”

Encryption is applied to ensure that an eBook will be readable only on a specific, individual device. Consumer software copy protection has gone in and out of style since the earliest days of microcomputing. Floppy disks and CDs have been encrypted, installers require serial numbers, and some software requires a “dongle,” a piece of hardware jacked into the back of the computer, to operate. Nothing has proved completely effective. Somewhere along the line – just before the information reaches the screen in the case of digital text – information must be decrypted, and it is at this point that pirates can scoop the content. The software pirate chants a simple mantra: if you can read it you can copy it. Each escalation of protection has caused increased inconvenience for the legitimate consumer, while providing a more satisfying challenge for the hacker. Stephen King’s eNovella Riding the Bullet was cracked within days of its release.

Enforcement may prove to be the eBook’s best protector. In 1998 the United States legislated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which governs circumvention of digital copyright systems and liability of Internet service providers. But publishers and writers must be vigilant, as the law is not actively enforced. And creators must be willing to prosecute violators aggressively. The software and music industries have waited too long to take action and have lost billions in potential revenue as a result. Most book publishers operate close to the edge of profitability with no such margin for loss.

Even a single incidence of ePiracy must be addressed seriously, because pirated materials are like cockroaches: the appearance of an individual signifies a hidden infestation. The site with the bootleg Harry Potter has vanished, but you can bet its spawn has propagated widely.

These are ePublishing’s formative years. What we do today to educate readers and how we tolerate copyright violators now will determine its entire future.

This piece appeared originally in the October 2001 issue of Quill & Quire. Anyone listening yet?

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