Thursday, January 5, 2012

How to keep people from pirating your book

Much has been written elsewhere about SOPA, the industry-driven and deeply misguided legislation that the media industry is trying to push through the US Congress.

I believe that legislation and litigation are absolutely useless at deterring piracy.  The Internet always finds a way around these things.  Online media piracy has been around for nearly as long as the Internet.  Industry groups like the RIAA and the MPAA classify downloading as theft, and disseminate marketing material urging this viewpoint onto the public.

But, despite their efforts, piracy continues relatively unchecked.  Years of efforts to convince the public that downloading is wrong have failed; in 2008, 95% of music downloads were illegal.  The results of this activity for the music industry have been devastating.  Sales volume has dropped by more than half over the last decade, because a huge percentage of the consumers who used to pay for music now get it for free.

People pirate media online when the pirate copies are easy to get and function identically to legal copies.  Efforts to make pirated media difficult to obtain always fail.  Therefore, the best way to deter piracy is to make pirated media less functional by excluding it from popular devices.

You can see the difference between a protected media format and an unprotected media format by looking at a single device, the iPhone.

Apple's music devices, dating back to the original iPod, have always been very welcoming to pirated music.  You can download a song and drop it right into your device through the iTunes software, and it plays.

This function was something of an unavoidable necessity for music.  Listeners had extensive collections of high-quality digital recordings on CD when the iPod devices first came out, and they had a reasonable expectation that they'd be able to move their CD music collections onto the new devices.  And since the CD format was developed before anyone knew about the Internet or digital piracy, CDs had minimal protections against getting ripped into unprotected MP3 formats and distributed online.  iTunes and Apple have no way of telling the difference between a file you've ripped from CDs you bought and a file you downloaded.

By contrast, it is extremely difficult to use pirated software applications on iOS devices.  There is only one point of access for software, and that is Apple's App Store.  If you download some illegal software for the iPhone, it's very difficult to make your phone run it.  If you have tech-savvy friends, you'll find that many of them download music illegally, but regularly pay for apps.

People don't feel that supporting app developers is a moral duty, while supporting musicians is not. People don't feel that the apps contain more value than the music.  If you could load your iPhone with pirate apps as easily as you could load it with pirate music, nobody would pay for apps.  But it's easy to pirate music and hard to pirate apps.

The same rule holds true with video game consoles; getting them to play pirate software is very difficult and often requires physical modifications to the hardware.  So most gamers buy their software legally.

Publishers need to be talking to e-reader vendors and tablet makers about how these devices will deal with e-book files that originate from places other than the stores affiliated with the apps.  Right now it's possible to read pirate books on a Kindle, but it's much more involved than loading a song onto an iPod.  It's important that these devices not be allowed, in the future, to read PDF files or other pirate formats like e-books, and that measures are kept in place to prevent purchased e-book files of being downloaded from the devices, stripped of DRM and shared online.


  1. I dunno. Sometimes I just think the government hasn't tried hard enough to stop piracy. I got into a huge thing with a few people about SOPA, but, regardless of its severity and its consequences (which were totally worth criticizing), to me the larger picture about that bill was that it was an honest attempt to address a serious problem. I would have no problem with the SOPA backlash if it came from people who shared an equally righteous frustration with piracy. Seriously. I think Congress should grant amnesty to anyone who's illegally downloaded to a certain point and then start tracking it and issuing everything from fines and retroactive payment to jail time. You can legalize pot, empty the jails of all those people and replace them with illegal downloaders.