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Copyright and Book Piracy: The #bookwarez Phenomenon and Beyond

By Eric Anctil


There has been increasing concern from authors and publishing associations over the last decade regarding the feasibility of copyright law in light of the growing illegal book trade, both in print and electronic formats. The relevance of such a debate is that much more poignant given that the publishing industry is on the verge of embracing the e-book as its latest venue of capital. It is during this critical juncture that book piracy of printed works in developing countries internationally is alive and well, as the proverbial case of Latin America demonstrates. Violations of copyright law are just as common in the electronic arena in which culprits inevitably elude authorities due to the anonymity of online exchange and lack of recorded evidence. In spite of all these dimensions, some authors and publishers have been vindicated thanks to the diligent efforts of police investigations, copyright lawyers, cryptographers working on their behalf to prevent further copyright breaches or to curb existing criminals.


Economic Divides: Latin America

It is hardly any surprise that black market activities thrive so predominately in developing countries such as Latin America given that commodities like books are luxury priced. To begin with, "the average monthly salary of most Chileans is about $625." Latin America has a literacy and poverty problem, both of which are alleviated by book piracy (Petrovich, 43). Supporters of book piracy claim that buying original copies is too expensive (Kuntz, 41). Nevertheless, a contradiction is that even wealthy people in Latin American buy pirated books, which implies that the reason behind book piracy is probably not an issue of poverty but rather of opting to spend more on other commodities. Also, books tend to be pirated indiscriminately regardless of author or title. Tailoring public perception of the issue is problematic at best given that historically, book piracy in Chile was part of an underground system in order to subvert the censorship practices of its past dictatorship regime (Petrovich, 41).

As it presently stands in Latin America, the publishing industry makes $5 billion annually while book pirates earn $8 billion per year. In other words, the publishing industry is operating at a severe loss compared to its criminal competitors. Worse still, the overhead costs of printing books have been eliminated due to cheaper technologies available to sophisticated print book pirates so that in order "to copy a book, all you need is two copies of the original, a scanner, a computer with an optical recognition [OCR] programme, some ink, paper, a small rotary press and a binding machine." (Kuntz, 41-42). Even employees of publishing companies engage in the illegal trade for individual profit (Petrovich, 43).

Despite the bleak outlook, it is mainly self-help and technical books that have been pirated in Argentina, according to one authority (Kuntz, 42). Police investigations against pirates have produced arrests and helped in constructing criminal profiles, but cannot keep up with the illegal market (Petrovich, 43). Lawsuits seem to have been a somewhat successful means of curbing the practice in Columbia, but not everywhere. Solutions proposed for Latin America include publishers producing higher quality paperbacks to make it easier for booksellers and law enforcement to discern pirated copies, as well as lowering the sales tax and improved access to popular literature in public libraries (Kuntz, 42).

The case in point presented concerning the illegal book trade in Latin America is highly representative of similar situations in other developing parts of the world. Before turning to electronic book piracy, it is helpful to examine some of the basic tenets (aside from book piracy) relating to copyright law that prevent the electronic marketing of e-books from being universally adopted.

Publishing E-books in a Print-based Economy

Another area of contention is the internal hierarchy between publisher and author in terms of forging ahead with e-book editions. The relationship between publisher and author is unequal and inadequately prepared for engaging in an e-book economy. When an author assigns copyright to its publisher, the publisher should be willing to commit to an e-book publication and not merely as a marketing tactic for its print book sales. In order to resolve this uneven situation, publishers need to pay authors fixed royalties instead of a percentage of physical retail sales. This way, publishers can keep prices low and leave the option open for changing them over time. Authors can also better market their books through "e-book giveaways", however there is little reason to be concerned with book piracy in the electronic arena since the publishing industry has yet to establish much of an economic foothold there (Shatzkin, 24).

With an overview of the print publishing industry and its encounters with pirates completed, one can also see the same issues as well as unique advantages and disadvantages in the electronic frontier.


The #bookwarez Manifesto

Initial questions from legitimate copyright holders about electronic book piracy come in the form of determining means (how) and causes (why). "By following links listed on #bookwarez's message board, it was possible to download the complete e-book version of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Other links offered Rowling's Harry Potter books, King's The Green Mile and The Stand, Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising, Carl Sagan's Contact and dozens more." In other words, contemporary popular literature currently under copyright protection. The problem with exercising copyright legislation is that Internet sites providing illegal e-books or links to them are "moving targets" in the sense that "they use chat venues, which make tracking difficult because there are no permanent records." (Rose). People involved in the illegal book trade online "scan and post to newsgroups the text of published novels." (Stackpole). The purveyors of this digital crime have outlined their reasoning by the following means:

Fortunately for the publishing industry, it requires substantial computer literacy in order to access illegal books online. Nevertheless, inexpensive computer scanning hardware and software facilitates the practice of reproducing print texts in electronic format. Encryption is problematic as hackers tend to crack the code within a relatively short span of time, making its viability highly irrelevant (Rose; Haney).

According to the Association of American Publishers, book piracy only ruins any opportunity for economy based on electronic content to thrive for consumers and publishers, especially in light of a report from Forrester Research in 2000 predicting that publishers stand to lose $1.5 billion by 2005 (Rose; Hilts).

The ideology of many pirates is that "information wants to be free" as if it were a service to humanity, however one can be a greater benefactor of humankind as an information privateer by contributing rare, old books to public domain projects like Project Gutenberg where copyright is no longer an issue (Stackpole).

Project Gutenberg, 1971-

In 1971, Michael Hart discovered "that the greatest value created by computers would not be computing, but would be the storage, retrieval, and searching of what was stored in our libraries." Upon establishing Project Gutenberg, a central repository of electronic media public domain books, the concept of "Replicator Technology" came about which underlies the fact that information input in electronic format on a computer network can be reproduced and broadcast infinitely. Texts are reproduced and stored in a systematic, standardized method. For starters, the ASCII text standard has been religiously adhered to in order to ensure that texts are readable across various hardware and software installations, past and present. Texts are also chosen based on popular demand from the general public, however specialized out-of-print materials are occasionally also focused on. The concept of authoritative versions of texts is ignored since end users can simply download the e-text and alter it to suit a particular print edition of the same work. Content work has already been done so enhancing/modification of text aesthetics is relatively simple and user customizable. Project Gutenberg is only in the business of making available public domain texts, meaning books whose authors have been deceased over 50 years ago in order to cooperate with current U.S. copyright legislation. The Project Gutenberg Philosophy is such that "the Project Gutenberg Etexts should cost so little that no one will really care how much they cost. They should be a general size that fits on the standard media of the time. The Project Gutenberg Etexts should be so easily used that no one should ever have to care about how to use, read, quote and search them." The Project Gutenberg Library is categorized into three portions: "Light Literature" or low culture, "Heavy Literature" or high culture, "References" or encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, almanacs (Hart).

The Flaws of Copyright Law

The Adobe versus ElcomSoft & Dmitry Skylarov case demonstrated some of the fragile weaknesses of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998. Skylarov produced the Advanced eBook Processor for ElcomSoft, a Russian software company, which cracked Adobe's copyright encryption therefore permitting users to make copies of said e-books. According to the laws of individual European countries, it is required of software to allow users to make backup copies which Adobe prevented. Commenting on the case, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, a digital civil liberties group, "has long claimed that U.S. copyright law is flawed because it outlaws technologies instead of actions." (Hilts).

Copyright is all about the particular expression of an idea, which can be individualistic, not the idea itself which belongs to the entirety of human consciousness. Copyright protected the physical manifestation of such expressions, which was easy because books could not be produced easily and contained standards of authentication in the past. As a general rule, previous mediums contained information in a fixed means with regard to space and time. Online works contained on computer systems connected to the Internet are accessible in infinite capacities. The Internet has no legal jurisdiction borders, which makes enforcing U.S. copyright laws abroad or the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in non-cooperating countries difficult. Also, Internet providers can't always be held responsible for the actions and activities of its consumers. With digital materials, value is not assigned based on scarcity but rather the opposite notion. Despite attempts to hold information in physical containers, information is constantly on the move as it influences from one person to the next, from one work to the next. Its immense value is that it cumulates (Barlow).

It is precisely this emerging, conflicted environment that compels authors, publishers, readers, and legislators to contemplate the future of copyright and measures to ensure equitable compensation of all parties accounted for.


In reviewing the majority of intellectual discourse on the subject, the proposal to intensify police investigations and legal jurisdiction has been overwhelming (Petrovich, 43; Kuntz, 42; Stackpole). One detraction from this viewpoint holds that corporations turning to hordes of lawyers in an attempt to curb the practice of piracy will only discover that more profit is lost by keeping law firms on retainer than is lost by online trade. Since information can now be transferred without physical intervention, claims are seemingly being made as to the ownership of ideas, not merely a unique expression of them (Barlow).

For better or worse, cryptography and ethics are really the only means to safeguard intellectual property rights. Ethics requires re-educating a public that believes free ownership is earned by virtue of cracking copyright encryption. Cryptography carries over a multitude of problems given that it is only a matter of time before computer crackers determine they skeleton key. Once cracked, digital materials are then free to be distributed massively online. There is also concern about consumer boycotting of encrypted products given that "people are not going to tolerate much which makes computers harder to use than they already are without any benefit to the user." Possible solutions to this problem include automatic payment systems to facilitate commercial transactions and self-deleting files or "spyware" that notifies legal authorities when it's security has been compromised which carries valid user privacy concerns (Barlow; Haney; Rose).

In order to counter the rising cost of books in electronic format, publishers might resort to using advertising sponsorship of books to keep prices low. Libraries might offer commercial-free versions temporarily available before self-deleting themselves (no overdue fines). As well, this opens the possibilities for enhanced features such as web extensions of content. It is suggested that publishers work with libraries to ensure that access is always available to poor people that would not be able to afford electronic (or print) content otherwise (Ohler, 20-21; Kuntz, 42; Haney; Barlow). Another commercial method suggested includes publishers keeping book prices ultra-low to increase affordability and discourage theft (Rose).


Barlow, John Perry. "Selling Wine Without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net." (1994) <>.

Haney, Clare. "Microsoft Fears E-Book Piracy." (2000) <,aid,18262,00.asp>.


Hilts, Paul. "Russian Busted for E-book Hack." Publishers Weekly 248.32 (2001): 45.

Kuntz, Lucia Iglesias. "Pirates and the paper chase." The Unesco Courier 54.3 (2001): 41-42.

Ohler, Jason. "Taming the Technological Beast: The Case of the E-Book." The Futurist 35.1 (2001): 16-21.

Petrovich, Francisca, "Chile: a judge steps in." The Unesco Courier 54.3 (2001): 43.

Rose, M.J. "Pirates Invade Book Publishing." (2000) <,1294,38945,00.html>.

Shatzkin, Mike. "A Modest Proposal in E-Wars." Publishers Weekly 248.22 (2001): 24.

Stackpole, Michael A. "Electronic books and piracy." (2000) <>.


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