For years, we have been able to combine our taste for music and film with our desire to stick it to the man, and all from the safety of our PCs. Our literary habits, however, have perforce remained largely legal. The closest we could come to the same thrill is by wearing a deep-pocketed coat to WH Smiths – which is such an analogue approach to theft. Soon, however, even the bookish will be able to frustrate Lord Mandelson because, at long last, thanks to the iPad, digital book piracy is almost upon us.
The surest sign of this is that industry figures have started producing dubious statistics to show how endemic it is. In the US, it's just been announced that 10% of books read are now pirate texts. The same report claims that piracy has cost US publishers $3bn. But the source of the statistics was a company named Attributor, who provide online piracy protection for the publishing industry. Like a plumber tutting over the state of your pipes, they have a vested interest in finding problems.
A glance at the top seeded ebooks on Pirate Bay shows that Christopher Ricks isn't about to lose much sleep over the downloaders. Filling the top slots are Windows 7 Secrets, Adobe CS4 for Photographers and, shamelessly playing up to the stereotype of all geeks being lonely boys, the Jan/Feb edition of Playboy magazine. According to Freakbits, the only non-technical or sexual downloaded book in 2009 was the Twilight series – a choice that only goes to show how masturbation and Photoshopping mess with the mind.
More mainstream books are found on Scribd, a site you might well use – it's great for finding free books, citations and excerpts. It's also home to an awful lot of copyright infringements. You can find everything: Tintin in America, Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, Alastair Campbell's The Blair Years, Richard Brautigan. Heck, there's even a bunch of Guardian book bloggers, bundled together in a self-published book of literary quotations.
The interesting thing is just how openly available these books are from the site's servers. In fact, Scribd has a very old-school approach to piracy. It pitches itself as a document-sharing service, just as Napster pitched itself as a way of sharing sound files – a euphemism as transparent as a newspaper ad offering "escorts".
Publishers' lawyers will most likely eventually compel Scribd to close, or to turn it into a legal online shop (authors such as Stephen King already sell their digital copies through the site). Certain juicy targets for piracy, such as Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling, have already had their legal battalions ensure no illicit Potters or vegetarian vampires appear online. That the rest of the industry hasn't yet bothered shows how small the impact of piracy has been on publishers thus far. Faber clearly don't see the need to police the Alan Bennett plays available on Scribd, since most of their audience still prefer physical copies.
The blog The Millions recently hosted an amazing interview with an American book pirate who provides e-copies of books because of his open-source, anti-copyright beliefs. Dutifully, he scans and proofs every book he uploads. The thought of all that repetitive effort, a kind of digital ironing, is quaintly charming – like a farmer tending to his patch with a sickle, his back squarely turned to the rolling Google combine harvester. It's such a lot of work and, outside textbooks, it makes so little impact that publishers haven't needed to pay the lawyers' fees to stop it.
But this is about to change. As e-readers become ubiquitous, publishers know they need to go digital. And being digital, no matter how much drm you shove in, means content will be pirated. Anyone will be able to get any new book you want if you know how to look for it.
But, despite the statistics, I don't believe book piracy will ever be as endemic as it has become with music and film. We've moved on from the pre-iTunes days when the only way of getting an MP3 of a song was to find it on Napster. Publishers were keen to get on board with the iPad straight from launch because they knew it was the safest way to protect and to disseminate their product. One editor at a big publisher told me just how desperate his company have been to woo Apple over the last 18 months.
More importantly, though, publishers have a headstart on the music and film industries and already have some experience of what happens when controlled content is made widely available for free. Victorian publishers were convinced public libraries would ruin them: they didn't. Lending libraries brought books off the estates and into the tenements, and publishers were suddenly selling a lot more books to a lot more people. This happened as the result of a system that, like Spotify, allowed readers to legally obtain books for free while the authors still received some money. If the publishing industry can remember its own history, digitisation should be a doddle.
Burgess Powers builds and designs web sites and applications for high availability