E-book piracy: the final (?) frontier

| Senior Forum Editor

When Napster came around, the playing field for music changed forever. Movies soon followed, and the piracy buzz spread to movies, games…within a short period of time, virtually all media could be pirated for fun and profit. Oddly enough, however, books were completely passed over. As if too old and decrepit to be worthy of piracy, books lost to newer media in terms of piracy, and especially in terms of notoriety.

Until now. With the advent of Amazon’s Kindle, and later Apple’s i-Pad, e-books are finally making their way into mainstream consumption and consequently into mainstream piracy. E-book piracy has actually been around for quite awhile, albeit in small pockets of elite private BitTorrent trackers. The ethics of piracy put a new spin on that of college students, however: What are the ethical implications of e-textbook piracy?

To be sure, most students find textbooks to be overpriced, and the major explanation for their price lies in costs of distributions and updates (and not, interestingly enough, the intellectual merit of the work, as it is with music, movies and the like). With electronic books, however, this factor is taken out of the equation altogether—and since textbooks are arguably less about artistic creativity and more about compilations of facts, the case for copyright for textbooks becomes harder to defend.

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Then again, e-books themselves could be lower in price, to the point of reasonableness. However, practice has shown this not to be the case—while e-books are in their distributional infancy, the track record so far has indicated that they are priced only modestly lower than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Still, even though it would likely be cheaper to buy a Kindle DX or iPad and cheaper e-books over four years, it’s even more tempting to buy a reader and then pirate the books—and the more attention e-books attract in the mainstream media, the easier it will be to locate and download the files.

Plus, since text takes up far less space than video, audio or images, large numbers of e-books can be downloaded far more rapidly than other forms of media, and in large bulk compilations. It may not be that much longer until we see the advent of a pirate library—a compendium of thousands, maybe even millions of books, that can be stored on a $100 external hard drive. Is this something to revere or revile? I personally am in awe of such a compendium of human knowledge being so easily accessible. On the other hand, I also wouldn’t mind paying for it.

Of course, the fundamental moral questions of piracy remain the same, and the same arguments can be hashed out in e-book debates as in the Napster debate. But e-books add a lot to the debate, especially when it comes to already overpriced textbooks. My personal stance is that the bookstore better start lowering their prices, or I might take to the high electronic seas. Yargh.

AJ is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at asundar@wustl.edu.

  • Mojoker

    You’ve missed some of the main reasons why book piracy is not as common: 1-libraries. If you want to read a book whether fiction or non-fiction for free then the library is where you can do it for free. 2-there are already whole libraries of books available electrically for free legally containing books which are out of copyright (project gutenburg) 3-whereas it is easy to make an mp3 from a cd or an avi from a dvd, its harder to make an e-book from a printed book (although I do remember a case where somebody photographed/scanned a Harry Potter book and released it on bittorrents) You have to wait for the book to be released as an ebook in a format your ebook software used as there were/are various competing formats!